By Joseph E. Jessop
FOR eighty years the Jessop Street Clock has stood majestically on the sidewalks of San Diego, telling the local time in hours, minutes and seconds as well as the day of the week and the month of the year. There are 21dials in all — 12 of which tell the time in the principal locations around the world.
San Diego was a small town in 1907 when the clock first was set in motion. It has witnessed many changes during that time. The advancement of automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, microwave ovens, and bikini bathing suits, to name a few. With only some “timeouts” for repairs, the clock has performed through fair weather and foul, war and peace, good times and bad, as well as a few earthquakes. Through all these many changes, the clock has quietly and steadfastly ticked on with very little attention required.
The idea of building a street clock originated with Joseph Jessop during the time he was operating a Jessop’s Jewelry Store in Lythem, England. While on a trip to Europe, (about 1888) he and Mrs. Jessop visited Bern, Switzerland, and saw clocks of all descriptions — on buildings, in railroad stations and on the streets. One in particular caught his attention. From this he drew plans. But it was not until he and his business moved to San Diego that the idea became a reality.
When detailed plans for the clock were completed in 1905, a quest for someone who could build it ensued. J. Jessop and Sons Jewelry had just employed Claude D. Ledger, a young graduate of the Elgin Watch School, who had proven to be an excellent mechanic and was eager for the assignment. Mr. Ledger was the first employee at Jessop’s outside of the family and had many duties, all of which he carried out extremely well. It was decided to give him the additional task of building the clock. Hours meant nothing to him, and his employer soon discovered that his whole life was devoted to building the clock. Even the Jessops themselves were not allowed to interfere with his favorite project. In closing up the store in the evening, part of the routine was to make sure Mr. Ledger was out of the shop. Getting him away from the clock was not easy.
It took fifteen months to build the clock which was completed in 1907. Sacramento was having a state fair at the time and it was decided that the movement and Mr. Ledger would take part. The clock won a gold medal in its class and no one was more pleased than Mr. Ledger.
In later years, Mr. Ledger developed a few ailments, including arthritis. He gained comfort by going to the desert, where the climate was dry and warm. It was on one of these trips that he passed away. On that very day, the street clock stopped for the first time, for no apparent reason. The coincidental pairing of Mr. Ledger’s death and the clock’s stopping was written up in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” and appeared in newspapers all over the nation.
Following the exhibition in Sacramento, the clock was installed on the sidewalk in front of J. Jessop and Sons at 952 Fifth Avenue. The medal won at the fair was made of real California gold and was proudly displayed within the base of the clock. Unfortunately, while on display, it mysteriously disappeared. It was later replaced by two bronze medals so that the engraving on both sides of the medal could be viewed. One evening, a robber broke the glass surrounding the movement and ran off with both medals. Betty Squires, who was in charge of security at Jessop’s, chased the man down the street. He dropped one medal but escaped with the other. The recovered medal also disappeared and still another set was purchased from Sacramento. These are now once again on display at the base of the clock.
Two other mementos from the 1907 exhibition became permanent additions to the clock’s movement. While on exhibit, the movement was not enclosed in glass. A child, mesmerized by watching the clock a long time, decided the very small carved brown bear he was holding would like a ride on the swinging pendulum. He carefully placed the figurine inside a little ring. When dislodging the bear proved difficult, the boy abandoned him to “ride” forever in the clock’s movement. A careful observer will discover the small brown bear “riding” in the mechanism today. Also visible on the escapement is a tiny bell, which was a popular symbol of the California missions during that period.
Throughout Mr. Ledger’s business life, he guarded the Jessop clock jealously-checking its every movement and never allowing anyone to touch it other than himself. After his death, several highly skilled instrument men in Jessop’s watch and clock repair department assisted in its care. However, the full responsibility eventually came to rest with Harry Nash.
Harry was the son of the Reverend and Mrs. Nash of the Episcopal Church in Coronado. After his formal education he decided to advance his studies in the instrument field. Arrangements were made for him to enter the Elgin School of Watch making. Upon his graduation he returned to San Diego and joined the staff in the watch and instrument department at J. Jessop and Sons. He soon became head of the department, a position he held until his retirement.
