The transcontinental railroad is, to this day, one of the United States’ greatest technological achievements. Railroad track had to be laid piece by piece over a span of some 2,000 miles of rugged terrain, which involved passing through mountains of solid granite. The railroad was completed in just six years entirely by hand – a legion of Chinese migrant hands to be exact – with a golden spike being hammered into the final tie in Utah on May 10th, 1869. Reporters from over 20 newspapers were in attendance to report the story.
To put this achievement into context, 150 years later in the UK, the first stage of the planned High-Speed rail link known as HS2 between London and Birmingham, a distance of just 126 miles, has so far taken nearly 3 years. It’s likely to cost £42 billion, and passenger services won’t start until 2026. It seems mountains of government bureaucracy are more impassable than those of granite.
The golden spike that completed the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, Utah, 1869 (Public domain)
Meanwhile, back in 1869, it was head-scratching times for anyone keen to try out the amazing new ‘iron horse’ across the broad reaches of the United States. Because although there was a brand-new railroad, throughout the U.S. and Canada, standard time was yet to be introduced. Imagine the confusion. Before the adoption of standard time in 1883, time was set depending on the position of the sun. This resulted in every town and city having its own time zone, making the synchronization of railroad timetables a logistical nightmare.
Ball Watch’s founder Webster Clay Ball was the first jeweler in Cleveland, Ohio, to use the time signals emitted by the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Soon after he began displaying the first chronometer of the city in his store window, people got into the habit of setting their watches by the timepiece on show.
From 1883 onward, U.S. railroad companies put in place a new system to divide the nation into four time zones, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific.
THE KIPTON TRAIN WRECK
On April 18, 1891, disaster struck. At a spot near Kipton station, 40 miles west of Cleveland, Ohio, the fast mail train number 14 collided with the Toledo Express. The fast mail was running at full speed, and the Toledo express was almost where it would traditionally pull over on a siding to let the fast mail pass. Despite having written orders to stop and let the fast train pass, the engineer and conductor of the passenger train did not notice that his watch was running four minutes late. The ensuing collision killed nine men, six of them postal clerks working on the fast mail train.
Webster Clay Ball was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was appointed as Chief Time Inspector by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Co. His mission was to eliminate the unreliability of the watches used on the railroad networks and to implement a system of controls and inspections. Ball introduced standards of quality, accuracy, and design for all the watches used by the railroad. He eventually became the time inspector on more than half the United States’ railways.
Chinese railroad workers in the Sierra Nevada (Public domain)
Regular watch inspections and consistent timekeeping was the only way to prevent trains from running into each other on America’s single-track railways. These railways ran on a single track in both directions. Two trains running in the opposite direction could pass each other at railway stations and other places which had two tracks, one for each direction, for a short distance only.
THE INTRODUCTION OF RAILROAD TIMEPIECE STANDARDS
Adopted since 1893, any watch used in rail service by railroaders responsible for schedules had to meet the following mechanical standards:
The watch must “Be open face, size 18 or 16, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to minimum five positions, adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 to +38 grade Centigrade), steel escape wheel, lever set, micrometric regulation, Lépine caliber and accurate to within 30 seconds per week.
The idea behind these standards was to ensure watches used on the railroads would be reliable, easy to read and accurate. Fortunately, most railroads eventually took on board and adhered to the new standards.
It’s a good thing too because only approved railroad grade watches meeting these standards were allowed, although older railroad grade pocket watches which met the standards could still be used so long as they were in excellent condition and continued to meet the 30 seconds per week requirement.
What happened next is the typical story of American commerce and enterprise in action. America quickly rose to become the preeminent maker of watches, outdoing even the Swiss for high quality and highly efficient mass-produced watches.
There followed an unseemly rush of brands, some Swiss, some American, many now faded into obscurity, to supply pocket watches that met with the new railroad standards. Not least among them, the Ball Standard Railroad Watch. In actual fact, the movements were supplied by top American watch manufacturers, including Hamilton, Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham.
