Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Turning Back Time: Restoring the Bath County Courthouse Clock Tower

The Bath County Courthouse is undergoing a renovation project just in time for it's 150 year anniversary.  The courthouse you see today is actually the third one for Bath County.  The first one was planned in June 1815 and completed in early 1816.  It was described as a brick two story structure and sat almost in the middle of Main Street at the stop light in Owingsville.   A second, wood frame courthouse was built in 1831, where the current one stands today. 
During the Civil War, Federal troops occupied Owingsville and were briefly garrisoned in the Bath County Courthouse.  Early on the morning of May 22, 1864,  the troops were alerted that a Confederate column was approaching Owingsville.  In their haste to meet the rebel troops, a coal stove was knocked over, quickly igniting the courthouse.  The building and many vital records of Bath County's earliest days were consumed by the fire.  The county received an indemnity from the Federal Government, and a new, and present, courthouse was built on the same site in 1866.
From 1866-1903, the Bath County Courthouse was a rectangular, ordinary structure.  The interior rooms were built to be fire proof and sturdy to prevent the loss of other vital records.  Under the administration of Judge Executive John A. Daugherty, a major renovation project was contracted, starting in 1903 and finishing in 1904.  The front of the courthouse was extended over four feet toward Main Street and a balcony was added for town criers.  The most prominent addition was the construction of the 102 foot tall clock and bell tower.  The tower was built with four clock faces pointing at each direction of the compass.  Built entirely of wood and brick, the tower is supported by several long iron rods that bear the weight of the structure and the 1,500 pound bell inside. 
Galvanized iron ornaments adorn the upper corners of the tower near the clock, and the belfry is an open structure with slats to reduce the elements from creeping in.  The upper dome of the tower is covered with slate tiles and more iron ornamental accents; indeed a commanding structure once finished. 
Accessing the bell and clock is not for the claustrophobic or those uneasy with high places.  Over the years, able bodied men, including my father Tommy, would make the climb up the narrow wooden ladder to wind the Seth Thomas clock mechanism and to clean the mounds of potentially harmful bird droppings.
Access into the bell tower via ladder
Some of those people added their names on a board near the clock's southward face; the earliest I personally found was the name John W. Brother, dated July 6, 1917.  
The bell, located on the fourth story of the five, was cast by the MC Shane Bell Foundry from Baltimore, Maryland and is date stamped 1903.  The large wooden wheel still turns and rocks the bell on the pedestal, but the pendulum was replaced with a mechanical striker attached by steel cables to the clock mechanism on the fifth story at some point.  Over the years, the elements crept into the aging tower and the boards began to decay.  It became unsafe to climb into the clock and perform the maintenance needed to keep it going; the once hourly bell fell silent.  The clock faces, however, still light up at night as a sort of beacon of time. 
Current Judge Executive Bobby Rogers has committed to restore the aging Bath County Courthouse during his term.  Utilizing local contractors and labor from inmates under the supervision of Jailer Earl Willis, work is being done to bring the structure back to its glory.  Tommy Johnson, owner of TJ Construction, was contracted to restore the interior of the bell tower.  Emergency Management Director Jason York gave me an exclusive tour of the tower recently and gave a progress report of the work that has been completed and what's yet to come.
"When they started working on the tower, there was about four inches of pigeon droppings all over the place," York said. 
"We had to have the guys working up there wear hazardous materials suits and respirators in order to stay safe".
The tower itself had shifted about four inches to the west due to seeping water damaging boards and support beams, according to Mr. Johnson.  Some of the ladder's rungs had to be replaced, along with other surrounding support beams that had rotted.  A large hydraulic jack was used to shore the tower and correct the lean, which wasn't readily noticed from street level.
Soon, the clock and bell will be restored back into working order, according to Emergency Management Director York.  Another proposed project at the old courthouse, spearheaded by the newly reorganized Bath County Tourism Council, is the creation of a Bath County Museum in the second floor court room area. The museum is only in the initial planning phases at this time, pending final approval and other preparations that need to be made to accommodate  
Judge Executive Rogers says he "feels the old courthouse is a lasting monument that has meant so much to the people of Bath County. 
That's why the Fiscal Court and I placed such an emphasis on restoring this county treasure." 
 The restoration and future projects at the old Bath County Courthouse should make this historic county treasure an active part of many more generations to come.

Below are some pictures inside the clock and bell tower:

A Seth Thomas type clock mechanism

An ominous message scribbled on a wall
Names and graffiti from long ago

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