Antiques Peek: Workin’ On The Railroad

Longines Express Monarch Canadian railroad pocket watch, 1901
by Jessica Kosinski 
When you think of the history of railroads and railroad collectibles, you might picture toy trains first. Alternatively, your mind might go straight to other collectibles, such as railroad lanterns. Station or track signs and dining car items may also come to mind. What you might not think of is a small item that was commonplace for most railroad workers in the early days of North American railroads. That item is the pocket watch. Let’s take a peek at railroad-grade pocket watch history and collection habits.

Keeping Time (or Not) on Early Railroads

Longines Express Monarch Canadian railroad pocket watch, 1901
Longines Express Monarch Canadian
railroad pocket watch, 1901

Railroad travel has always necessitated timekeeping. Passengers and railroad workers alike always wanted to know when trains would arrive or leave. As a result, train conductors, porters, and other workers typically had watches. However, those watches were not initially standardized or distributed by railroads. As a result, the accuracy of the different timepieces varied greatly.

Another important variation was the difference in local time. Even the most accurate timepiece of the period was useless when the local time between cities was different. In many early cases, some inaccuracy was fine because a railroad line might not be used by more than one train. However, as more railroad lines became multi-train lines, timing inaccuracies became dangerous and, in some cases, deadly. That problem was addressed in 1883 when 600 different railroads began using the same defined time zones to track the movements of their trains.

The Kipton/Elyria, Ohio Tragedy of 189

On April 18, 1891, a tragic railroad collision took place in Elyria, Ohio, near a station called Kipton Station. The tragedy occurred when the conductor of the Toledo Express did not pull onto a sidetrack at the appointed time to allow the fast mail train to pass it. That is because the conductor’s timepiece was not keeping the proper time. That tragedy killed several railroad workers and could have been prevented by proper timekeeping.

Sweeping Timekeeping Reforms

Immediately after the Kipton/Elyria incident, a jeweler named Webster Clay Ball was given the task of creating an inspection system for watches used by railroad workers. Two years later, in 1893, a standardized list of traits any railroad workers’ timepieces had to have was created. Among those requirements included “adjusting to a minimum of five positions” and being“open face.”

Railroad-Specific Standards to Note When Collecting

Rare Hamilton railroad Conductor pocket watch Chicago Union Station fob selling for $10,000 on eBay
Rare Hamilton railroad Conductor pocket watch Chicago Union Station fob selling for $10,000 on eBay

As time passed, certain railroads adopted specific standards for what were known as “railroad grade” watches. That term simply meant watches that were approved for use by railroad employees working for certain lines. Knowing those standards and when they were adopted or changed can help you when you are trying to collect railroad watches and fobs. For instance, beginning in 1930 Santa Fe Railway watches had to have a double-roller escapement. They also had to be made in America, as did the watches used on most American railways of the period. However, exceptions like the Longines Ref T905 model were also approved by some American railroads around that time.

Dial Variations (Function Versus Form)

When collecting railroad watches, especially those used in North America, the dials (faces) of the watches can tell you a lot about when the timepieces were used. The earliest dials were meant to be more functional than visually pleasing. However, achieving that functionality was sometimes easier said than done. For example, the Ferguson Dial patented in 1908 was notorious for being difficult to read accurately, despite having large black numbers on the outer ring. The Canadian Dial and Montgomery (Monty) Safety Dial were more widely preferred.

Common RR Pocket Watches to Collect

The watches used both prior to and after the implementation of railroad timekeeping standards varied quite a bit. If you want to collect them, you have many options. However, some are more common and easy to find than others. Some examples of more common versions to collect include:
• The Ball “20th Century Model”
• The Waltham “Crescent”
• The Hamilton “992”
• The Illinois “Bunn Special”

The Significance of Railroad Watch Fobs

The word “fob” comes from the German word “fuppe” which is a small watch. However, a fob is actually a chain or ribbon of some sort that goes from a person’s pocket to the watch itself.
Watch fobs have had a significant place in railroad history, and are now prized collectibles, just like railroad pocket watches themselves. Although watch fobs, in general, were often signs of style or status, railroad watch fobs were somewhat different. Often, specific lines issued watch fobs advertising the lines themselves. In fact, watch fobs became such common advertising materials for railroads that they were sometimes given away as promotional materials.

Collecting RR-Grade Watches and Fobs

To collect railroad-grade pocket watches and fobs today, you really need to understand railroad history. You must have an understanding of when certain standards were put into place on certain railroad lines. That is the only way to know if a watch was truly “railroad grade” when it was produced. The best option is to research railroad pocket watches online and reference accurate guides when assessing the watches you come across.

Jessica Kosinski has been a freelance writer specializing in writing short articles for 15 years. She is also an avid collector of both antique books and Star Wars memorabilia. Although she is not in the antiques industry professionally, she has learned a lot about antiques over the years by periodically helping out at her mom’s antiques shop in Greenville, NH. She currently balances maintaining the antiques shop’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MallofNE, and working on various freelance writing assignments. She can be reached at dementorskiss77@yahoo.com.