Railway Time Pieces

Precision time keeping was essential to the railways in order to make sure there wouldn’t be an accident with two trains on the same line at the same time. In the very early years of railroad transport in Canada and the US, little importance was placed on standardized time as each city, town and railroad had their own local time system. The Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) was considered a pioneer in accurate time keeping and first proposed the concept of Worldwide Standard Time in February 1879 (2018). By 1883, numerous railroad lines in North America dropped their arbitrary times they were using and adopted the Standard Railway Time (SRT), a new standard time system which used standardized time zones to run safer and more effective rail operations. However, it wasn’t until a tragic collision between two trains near Cleveland, Ohio in 1891 that brought forth the importance of watch/clock standardization and a watch inspection system.

Canadian Pacific Railway Station Clock, Seth Thomas Clock Company, circa 1880

The “World” model clocks were the standard timepieces used in CP Rail stations around Canada. The clocks were used to maintain accurate railway time at each station and for operating personnel to set their watches to the standard time. These standard timepieces were most often hung in waiting rooms, refreshment rooms, ticketing and administrative offices. This particular clock hung in the waiting room at the McAdam Railway Station and was given as a retirement gift by the Agent at the time to a former CPR employee for his 50 years of service, in 1968.

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Pocket watch use peaked in the late 19th century as railroads needed highly accurate precision time pieces so their locomotive engineers and conductors could maintain strict schedules to avoid collisions with other trains. Railroad watches were known as “standard” watches because they met the railroad’s standards of time keeping. A watch maker would come to the “Station” regularly and do routine checks of CPR employee watches to make sure they were all set at the right time. This was particularly true of the engineers and conductors. This pocket watch belonged to former CPR employee who worked at McAdam Railway Station in the early part of the 20th century. The American Waltham Watch Company had its beginnings in 1850 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. It moved to Waltham, MA in 1853 and over the years, changed names multiple times. Their original vision was to produce inexpensive watches of good quality by using interchanging parts. During the Civil War, the company faced hard times but was able to maintain operations by cutting expenses to the lowest possible level which was a successful strategy. Even Abraham Lincoln carried a Waltham William Ellery model pocket watch which was produced in 1863 (2018).

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Pocket Watch, American Waltham Watch Company, 1908