Santa Cruz Clocktower | Jim Whitehead, Wikimedia commons
By Susan Landry
For almost a half century, the Santa Cruz Clock Tower has represented more than a downtown gathering place — it’s been Ground Zero for protests of all kinds, from anti-war demonstrations, to climate action rallies and marches.
Now, with tumult over police brutality, institutional racism and the murder of George Floyd, it is once more a centerpiece for speaking out against injustice. On May 31, thousands peacefully gathered at its base before marching to demand justice for Floyd and an end to police violence against Black people.
How the tower came to be a focal point for protesters is a tale that reaches far into Santa Cruz’s past, and it all started with a clock.
Its fabled history dates back to 1873, when the clock was first installed atop Pacific Avenue’s Odd Fellows fraternity building. In 1894, it narrowly escaped a fire that almost entirely leveled the surrounding block, including the local courthouse.
Just two years later, the city’s Venetian Water Carnival coincided with the completion of a power project that finally brought electricity to Santa Cruz. In celebration, the city decorated the clock with 600 incandescent lights. When those bulbs flicked on, it marked the first electric light that many Santa Cruzans had ever seen. Citizens let out, “gasps of surprise and wonder,” reported the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Shortly after, the fire of 1899 set downtown ablaze yet again. This time, the clock — which initially cost $1,000 to build — was all but completely destroyed. Within a year, the clock was rebuilt on its post atop the IOOF building, where it sat for the next 65 years.
In 1964, the clock was removed from the building after a remodel, prompting the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to offer to buy it for $1. The Odd Fellow’s directors refused, instead selling the old clock to the city — whose councilmen promised to display it “appropriately” — for the price of $1.01.
Despite the conditions of the sale, display plans quickly dematerialized and the clock wound up in a museum storage basement for nearly a decade.
In 1974, the clock got a new lease on life when biochemist and clock enthusiast Eugene Corridon expressed interest in fixing it up. Then, the Citizens Committee on Community Improvement got to work fundraising to build a tower for the clock. By July 3, 1976, community donations exceeded $27,000, with the city chipping in the rest. It was dedicated on July 4.
Under the leadership of architect Kermit Darrow, the project at the corner of North Pacific Avenue and Water Street was completed just in time to qualify as a U.S. Bicentennial project.
A year after the clock tower settled into its new home, a protest against B-1 bombers ignited the area’s reputation as the go-to gathering place for demonstrations, vigils and rallies. Located at the end point of the Pacific Garden Mall, its location makes it a natural and visible gathering place.
In subsequent years, protesters speaking out on everything from nuclear weapons, war and climate action utilized the area as a primary stomping ground. In March 1991, following months of Gulf War protests, one group even took up residence at the tower, vowing to stay until world peace was achieved. The situation got so intense that the city considered limiting use of the gathering space or fencing it off altogether — as was the case during the protests for George Floyd.
As protests continued, so too did tests to the clock’s resilience. In 1995, an electrical fire started inside the tower caused about $10,000 worth of internal damage. All the while, the clock hands ticked on while firefighters rushed to contain the blaze.
On October 17, 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake brought downtown Santa Cruz largely to its knees, the clock stopped at exactly 5:04pm. It was restarted a few weeks later, marking the beginning of downtown’s recovery effort and cementing its legacy as a withstanding symbol of resilience and resistance.
But what makes this 120-year-old timepiece such an irresistible place to gather?
For Laura Zucker, an activist and speech language pathologist at Hyde Elementary School, the Clock Tower’s location and ease can’t be beat.
“It’s kind of perfect. It’s centrally located and everyone knows where it is so it’s really easy to get people here.” said Zucker, who attended her first protest at the tower nearly two decades ago.
Back then, she would bring her young children to the town clock with other families in protest of the Iraq War. “We’d give them chalk so they could draw, it’s incredibly family friendly,” she said. For over a year now, Zucker’s helped organize monthly First Friday protests against the Trump Administration’s border policies.
At the March 6 gathering, signs reading, “Abolish I.C.E.” and “Protect the Children,” lined the base of the tower, while about twelve protesters gathered out front. “You don’t need a big demonstration to make a difference,” she said.
At the May 31 gathering for Floyd, hundreds of signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe” and “Defund the Police,” engulfed the streets as calls rang out for justice and protesters chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
For Zucker, the symbolism of the space is eternally fitting. “Time’s up,” she said, “It’s time for a change. It’s time to end the war. What else is there to say?”
Linda Rosewood of History Right Here and the Santa Cruz Public Libraries contributed to research for this story.
- Woolfolk, John. “Fire stops Town Clock; repairs will take months.” San Jose Mercury News. 1995-08-08. SCPL Local History. https://history.santacruzpl.org/omeka/items/show/105760.
- Koch, Margaret. “Town Clock Will Live Again …” Santa Cruz Sentinel. 1974-09-29. SCPL Local History.https://history.santacruzpl.org/omeka/items/show/105673.
- Rosewood, Linda. “Previous Lives of Santa Cruz’s Clock Tower.” Mobile Ranger. http://mobileranger.wpengine.com/santacruz/previous-lives-of-santa-cruzs-clock-tower.
- Morones, Carmen and Rechs Ann Pedersen. “Santa Cruz’s Town Clock.” 2002-03. SCPL Local History.https://history.santacruzpl.org/omeka/items/show/134338.
- Honig, Tom. “The Old Town Clock Gets Attention, Controversy.” Santa Cruz Sentinel. 1976-06-03. SCPL Local History. https://history.santacruzpl.org/omeka/items/show/120593.
- SIDEWALK: Chase, John, and Daniel Platt Gregory. The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture. Kestrel Press, 2005.
- Robinson, John. “City ponders clock protest crackdown: Proposal raised to close area to public use at night.” Santa Cruz Sentinel. 1991-03-21. SCPL Local History.https://history.santacruzpl.org/omeka/items/show/105709.
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