Finding unexpected treasures on Main Street
In the spring of 2018, my friend George Hiotis and I took a trip out to Chicago and back, for the annual conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, where George gave a presentation on "The Last Outposts", as he called railroad interlocking towers. On our way back home, we stopped in Frankfort, Indiana, the seat of Clinton County, where we admired the Second Empire-style courthouse; we did not get access to the courthouse tower and its four-sided clock, but it put an idea in my head, and when we got home I called my friend Chris Young, one of the Columbia County commissioners, about getting access to the clock in the courthouse tower here.
The Columbia County Courthouse during the big snow of March 2017, with my wife, Sara Baker, barely visible behind the pile of snow the PennDOT crews had made on the south side of Main Street.
Built in stages from 1848 until 1890, the courthouse serves as one of the iconic structures in our town, along with Bloomsburg University's Carver Hall (a third of a mile east of the courthouse and built in 1869, with a smaller clock tower atop it) and the fountain and Civil War monument on the square (a hundred yards west and built in 1892 and 1908 respectively -- yes, it took almost half a century after the war to get a monument here; I guess we have quite a history of "behind the times" . . .). You can see Carver Hall on Google Maps Street View here, and the fountain and monument here.
Main Street, Bloomsburg, on the evening of the 15th of January, 2015, and one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. Eleven days earlier, the sun had set directly down Main Street -- "Bloom henge"
I told Chris Young that I would like to photograph the courthouse clock and share the photos through the organization that I work for, The Exchange; he put me in touch with Wade Mays, the County's maintenance supervisor, and I asked him when I might have a look at the clock. A man of few words but obviously passionate about taking good care of the historic building, Wade allowed that he usually arrived at work at 6 a.m. (to get at least an hour in before his official start time, at which point his phone would start to ceaselessly ring), and that would suit him best. So on an early-June Wednesday I crawled out of bed in what felt like the wee hours and headed downtown, camera bag on my back and tripod in hand. Wade met me on the sidewalk, unlocked the front door, and led me inside.
We climbed the stairs to the second floor, went through a locked door, and climbed more stairs, into the attic; given the chance, I could spend hours there, among the detritus of more than a century (like the discarded Mimeograph machine, carried up and set down in a corner some decades ago -- but why? Did someone think it worthy of preservation? Or "we'll fix it someday?"). But we did not linger: The end of the attic gave directly onto the square space of the tower, behind the three windows just above flag height in the top photo here; we climbed another wooden staircase, this one slightly rickety, to a short ladder that reached up to a trap door.
Leading the way, Wade unlocked and pushed open the trap and climbed up out of sight. I followed, my backpack making it a squeeze through the opening, and found myself outside again, alongside the giant bell that used to toll the hours. (Neighbors complained about it a few years ago, and the commissioners silenced it -- a pity, I think.) The three arched openings (visible directly under the clock in the top photo) reached down almost to my feet and stretched upwards a dozen feet or more, with no railing or other protection; I did not freeze, but I did not make any sudden moves either. I did take a quick look around, at the bell and its framework, all painted red and all liberally covered in pigeon droppings. Wade had already climbed the next ladder -- a regular aluminum job, bungee-corded in place -- and flipped open the next trap door way over my head, so I followed him again. This ladder had no wall beside it, just the empty space of one of the archways; I did not look to that side as I made my way up. At the top, I had an even smaller opening to get through; I handed Wade my tripod and squeezed into the clock room.
Sunlight, filtered by the high clouds, poured through the frosted glass of the clock's faces. In the center of the room stood the clock itself, its mechanism reaching up and then out in four directions, a single shaft to each face, with gears at each face turning the single motion into two, one for each hand.
I did not want to take up too much of Wade's time, so I worked fairly quickly and asked questions from behind the camera. Wade explained that a motor that fits in a four-inch-square electrical junction box drives the clock: Between the gearing and the slow speed, it does not take much torque or power to keep the hands moving. Once upon a time, weights ran the clock, and those weights remain in place in the wooden boxes in two corners of the space (one of them visible in the photo that shows the clockwork's frame); the modern motor obviates the need to come wind the clock (which lifted the weights), and without a functioning escapement it no longer goes tick, tock. The melon-sized motor visible on the left of the clockworks used to power the bell. An angling vertical shaft, just visible at the top of the clockworks photo, passes through a pair of universal joints to run a horizontal bevel gear just above the centerline of the four faces, and vertical bevel gears translate that motion to the shafts that drive each face, with universal joints at the end of each of those to allow for minor misalignment. Simple, right?
The wooden ladder in the corner of the space leads to yet another trap door that gives into the attic under the steeply-pitched tower roof; I did not ask to go up there. And the wooden boxes surrounding the weights had become an almanac, covered in pencil scrawls by various people who came up to service the clock. I did not look at every surface carefully, but I found markings going back to before World War II. These graffiti told part of a story -- but only a part: "Ralph Hartman died Sept 24 1943" and under that "Commissioner fight deadlocked yet Jan 20 1944" and "nice sunny + a little cloudy thru Jan 10 to 20 1944" and then "Commissioner fight not settled Mar 16 1944" and "not settled Mar 30 1944", "not settled April 13 1944", "not settled April 27 1944", and a series with ditto marks and other indications of lack of settlement running through "Sept 14" -- but not a word thereafter about this apparent crisis. Nearby, a much later note said "Reindeer arrived for Santa parade 11/18/88". I should have taken the time to photograph all of the markings more carefully, but I wanted to let Wade get on to his real job; we climbed down, and he locked the trap doors and the hallway door on the second floor. On the street I shook his hand and went my way. But I guess I'll have to go back one of these days.
