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The Town Clock

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the citizens of Dubuque, Iowa, decided it was high time their up and coming city had a town clock back in 1864, they got right to work. Too fast, as it turned out.

In the spring of 1864, Asa Horr, a local physician, began selling subscriptions for the purchase of the clock. Mr. and Mrs. George D. Wood then gave the city a perpetual lease on Lot 54, to house the clock tower. The building at that site was an historic one: it had been built in 1845 as a Congregational church, and had served as a theater, post office, and concert hall before becoming the location of John Bell and Company, a fashionable dry goods palace, where, Dubuquers said, "beauty and chivalry congregated."

By July, enough subscriptions had been sold to buy a 304-dollar, half-ton bell for the clock. Next came a 2,000-dollar 400-pound clock mechanism and a one-ton striking gong.

That fall, George Wood, the building's owner, erected a tower for the clock at a cost of $1,000. Another citizen, William Longhurst, designed the framework around the clock to protect its face from frost and sleet. W. W. Wormwood made the final adjustments to the clock after it was in place.

The Dubuque town clock began ticking in November of 1864. Many claimed that it kept the most accurate time of any town clock in the United States, and Dubuque was proud of it.

For exactly eight years. One May afternoon in 1872, workmen putting in a foundation for a new building adjacent to Bell and Company noticed cracks suddenly appearing like zig-zag lightning in the walls of the Town Clock building. Horrified passersby saw the belfry sway toward Main Street, then right itself, before crashing down into the new excavation. The roof followed, and then the north wall, the south wall, and finally the front wall. The clock face read 5:16 p.m.

Two women and a child inside the dry goods store were killed in the collapse. The Dubuque Daily Times called it "the most awful calamity which has ever overtaken the people of this city."

In their rush to erect a town clock, no one had thought to check to see if the building would support the clock's weight.

There wasn’t enough time.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.