Harry’s reputation as an outstanding technician came to the attention of Commander Philip Van Horn Weems who had designed a special second-setting navigational watch which became a great aid in the field of aviation. Commander Weems was having a hard time finding anyone with the ability to make a pilot model. Harry Nash was his man. Several of these watches were made by Harry in Jessop’s shop before turning the model over to a watch factory for quantity production. Charles Lindbergh used one of the Jessop watches on his famous flight across the Atlantic.
Over its nearly eighty year lifetime, the clock has stopped only three times on its own. One occasion dates back to the early days in San Diego when horse-drawn wagons and carriages were a common sight in downtown. Every so often the horses would become frightened and start running. One day a team got loose with a carriage and started racing down Fifth Avenue and ran into the street clock. The “tongue” that separated the team of horses went right through the base of the clock and stopped the pendulum. On another occasion, the clock stopped during an earthquake. The motion of the earth synchronized with the pendulum and stopped it. In the third instance, the clock stopped on the day of Mr. Ledger’s death and a mechanical failure or natural cause was never identified.
The street clock attracted admirers from its earliest days in downtown San Diego. One such admirer was Mr. William R. Perry. Mr. Perry was a seaman on one of the ships of the Great White Fleet which came around the world in 1907 and anchored off San Diego in front of the Hotel del Coronado. Mr. Perry came ashore, as did all the seamen. In those days there were few “attractions” in San Diego. There was no Balboa Park, no Zoo, no Sea World, and Old Town was a dirty, dusty little town. The major attraction was the brand new Jessop Street Clock and the sailors flocked to see it.
In 1946 Mr. Perry returned to San Diego and composed this poem after he found the clock still running:
How little I dreamed when my cruiser lay
In the stream off the Spreckels’ Dock
And I came ashore one sunny day
To gaze at the Wonder Clock,
With its “tales of the times” in places far
That wandering seamen know,
Which has measured the years of peace and war
Since that time so long ago,
That after a span of forty years
With their treasures and their trials
I’d stand where some wondering stranger peers
At those ever-constant dials!
I’m reminded, too, with a little shock
That I’m closer, much, to heaven
Than when I first saw that tell-tale clock
Back in Nineteen Hundred Seven:
And my old white cruiser long is gone
While the many-dialed clock ticks on!
In more recent times, the clock has attracted the attention of royalty. When Queen Elizabeth of England visited San Diego on her royal yacht Britannia in 1983, she was presented an album containing twenty-seven pictures all related in some way to her own country. The Jessop Street Clock was included. She inquired about the clock and the Jessop family. When informed that a book had been written about the family, she asked for and received a copy.
A story is told about the clock and its influence in regulating the lives of San Diego citizenry in the early days. The San Diego Gas & Electric Company had a whistle on their power plant. The whistle blew regularly at noon, at 5:00 p.m. (closing time) and at 10:00 p.m. to signal curfew when everyone had to be off the streets. One day Mr. Jessop asked an official of the gas company how he set the time to blow the whistle. The official, who walked past the store to the plant daily, announced that he set the whistle by the street clock. “Well,” replied Mr. Jessop, “we set the clock by the whistle!”
The Jessops found it advantageous to relocate their downtown business operations in 1927 and again in 1984. On both occasions, the challenge of moving the clock was a major consideration.
Have you ever thought of moving a street clock? House moving, yes; the transportation of elephants, yes; getting eggs to the market, yes; but how about moving a street clock?
The first move in 1927, from the original location at 952 Fifth Avenue to 1041 Fifth Avenue, was comparatively easy. Mr. Ledger, the builder, was on hand to oversee every detail. The distance was short. Therefore, very little was done in the way of dismantling. Labor was cheap and plentiful and the whole town became involved, not only with volunteer help, but an oversupply of sidewalk superintendents.
In 1984 a second move became necessary. 1041 Fifth Avenue and the surrounding area had ceased to be the vigorous retail section of downtown San Diego. The beautiful new Horton Plaza Shopping Center was definitely the wave of the future for the city’s retail stores.