Clock postscript: The courthouse clock stopped working in early 2019, and for a number of days the hands stood still -- until the clock specialist came in with a replacement part. Enough people in town noticed the stoppage that the newspaper took an interest, and on a Sunday in February they published my photos:
And the happily-ever-after: Wade Mays says the repair should keep the clock going for many more years.
Meanwhile, 500 feet down from the courthouse (just past the fountain, and between an Italian restaurant -- That's Amore -- and the West End Ale Haus), the three-story building at 111 West Main Street might draw your attention if you happen to look up (you can see it on StreetView here): It has a partial cast-iron front, set into a brick archway; in addition to pilasters and filigreed railings, the spandrel panel between the first and second floor has "THE MORNING PRESS" cast into it, and atop the archway the terracotta ornamentation includes a high-relief globe bursting out from the facade. Once upon a time, our local newspaper had its office and production facility here. (Brandon Eyerly, great-grandson of one of the paper's founders and now the publisher, did an interview with a couple of Bloomsburg High School students in the early 2000s, and you can read his version of the paper's history here.) The Morning Press moved out to the Route 11 strip east of town in the 1980s, when it merged operations with the Berwick Enterprise in a brand-new printing facility where they also do considerable commercial printing; in addition to the building, they left behind their press:
I've known Joe Gushen, who owns the place now, for a number of years, and I know how much pride he takes in taking care of the many old buildings he owns in Bloomsburg. (He makes his living renting apartments to Bloomsburg University students, and a few storefronts to businesses including the Artspace Gallery that Sara and I helped found in 2001; we moved the gallery into one of Joe's buildings in 2003, and there it remains.) Some years ago, Joe mentioned to me that the press remained in the basement of his building on West Main Street, and I resolved to get in and photograph it; I finally made an appointment in the winter of 2019. On a February Thursday, Joe led me through the cabinet shop that rents the first floor and down a narrow stairway; it took a moment for him to find the light switches.
I don't know the circulation of the Press in 1983 or so, when the press last ran, but certainly in the thousands; I have no idea how they would have put out that volume of papers from the claustrophobic space we found ourselves in, hardly more than eight feet high, not much more than fifteen feet wide, and perhaps fifty feet long. The press took up close to half the length, with its infeed end towards the back of the building; a wooden lift -- hardly an elevator -- against the back wall would have delivered the rolls of newsprint, and the end of the press had long arms reaching out to hang a roll from:
The machine came from the Duplex Printing Press Company of Battle Creek, Michigan -- a "Duplex Tubular". A Google search turned up a number of advertisements for similar machines as well as a lengthy article about a Kansas editor's trials and tribulations with his own Duplexes in the late 1920s.
At the far end of the press from where we came into the basement, the outfeed end (and where we could see the name of the builder), the press extended almost under the sidewalk; in fact, the ceiling of the end of the space consisted of shallow concrete arches that support the sidewalk. Quite possibly, the old sidewalk got torn up, the press's parts got lowered into the basement, and a new sidewalk got rebuilt over the hole.
As the continuous sheet of paper -- the "web" -- came off this end of the press, the paper got folded, cut, and assembled into a single-section newspaper (possibly as many as 32 pages; different Duplex presses had different capacities). However many copies of the newspaper came out here, every single one of them had to get carried or wheeled by hand to the back of the basement to get to the outside world.
Down one side of the press, the mass of interlocking gears looked like the machinery in Charlie Chaplin's 1936 movie "Modern Times". In the second photo below, you can just barely see the vaulted ceiling under the sidewalk.
The basement at the infeed end end of the press had a lot more room than the outfeed end, and various machinery remains there as well -- as far as we could tell, all for the production of the curved plates that put ink on paper. Not all of the machines remain, and not all parts of the ones that do, but somehow the each composed page of text, each line of which got set on the Linotype upstairs, got converted into a flat plate of lead -- lead, the poisonous metal -- that then got curved to fit around rollers on the press. This lead got reused over and over again, melted in a giant pot on one side of the basement; between the noise of the press and the hot lead -- not only fumes, but spattering on the wall (we saw evidence of this) -- it must have felt like working in Hell.
I've no idea what this machine does -- did:
The "Plane-O-Plate" did something to the plates for the press -- obviously -- but damned if I know what. The Monomelt Co., Minneapolis, made machines that melted "dead slugs" (already-used type as cast in a Linotype) for their lead's reuse.
On yet another unidentifiable machine, this small blower caught my eye -- made by the same Indiana company that perfected the eponymous Roots Blower that supercharged generations of Electro-Motive diesel engines, used in tens of thousands of railroad locomotives and ships.
As with the courthouse clock, I could have spent all day poking around the press and associated machines, but Joe had work to do, and I did too, so we climbed out of the basement and back into the 21st century. Now, can I convince anyone at the University to let me into the tower at Carver Hall to look at that clock?