Railroad-Marked Pocket Watches

Is every watch with an engraving of a train on the case a railroad watch? Not necessarily! Read on to learn more about railroad-marked watches.

Illinois Santa Fe Special, a beautiful example of a railroad-marked pocketwatch.

Illinois Santa Fe Special, a beautiful example

of a railroad-marked pocketwatch.

Railroad-marked watches include all watches that are marked on the movement, case or dial with words or pictures associated with railroading, in particular with specific railroads. Many railroad-marked watches are, in fact, railroad-grade watches. But railroad markings alone are not sufficient to make a watch a "railroad watch."

Railroad-marked watches may be classified in four basic categories:

Railroad logo markings - railroads neither encouraged nor, in some cases, even permitted the use of their logos on watch movements. Some dials can be found with railroad logos, but these are quite rare and are thus quite collectible.

Railroad Time Service or watch inspector markings - the best examples of Time Service or inspector markings are: watches made by Ball, or movements marked "Made for Canadian Railway Time Service". There are also examples of dials marked with the railroad inspector's name.

Jeweler/Retailer railroad markings - These were watches which were either produced for a specific jeweler/distributor, or were marked after the original sale (the addition of a marked dial, for example). Perhaps the best known example in this category may be the Illinois Santa Fe Special (as pictured on this page), which was produced for and sold by a mail-order company which marketed its watches directly to railroad men.

Watch Factory railroad markings - probably the largest of the four categories, as many manufacturers produced watches with railroad associated names. To list a few examples: Hampden produced watches named Railway, New Railway, Special Railway, Tramway Special and Train Service Standard. Waltham produced the Railroader, Railroad Time, Railroad King and Railroad Standard models. Elgin produced a watch marked Order or Railway Conductors.

Railroad markings were used for advertising, marketing and promotion of a particular railroad or businesses associated with the railroad, or just to capture some of the excitement of railroading in the hopes of selling more watches. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for everything associated with the railroads, and owning a railroad watch was viewed as a symbol of pride and status.

Beginning in the 1920s, Time Service rules began to exclude private-label and jeweler/retailer marked watches from their approved lists, and these watches were largely out of favor by the early 1930s. Some railroads, like the Union Pacific, continued to accept certain private-label watches (e.g. Santa Fe Special) until the early 1940s. Today, railroad-marked, railroad-grade watches are highly prized by collectors.

And as for that watch with the engraving of the train: a train-engraved case can be a beautiful thing, but it does NOT make a watch a railroad watch. In our experience, most "real railroad men" carried unadorned, open-face watches.

Credits: To the best of our knowledge, this specific categorization of railroad-marked pocket watches first appeared in an article by William F. Meggars, Jr. published in James Hernick's booklet on Railroad Timekeeping which was distributed at the 1996 NAWCC Seminar held in Rockford, Illinois. We are indebted to Mr. Meggars and Mr. Hernick for their contributions to our current understanding of the history of railroad watches.

Please contact us if we can assist you with your special railroad-marked watch!