At South Station, a reminder of the past that keeps ticking through the present

The clock atop the train terminal has been in place for more than 100 years and is still hand wound twice a week.

South Station in 1974.
South Station in 1974. –Jack Connolly / Boston Globe, File

Jamie Kelly never gave much thought to the granite, eagle-topped clock that is perched 100 feet above the main entrance to South Station. 

Growing up in South Boston, he was aware of the timepiece that overlooks Dewey Square, glancing up at it to check the time when he was near the station. 

“I was usually late,” he recalled. 

But throughout those years — during his childhood and later during his career as a sheet metal worker and working for the MBTA — he never once thought about whose job it was to ensure it kept ticking. 

Like most people, he guesses, he thought it was automatic. 

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He never imagined that it would, in fact, become his responsibility when he returned to the workforce after trying out retirement for a few months. 

“I’d never seen it coming,” he told Boston.com. “In the job interview, they never mentioned the clock.”

This part of his job at South Station that he never foresaw — winding the clock twice a week and ensuring the 122-year-old device is keeping time faithfully — is now his favorite aspect of his position as the station’s day engineer.

“I came to really think the clock is awesome,” he said. 

South Station in 1900. —Thomas E. Marr (c.1900), accessed via BPL/Digital Commonwealth

The clock, with Roman numerals set across its 12-foot-wide face, has rested atop the station since the train terminal opened in 1898. It was manufactured locally by the Edward Howard Clock Company, originally based in Roxbury. 

According to the station, the clock is New England’s largest and only remaining three-legged gravity escapement mechanism. Like London’s Big Ben, the clock’s escapement — the device that converts the force from a weight in the timepiece to its counting mechanism — uses gravity to keep its pendulum swinging. What makes the gravity escapement unique is that it separates the force of the weight (225 pounds in the South Station clock) from the force produced by the movement of the pendulum, which prevents the clock hands from being moved or disturbed by snow, ice, or wind. The mechanism was developed by Edmund Becket Denison, later known as Lord Grimthrope, for Big Ben. 

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When the clock made its debut in Boston in December 1898, it was lauded as the largest illuminated timepiece in New England and the second largest in the country. 

“Monster Illuminated Clock at South Terminal Station Has Dial Over 12 Feet in Diameter,” the Boston Globe heralded. 

The newspaper detailed the “monster minute hand” (6 feet long) and pendulum (15 feet long), which swings through five feet of space.

“The whole machine, for it may in a refined sense be called a machine, is most delicately constructed, and on account of its size will be readily visible from a long distance,” the article read. “The clock is warranted to deviate not over 10 seconds each month, so the fineness of its construction is not a myth, but a fact.”

“Minute Hand 6 Feet Long” was the headline on Dec. 13, 1898 in the Boston Globe. —The Boston Globe Archives

At the time of its installment, there were thousands of clocks in public buildings across the city, according to Linda Perlman, who leads history tours at Walking Tours Boston. And South Station was more than just the transit hub it is today. When the station was built, she said, it had the grandeur of Washington’s Union Station, with 28 tracks at ground level and four underneath. 

“It was at one time the largest station in the world,” Perlman said. 

The Boston station was its busiest through World War II, but as highways were built and travel became more car-centered, the station became more and more truncated. It gradually shed the amenities, like a movie theater, that once made it a central destination in the city, separate from its role as train station.

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Perlman said she’s grateful the clock and its perch, South Station, have survived the years of change and development in Boston. Former Governor Michael Dukakis helped save the station from demolition in the 1970s when there was a push to build office towers and a hotel in the area. The terminal was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and South Station was renamed in Dukakis’s honor in 2014. When a 678-foot glass tower is constructed above the station in the coming years, the historic clock and head house will remain in place.  

“It’s kind of an era that has disappeared,” Perlman said of the clock. “And that’s OK. But it’s nice to preserve it, so the clock is a reminder, and South Station in itself, that we can have everything new around us, but we can respect and honor the old, too.”

Three minutes fast

The entrance to the space where the South Station clock mechanism is housed. —Dialynn Dwyer / Boston.com

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Kelly looks up at the clock to check the time before making his way to the roof of South Station, which he reaches by taking an elevator to the fifth floor of the station and climbing another flight of stairs.

Once there, with a view of the city surrounding him that he calls “awesome” in the summer, he enters through a red door in the brick structure containing the clock’s mechanisms. Inside, the constant tick of the clock echoes while the pendulum swings. 

Two steep ladders lead up to a platform where the clock mechanism sits. Kelly carefully climbs one side to wind the clock, using a crank to raise up the weights that keep the timepiece going, being careful not to overwind the clock. 

It’s a workout. It takes about 20 minutes to wind — on Tuesdays a little longer, he said.

“By Tuesday, [the weight is] halfway down again,” Kelly said. “It goes down quickly. But from Thursday to Monday it goes down a lot more, obviously. So It’s a little bit more involved on Tuesday.”

The other ladder brings him to the side of the platform where he can adjust the time when necessary. He estimates he only has to do so about four times a year. If anything is wrong with how the clock is running, he calls Paul Calantropo, the owner of Boston Professional Clock & Watch Repair and longtime craftsman responsible for repairs of the clock, who overhauled the station timepiece in 2008.

Kelly carries on the tradition, set before his arrival at South Station two years ago, of running the clock about three minutes fast. 

“If you are the public and you see it, it gets you to work on time,” he said with a laugh. “So, you can thank me if you are on time — don’t thank me if you’re late.”

His responsibility of winding the clock is the most routine part of his job. He likes to take care of the clock early in the day, as soon as it is light outside. 

“I come up here and it’s peaceful,” the 56-year-old said of the moment it provides. “I come up here and no one’s here, no one’s bothering me. I can sit down for a cup of coffee, I can wind [it].”

Very often, soon his phone is ringing or going off with the “choo-choo” sound effect of a train, letting him know of the other tasks at hand that day around the station. But Kelly doesn’t mind; he likes to be busy. 

He tried retirement for a few months, he said, and found it wasn’t for him. In fact, he hated it.

But in the end, it worked out, he said. After all, that’s how he ended up here, making sure the 122-year-old timekeeper keeps ticking. 

His wife, Molly, he said with a laugh, has taken to calling him “Quasimodo,” telling those who ask about what he’s doing since coming out of retirement that he’s “Quasimodo inside South Station.”

“She really finds humor in that,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know what she was talking about when she was talking about that was a guy who wound the clock, so I had to look that up.”

Jamie Kelly stands beside the mechanisms of the South Station clock. —Dialynn Dwyer / Boston.com

When someone sent him posts from social media, pointing out that the clock and eagle at night looked like a pirate, he said he had a good laugh.

“After you’re around the clock for a little while … you think it’s your clock,” he said. 

When he started the job at South Station, he admits, he had no interest in clocks. But the old mechanism atop South Station has grown on him, and he takes pride in the uniqueness of his task. 

 “I think it is wicked cool,” he said of the clock, adding later, “I don’t know how many people really know it’s here and appreciate it.”

So while he still doesn’t consider himself a “clock nut” or “clock historian,” he admits he is a fan — of this particular clock, and how it has continued to work for more than a hundred years, whether the scores of people passing below it notice or not.

“It’s not overbearing,” he said. “I do think we take it for granted. I’ve looked at it a million times … and I’m grateful that I’ve got this job and that I get to do this.”

South Station after the removal of the train shed in 1930. —Leslie Jones (c. 1930), accessed via BPL/Digital Commonwealth
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