Antique and vintage railroad pocket watches
Antique and vintage railroad pocket watches are pocket watches specifically designed to be used by American railroad employees.
Origins and history
Railroad pocket watches were developed for all employees in the U.S after a train crash caused by a faulty watch. On April 18, 1891 in Kipton, Ohio a passenger train collided with a mail freight train killing eight people including both conductors. This collision was due to a problem with the passenger train conductor’s watch, which had temporarily stopped working for four minutes causing the train to be both late and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Before this crash, the standards for watches used on the railroads across the U.S varied from company to company with each line employing a watchmaker to act as a ‘Time Inspector’.
There were regulations in place as early as the 1850s regarding watches and timekeeping across the railroads, but not every company abided by them. In 1887 a meeting of the American Railway Association led to a set of requirements for each watch used, but it was not until the fatal Kipton crash that they became uniform across the country.
They were enforced by the watchmaker Webb C. Ball, who began life as a time inspector for the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railways in 1891 and ended up holding the position for more than half the country’s railroad companies.
Railroad watch requirements
The standard guidelines for railroad watches meant that every watch must:
- Be American-made
- Be open-faced
- Be able to keep time to within 30 seconds every week
- Be between the sizes of 16 and 18
- Be adjusted to five positions
- Have a white face with black Arabic numbers and each minute delineated
- Have a minimum of 17 jewels
- Be resistant to changes in temperature
- Be reliable when held in any position
It was compulsory for every employee to carry and maintain a standard railroad watch, and there were harsh penalties for anyone found without one.
During the next 20 years the standards required for railroad watches were refined and increased, due in large part to market competition from rival watch manufacturers such as Hampden, Illinois, Columbus and Waltham. These companies consistently developed new designs and raised the jewel count on their models to first 21, then 23 by the 1930s.
In the years following World War II the field of different watches used narrowed down to a few standard models. These were:
- Waltham grade 1623 Vanguard,
- Hamilton 992B
- Ball 999B
- Elgin grade 571 B.W. Raymond.
These were the most predominant models, with hundreds of thousands of examples produced. However, changing public trends meant that pocketwatches in general were replaced by wristwatches and by the early 1960s the first railroad-standar wristwatch had been produced by Elgin. Hamilton was the last company to continue manufacturing railroad pocket watches and its last model was produced in 1969.
Collecting railroad pocket watches
Railroad pocket watches are highly popular amongst watch collectors, due to a number of factors: their superior quality and timekeeping, rarity and their connection to the romance of American railroads.
Although these watches were manufactured in large numbers, there were nowhere near as many made as standard pocket watches and these relatively smaller numbers make good examples highly sought after. Manufacturers to look out for include:
- Ball Watch CO: Cleveland Ohio - 1879 -1969
- Waltham Watch Company: Waltham, Massachusetts - 1851 - 1957
- Elgin Watch Company: Elgin, Ohio - 1864 -1964
- Hamilton Watch Company: Lancaster, Pennsylvania - 1892 - Present
- E.Howard & Co: Roxbury, Massachusetts - 1858 -1903
- Howard Watch Company (a.k.a. Keystone): Waltham, Massachusetts - 1902 -1930
- Hampden Watch Company: Springfield, Massachusetts and Canton, Ohio - 1877 - 1930
- Illinois Watch Company: Springfield, Illinois - 1869 - 1297
- Rockford - Rockford, Illinois: 1873 – 1915
- Seth Thomas - Thomaston, Connecticut: 1883 – 1915
The value of a railroad pocket watch depends heavily on the make, model and condition. Many of the more common watches such as those manufactured by Waltham or Elgin can sell for around $300 - $600 in good condition.
Rarer watches, such as the earlier watches by the Ball Watch Company, can sell for several thousand dollars depending on the model.