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Sewickley

Old Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad clock from Station Square keeps time in Aleppo

| Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, 11:30 a.m.
Pictured in this postcard on the Smithfield Street Bridge is the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad clock. The clock now is part of a coffee table display at Masonic Village of Sewickley in Aleppo.
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Pictured in this postcard on the Smithfield Street Bridge is the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad clock. The clock now is part of a coffee table display at Masonic Village of Sewickley in Aleppo.

Betsy Allyn never expected to have a piece of heavy industrial equipment sitting in her living room. So when her late husband told her he would be receiving a clock from his employer, she suspected nothing of the sort.

“We have two living rooms, we could use another clock,” she recalls telling him.

Allyn's husband Henry G. Allyn, Jr., known as Hank, was president of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad (P&LE) from 1969 to 1982, the capstone to a long career in the railroad industry. Hank oversaw the conversion of the P&LE building into Station Square through the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It could be said that a clock is the second most important piece of equipment at a railroad company.

Before the advent of satellite clocks in the 1930s, the ability to synchronize time across a railroad company's stationary timepieces and its employees' watches was a daunting task. Determining the correct time was so vital to industries like railroads that it kept the Allegheny Observatory solvent: In the late 1860s, Samuel Pierpont Langley developed a method of determining accurate time using the precise moment stars crossed the celestial meridian. The resulting subscription service, facilitated via telegraph, ensured the financial wellbeing of the observatory and its ongoing research for decades to come. Railroads and other companies could use the observatory's time service to calibrate their pendulum and electric clocks.

P&LE was presumably still using this service in 1908 when it erected a porte-cochère roof over the Smithfield Street bridge facing Carson Street and mounted a large clock on it. There, its backlit electric face provided generations of Pittsburghers with accurate time.

When the Smithfield Street bridge was closed to pedestrians for repairs in 1967, the P&LE decided to remove the 60-year-old roof in lieu of making repairs. The clock itself came down in pieces, starting with the hands.

“Commuters to and from the South Hills, those using the Smithfield Street Bridge, can say goodbye to their own “Big Ben,” the Pittsburgh Press reported at the time.

After sitting in storage for nearly 15 years, P&LE's board of directors decided to make the clock a retirement gift for their chief executive.

When Hank's clock arrived in her home, “I almost fainted,” Betsy says. The timepiece the railroad had gifted her husband was five feet in diameter and weighed about 1,500 pounds. “They always set their watches by it,” Allyn says of her husband and his fellow workers.

And so, Betsy Allyn got her new living room clock. Though, since they couldn't hang it on the wall, the Allyns had it mounted into a glass-topped coffee table. It sat in their home, still keeping accurate time for 23 years until 2005 when it moved with the Allyns into the Masonic Village at Sewickley retirement community in Aleppo.

After Hank's death in 2006, the table didn't fit in Betsy's smaller apartment, so she donated it for the enjoyment of her neighbors. The clock now sits in the lobby of the community's clubhouse.

“There was never any question of us selling it,” says Betsy, now in her 90s. “I'm very pleased to have made that decision because it's very appreciated. It fits in so well where it is.”

Melanie Linn Gutowski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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