Canadian Pacific and Canadian National sourced approved Swiss brands, both pocket and wristwatches. U.S. railroad companies opted for American watches, due to a traditional policy of “buying American”
The cost of these pocket watches was not borne by the respective railroad companies, but by its hardworking staff who not only risked life and limb on the railroads but were also compelled to buy the approved timepieces at their own cost. Deductions were made each month from their salary over the course of three months to acquire their watch. Conductors and enginemen had to compare their watches before starting on a run or before the start of work each day, other members of the train crew must compare their watches with the conductor’s or engineman’s watch at the first opportunity.
According to regulations, if the watch fell behind or gained 30 seconds in seven or 14 days it was required to be submitted for overhauling or repairs.
Watch standards steadily improved as trains got faster. By the first decade of the new century new smaller model “16-size” watches began to appear in significant quantities.
The era of the American railroad also succeeded in progressing American watchmaking like a steam train.
MODERN DAY RAILROAD INSPIRED WATCHES
Hamilton RailRoad Small Seconds
While this Hamilton RailRoad Small Seconds is really only a “railroad watch” in name rather than following more traditional design cues, the brand is one of several that were producing pocket watches for railway workers back in the day. The separation of its seconds indication, as well as its legible minute track are certainly a nod to this bit of history, though it comes as a surprise that the brand would opt for this style of indices over the more obvious Arabic numerals. Nonetheless, the 42mm self-winding piece is still quite handsome, and a solid dress watch choice for those with larger wrists.
Ball Trainmaster Cleveland Express
Aesthetically speaking, this Ball Trainmaster is easily the most true-to-spec in terms of converting the railroad pocket watch into modern day wrist wear. A crisp white dial, a contrasting and obvious minute track, big legible Arabic numerals—the details are all there, though with seconds migrated to a central position and the addition of a power reserve and large date as 12 o’clock. Ball further enhances the legibility of this piece with the use of Tritium tubes for its luminous markers on the dial and hands.
Omega Seamaster Railmaster Co-Axial
Unlike Ball and Hamilton, this Omega is a nod to more recent history when it comes to watchmaking for railway workers. First launched in 1957, the Railmaster was one of a few competitors (alongside the IWC Ingenieur and Rolex Milgauss) developed with significant magnetic resistance for those working in specific fields—railways being one of them. This isn’t the first time that Omega tried bringing back the Railmaster in recent history either; in 2003 the brand brought back a slew of models, including a very peculiar example measuring 49.2mm across and powered by a hand-wound chronometer-spec 6498-2 ETA/Unitas movement. Personally, I think this second reboot attempt is miles more on point.
FAMOUS AMERICAN WATCH BRANDS OF THE RAILROAD ERA
Ball Official Railroad Standard 999
The brand that coined the phrase ‘on the ball’, it was Webb C. Ball’s system that set the standard for railroads and also helped establish accuracy and uniformity in timekeeping. The Ball Trainmaster series is the brand’s still available tribute to their pioneering role in railroad grade watchmaking.
Founded in 1864 in Elgin, Illinois, the Elgin Watch Company (also known as the Elgin National Watch Company) was the largest American watch manufacturer in terms of total production. Elgin produced approximately half of the total number of “better quality” pocket watches manufactured in the United States. Total production over their 100 years of operation reached 60 million watches. Their symbol was Father Time himself.
The famous Hamilton 992B Railway Special
Known as ‘the watch of railroad accuracy’ the first watch made under the Hamilton name was an 18-size 17-jewel pocket watch in 1893. Over the course of the next six years, Hamilton had developed a reputation for creating pocket watches whose quality and accuracy exceeded the strict “railroad pocket watch” requirements. During Hamilton’s first fifteen years, only two size movements were produced – the 18-size and the smaller 16-size.
The Waltham watch company, and the earlier American Waltham Watch Co., which had a variety of locations over the many years it was in operation (including Waltham, Massachusetts), was in business from 1851 to 1957 and was one of the most prolific of the American watch companies.