Few images are more iconic of the golden age of American railroading than that of the train conductor dutifully checking his pocket watch. A quality timepiece was an inseparable component of the uniform; conductors wore them with pride and bought the very best they could afford. However, the importance of the railroad pocket watch went far beyond a smart appearance. In the days of “single tracking” when trains moving in opposite directions shared the same track, precision timekeeping was a matter of life and death.
The need for accurate timepieces was recognized in the earliest days of the railroad. In the 1850s, railroads began establishing regulations for the pocket watches of critical employees. As the rail system grew, railroad operators faced the need to maintain ever tighter schedules on ever more crowded tracks. Two of the many challenges to this tempo were the reliability of the timepieces in use, and the lack of a “standard” time. Conductors routinely synchronized to the local time at the station where they reported, resulting in dozens of railway timezones throughout the country. A number of dramatic accidents blamed on timekeeping errors highlighted the need for a more robust system.
In the 1890s the railroads attacked the problems on both fronts. The railroads established four times zones, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. (Decades later the United States Congress followed suit and used these zones to set the national standard.) To address the time-keeping issue, the railroads approached the watch industry and asked it to pursue more accurate and higher grade pocket watches for use by conductors and engineers.
American watch makers rose to the challenge and made a superior railroad watch. Pocket watch inspections were set up by each railroad, and any watch that gained or lost more than 30 seconds in one week had to be repaired by an approved watchmaker. Railroad accidents declined significantly as a result of these new standards.
The railroad industry produced a set of operating specifications for the watchmakers to follow. Many of the major pocket watchmakers, including Elgin, Waltham, Illinois and Hamilton, began making railroad pocket watches that met the railroad specs.
Some of the technical specifications for railroad watches mandated that each watch have:
Besides the stringent technical standards, most importantly the watches had to be reliable, which meant standing up to the constant jarring and swaying of early trains. Identifying Antique Railroad Watches
It would be nice if a railroad watch could be identified by an etching on the case, a graphic on the watch face or wording on the watch. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A true antique railroad watch must meet the specifications set by the railroads, which is known to collectors as ‘railroad grade’, and they must have been either listed by one or more railroads as approved for railroad service or accepted by a railroad inspector.
To identify a railroad watch, use the specifications checklist above to make sure it is truly ‘railroad grade.’ Some of the most commonly seen railroad pocket watches include:
The most common question about antique railroad watches is “How much is it worth?” There’s no easy answer to this question. Generally, railroad watches can cost anywhere in the range of $50 for the more common examples to $5,000 or more for finer or more rare watches.
Like any antique watch, value is based on:
The pocket watch should have all of its parts; the original box is a collector’s delight.
Watches made of gold, silver or plate are inherently more valuable than pocket watches with brass cases.
Look for wear and tear, scratches, hairline cracks, dents or marks on the metal, as well as areas where the gold plate is rubbed off. Fading or stains on the face or repairs to the face are considered condition issues as well. All functions should work, and value is added if the watch has documentation showing that it has been cleaned and maintained by a professional every few years.
Any collector knows the rule ‘buy the best you can afford,’ and pocket watches are no different. The number of jewels is an indicator of quality, with the most highly prized watches having 21 or more jewels. The number of positions adjusted in railroad pocket watches is normally five, which is often marked on the movement, but there are some finer examples with six. Another indicator of high quality would be a watch that is marked as adjusted for temperature.
The antique tradeis a supply and demand market, and hard to find examples of railroad watches can command top dollar. The sky is the limit when two collectors compete at auction for a rare example.
Provenance, which is the history of an item, can add value to any antique. Ownership by a famous or historically-important person adds to the value of any item, but paperwork or proof is needed. Most monograms or personal inscriptions on a case detract from the value of a watch, unless it is inscribed to a well known person or the inscription recognizes a historical event, such as a political or historical event. Unfortunately, this type of inscription is easy to fake by an unscrupulous seller by adding the engraving later, so look for corroborating materials such as invoices, photos or presentation materials.
Family history can be a good starting point for provenance, and it can provide a basis for further research, but it is often not reliable and must be confirmed by another source.
Examples of prices of railroad watches, all in working condition, include:
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