Great Frank, the clock atop Nanaimo’s old dominion post office, started ticking in 1913 and kept time there for 40 years. (NANAIMO COMMUNITY ARCHIVES photo)

Timeless tales: Great Frank clock helped keep Nanaimo ticking

Clock used to be at old waterfront post office, now at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church

Nanaimo didn’t just look different 100 years ago, it sounded different, too.

The chimes of the Great Frank clock were discussed last month at the City of Nanaimo heritage summit at the Nanaimo Museum. Christine Meutzner, manager of the Nanaimo Community Archives, gave a presentation on the clock, also called Big Frank, which used to be atop the old waterfront post office and now looks over the city from the tower of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.

“Around 1920, there were at least five churches that had bells ringing and that clock,” Meutzner said. “We forget about sound historically, but the sound in Nanaimo would have been very different.”

Author and historian Jan Peterson, in her book Harbour City: Nanaimo in Transition, 1920-1967, writes that “the rhythm of the day in Nanaimo was set by mine whistles and by the chimes of ‘Big Frank,’ the Dominion Post Office clock.”

The clock got its name from Francis (Frank) Shepherd, who was Nanaimo’s member of Parliament from 1911-1917 – it was presumed that the Conservative MP’s influence had brought the federal dollars to his constituency for the post office building’s renovations, including the 45-foot (14-metre) clock tower. Born-and-raised Nanaimo watchmaker Joseph Miller Brown was contracted to build the four-faced clock, which ticked its first tock on Jan. 1, 1913.

Brown’s obituary in the Nanaimo Daily Free Press in 1942 notes that he “watched over the clock with affectionate care, the long climb to the clock in the post office tower failing to deter him throughout the third of a century.

“An incident is told that when a change was made to daylight savings, he stayed up for an hour in the clock tower one night to see if the correct hour should be struck.”

In 1953, it was decided that the old post office had to be demolished, but before that happened, Great Frank was salvaged by alderman Phil Piper and was kept in the basement of city hall for six years before it found its next home at St. Peter’s. The chimes never worked at the clock’s second home, nor were they intended to sound there.

“It’s very difficult to find somebody who has that kind of expertise. It’s also extremely expensive now,” Meutzner said.

She compared the clock to the Castaway Motel neon sign and old stand-alone gateposts on Stewart Avenue – none are heritage buildings, but are pieces of history Nanaimo has preserved. Whether Great Frank or Big Frank was great or big or both, the clock had pride of place once on Nanaimo’s waterfront and was a sight and sound of an era.

“People didn’t have a phone to whip out. Not everybody could afford a watchpiece,” Meutzner said. “That was where you looked, and especially with the chime.”

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