‘Running like a Swiss watch’: Northampton arborist repairs Holyoke clock tower

  • Dave Cotton, of Cotton Tree Service, spends time cleaning the southeast face of the Holyoke City Hall clock on Aug. 24, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Cotton talks about the project to restore the Holyoke City Hall clock on Aug. 24, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Previous clock caretakers have signed the door to the movement room of the 1875 Holyoke City Hall clock. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Cotton, seen high above the corner of High and Dwight Streets in Holyoke, spends time cleaning the southeast face of the City Hall clock on Aug. 24, 2018. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Cotton scales the stairs to the clock room in the Holyoke City Hall tower on Aug. 24, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Cotton spends time cleaning the southeast face of the Holyoke City Hall clock on Aug. 24, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Cotton talks about the workings of the Holyoke City Hall clock inside one of the four faces of the clock, each made of two-inch corrugated milk glass designed to diffuse the light originating from behind the clock at night. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Cotton spends time cleaning the southeast face of the Holyoke City Hall clock on Aug. 24, 2018. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer 
Published: 8/26/2018 8:43:06 AM

HOLYOKE – Builders in the post-Civil War era used rigging and pulley systems powered by oxen to haul up 4,000-pound slabs of granite to construct City Hall’s clock tower steeple. Completed in 1875, the clock proudly displayed the hours and minutes of the day until the movement of its hands ceased about 30 years ago.

That is until David Cotton, 62, of Northampton, brought it back to life. For the past three months, he has dedicated himself to repairing the 143-year-old Seth Thomas clock with Mayor Alex Morse’s nod of approval. And now, the clock is ticking anew.

Cotton is an arborist who owns Cotton Tree Service in Northampton, but with a strong command of mechanical skills, he said he knew he had a great chance of successfully repairing the clock after an evaluation of the clock’s condition earlier this year.

Cotton has donated him time and money to restoring a piece of Holyoke’s history with a little help from some friends. For his efforts, the mayor will present Cotton with a key to the city during a ceremony at City Hall on Monday at 3:30 p.m.

“His passion and dedication for the project was infectious,” Morse said in a press release. “He brought the community together.”

Since June 4, Cotton has worked tirelessly — he spent 140 hours in the first three weeks — to get the clock running for midnight on Fourth of July. Since then, he has worked to maintain the accuracy of the clock as the gears and systems come back online. He’s also improved the woodwork, door mechanisms, and original locks inside the steeple.

“It’s so accurate that after 143 years it still functions, that’s what blew me away,” Cotton said in the movement room of the gravity-driven clock. It houses the main mechanism that keeps the clock ticking through the energy created by the swinging of a four hundred pound pendulum below. “The main mechanisms were all in place, we just had to refurbish them and replace some parts.”

Signatures of clock caretakers dating back to 1867 are etched on the wooden walls of the 200-foot tower. Cotton notes that many of the dates on the walls were made in December because more maintenance is required during the freezing months. The clock tower has gaping windows with mesh wiring and much of the upper levels of the tower are exposed to the elements.

“There is no other documentation in the city at all on the clock, it was all written on the walls,” Cotton said. “This is the way it was done in society way back then, before emails and computers.”

Roughly 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War, and when it was over, families, farms, and industry were devastated following the bloody conflict.

Retired University of Massachusetts Amherst English professor John Nelson has referred to the clock as the “Cadillac of clocks.” He was a technical advisor for the project. Westhampton resident Davis Goddard, a retired engineer, also offered his more than 40 years of clock experience.

“The guys that came back, according to Professor Nelson, wanted to make a statement that it would never happen again, and they were going to make things right,” Cotton said. “That’s why they built such an incredible building for its era.”

The magnificent structure symbolized a functioning society. As Cotton explained, people did not rely on their pocket watches because they often lost time. Instead they relied on the tolling of a clock tower’s bell, heard for over 10 miles around, to signal the hour of the day. Due to the cost, there are no plans to repair the clock tower’s bell.

Cotton said he’s received donations and help from Hatfield’s Rudison & Routhier Engineer Co., which machined and manufactured all the replacement components. Holyoke’s Sullivan Metals donated two new drive shafts to keep two of the clock faces working. Hampden Zimmerman Electric Supply also supplied the electrical components for back lighting of the clock dials. Foster Farrar True Value hardware store in Northampton donated lockset components for the project.

When Cotton completed the restoration of the city’s clock tower, Professor Nelson told him, “You have no idea what you are restoring.”

Cotton replied, “No, I don’t. I’m an arborist.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com


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