The American Railroad Pocket Watch

What makes a "Railroad Pocket Watch"? Is every watch with an engraving of a steam locomotive on the back a "genuine" railroad watch? Read on to learn why the pocket watch played such an important role in American railroad history, and learn how to identify a genuine railroad pocket watch.

The Need for Accurate Railway Time-Keeping

The American Railroad Pocket Watch stands as the crowning achievement of American watchmaking. It harks back to a slower and simpler time in our history, yet one that was filled with remarkable innovation and great promise as America moved into the 20th century. The watch industry and the railroad industry were born at roughly the same time, with the first American watches being produced in the 1820's, and the first railroad (the B&O) started in 1827. The railroad was at the very heart of North America, serving as the transportation and communication lifeline for the United States and Canada.

Keeping the trains on time...

Keeping the trains on time...

In the era of single-track railroading, trains were operated in both directions on a single track. This required that trains passing in opposite directions adhere to carefully scheduled meeting times, where one train would pull onto a siding track and wait for the other train to pass. This made accurate and reliable timepieces an essential tool for the railroaders. By the mid-1870's, railroads had begun to discuss the need for timekeeping standards.

In the year 1880 every town in the U. S. had a different time standard, determined by the "sun time" at its particular location, and often monitored by a local jeweler who would would set the town clock. There were 50 different "times" in use by the various railroads. Amidst all this confusion, faulty timing caused a series of disastrous railroad accidents. The railroads adopted a system of "standard time" in about 1883, 35 years before Congress passed the Standard Time Act (1918) which officially divided the country into four time zones!

The Kipton Disaster

Standard time was a positive step, but it did nothing to address the accuracy of watches. On April 19, 1891, a mail train known as the No. 4 was traveling east on the same track as an accommodation train that was heading west. The Engineer of the accommodation train was given written instructions to let the fast mail train pass at Kipton, Ohio, a small station west of Oberlin. The accommodation train pulled out of the station "on time" according to the Engineer's watch. Unfortunately the Engineer's watch on the accommodation train had stopped for four minutes, and then started up again (or so the story is told). The two trains collided at Kipton, killing both Engineers and six postal clerks. The rail lines and postal service suffered significant property losses.

Following the Kipton disaster, a commission was appointed to establish standards for timekeeping that were to be adopted by all railroads. Reliable and accurate timekeeping was seen as the key to railroad safety, and in 1893 the General Railroad Timepiece Standards were adopted. This, together with a more formalized system of timepiece inspection and maintenance, was a significant step toward safer railroading!

Thus, the American Railroad Pocket Watch was born, and each watch was a masterpiece of precision engineering, durability, and accuracy. American watch manufacturers would offer only their highest grade watches for railroad service, But it is more than just accuracy that has made the American Railroad Watch so desirable today. The simple beauty of the black-on-white enamel dial, the amazing ingenuity with which they were designed, the jewels and precious metals used in the production of high-quality movements, and a level of labor-intensive craftsmanship that could never be duplicated today at any price have all contributed to the making of a truly great American collectible.

Perhaps you inherited a watch from your father or grandfather, or perhaps you're one of the many collectors who have discovered the enjoyment and investment potential of these wonderful heirloom watches. If you're lucky enough to own one of these beautiful pieces of American history, then you will want to preserve it for future generations with the best possible care and service. We repair all American watch brands, and specialize in Elgin, Waltham, Illinois, Ball, Hamilton, Hampden, Howard, Rockford, South Bend and New York Standard. And when you hold a railroad pocketwatch in your hands and listen to it ticking off the seconds, you are truly holding a treasured and important piece of American history. You can almost hear that train whistle blowing...

Contact us if you have any questions, or if we can assist you with your special watch!