The second move, however, was different. Mr. Ledger was no longer with Jessop’s, nor was Harry Nash. The few other highly skilled craftsmen who had cared for the clock over the years had also left this world. Who had the proper qualifications to take on this complex task? This time the clock needed a complete overhauling. The move required that the clock be dismantled in order to set it up in its new location.
A nationwide search was launched — prospects were contacted in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. The search finally came to an end right here in San Diego in the person of Wilbur (Bill) Wemer. Bill was educated in engineering and followed many professions successfully. His hobby became clocks — clocks of all sizes, shapes and vintages. He found that friends were calling on him for advice and help in restoring their treasured antique clocks. It soon became a full time job which finally turned into his major occupation. Bill’s moving of the clock — dismantling it, taking it to his home, restoring every part, moving it to Horton Plaza and reassembling it — is one of the great clock stories of all times. No one could have done as well!
To move the clock and make the many needed repairs, it became necessary to completely dismantle the clock, which Bill did. He chose to take it all to his home for security reasons and also so that he could devote 100% of his time to the task. Parts were laid out all over his house in the living room, dining room, kitchen and even the bathroom. There were well over 300 moving parts, many of which, after eighty years, needed to be replaced. Such parts are not readily available at a hardware store or machine shop and all of the pieces were individually handcrafted.
As the work progressed, several interesting things took place. A friend of Bills, Jack Richards, who did the sign and window card work at Jessop’s for many years before retiring, learned of the restoration program and took on the job of putting gold leaf in all of the necessary places. Others got into the act, helping Bill.
Soon there was a question as to how the clock was to be reassembled and put into place in Horton Plaza. Serious thought was given to the use of a helicopter. It was proposed that the clock could be lifted up in one piece, flown over the location, and lowered down between two buildings into position. After a careful study, it was decided that because of the length of the drop, the shifting winds and the small space between the buildings, the risk was too great. Trucks and cranes came into play under Bill’s direction and the clock finally landed in its present position. For easy viewing of the movement and also to allow more room for the winding equipment under the deck, the clock is twelve inches higher than it was at its old location.
Bill Wemer had a deadline to meet which seemed impossible, but on the day the beautiful Horton Plaza opened, and with the proper fanfare, the Jessop Street Clock started ticking away again, doing the job it had so faithfully done for eighty years — telling the time in all of the principal cities of the world. By several editorial writers it has been proclaimed the focal point of what many consider to be the most outstanding shopping center in the United States.
Ernie Hahn, developer of Horton Plaza, walked by at 10:00 p.m. one night and Bill was still on the job. They had a lengthy conversation and from then on became friends. Later Ernie made this statement about Bill: “I have never seen a more dedicated, enthusiastic, qualified man in my life for that job.”
The legal ownership of the clock continues to remain in the Jessop Family. However they share deeply in the feeling that affectionately and sentimentally it belongs to the people of San Diego. It is hoped it will always remain so.
The author wishes to thank the following individuals who helped with this article: Linda Fox, Larry Booth, Phil Klauber, Tom Scharf, Copley Press and John Hamrick.
FACTS AND FIGURES ABOUT
THE JESSOP STREET CLOCK
• Height — 22 feet
• Estimated Replacement Cost — $2,000,000
• Insured Value — $1,000,000
• 1985 Restoration and Moving Cost – $40,000
• Pendulum Weight — 55 Ibs.
• Dome Weight — 1,000 Ibs.
• A 100 Ib. Weight Propels the Clock’s Movement
• The Clock is Wound Automatically by an Electric Motor Every 8 Hours
• There are Over 300 Moving Parts
• The Clock Contains 17 Jewels of Tourmaline, Agate, Topaz and Jade from the Jessop Mine on Mount Palomar
• There are 20 Dials — 12 Tell the Time of the Principal Cities of the World
• The Clock’s Movement Hangs an Additional 12 feet Below Street Level
• Time is Measured by the Hour, Minute, Second, Month, Date and Day of the Week
• Construction Time Originally Required — 15 Months
• Awarded the Gold Medal at the 1907 Sacramento State Fair
• Age — 80 Years