My wristwatch stopped working the other day. It’s hard to get anything fixed while staying home. My generation grew up with wristwatches that showed the time — nothing else.
I’m feeling a little lost without my watch. I’m not a fan of pulling my cellphone out of its case to check the time. I pulled an old pocket watch out of storage, wound it up, and put it back in service.
Pulling out that pocket watch fired up my memories of working for Burlington Northern railroad as a young man. The exact time was critical when it came to working on the railroad. You could say that knowing what was on the tracks at what time was quite significant.
If my memory serves me correctly, which is hit or miss, I ordered a "railroad pocket watch" out of a Montgomery Ward catalog shortly after the railroad hired me almost 50 years ago. I still have the timepiece that I carried for several summers.
The railroad pocket watch was a tradition that goes back to the 1800s. After a few horrific train collisions in the late 1800s, cross-country timetables (schedules), as well as everyone having the correct time with the right watches became a priority. These changes helped the railroads operate much safer.
The railroad mandated that watches be an approved type, such as an open face (no cover over the dial), a number of functional jewels in the movement, and the watches would be inspected regularly to ensure they kept perfect time.
Some railroads required certifications of watches every two weeks. Certification cards were issued and had to be carried. A single track would be traveled by multiple trains. They would pass each other at particular times in town rail yards or on siding tracks.
Departure times by a train and its crew could never be early because others (like a maintenance crew) might still be on the track.
As I remembered all this, I decided to call a couple railroad mates. I worked with both of them once upon a time. John Pitts and Greg Ploeger each worked for the railroad for over 41 years. We had a good time telling stories of some old railroaders who are no longer with us.
John and I worked together on a tie gang the summer of 1976. Greg and I worked together multiple summers on a few different gangs.
Greg was a track inspector for a time and traveled the tracks in a small motor car, between trains, looking for track defects. Knowing exactly when the trains were coming was sort of important.
Both John and Greg had pocket watches early in their career before transitioning to wristwatches and then cellphones as their careers drew to a close.
I recently asked my grandson, a senior in high school, if he would be interested in a wristwatch. He politely said, “No.” Most of you may know that look you get when you bring up something really "old-school." The cellphone is his generation’s timepiece. Darn it, so much for my idea of buying my grandson a nice, sporty watch as a Christmas gift.
I have of late come across articles that indicate the wristwatch is making a bit of a comeback, apparently due to millennials. This may also mean a bit of a comeback for the watchmaking and watch-repair trade. After being discharged from the military, one of my uncles, a Korean War veteran, took up the trade and worked as a watchmaker for 55 years.
Time is still important for John, Greg and me, but in a different sense. I hope someday, my grandson may think an old railroad pocket watch his grandpa left him is pretty cool.
Loren Else lives in Rochester and also writes the Post Bulletin’s “Day in History” column. Send comments and column ideas to Loren at firstname.lastname@example.org.