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Time Keeping Was Critical For Early Railroads

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone, I hope you’re having a good week.  Over the years we’ve covered a lot of aspects of railroading but this week I’d like to write about something that today would seem trivial – the watch.  

In the early days of railroading the Illinois Central main lines were all single track.  This meant that freights had to give the right-of-way to passenger or express trains.  South bound trains had the right-of-way to north bound.  Orders were specific as to where a freight was to take the siding for any passenger trains – north or south.          

Steam engines had no speedometers so the only way to judge the speed was to time the distance between the mile posts with the watch.  In the beginning only pocket watches were authorized by the railroads.  Each watch had to be certified once a quarter by an authorized watch repairman.  

An employee could be suspended instantly if the trainmaster asked for a watch comparison and it wasn’t up to date.  He could be terminated if he didn’t have his watch on his person. My Dad told me how one of his fireman pawned his watch and the trainmaster fired him.  

You might wonder why the iron clad rule applied to watches but I’ll try to explain it.  If an order said you were to take the siding at Durant for the south bound Panama Limited at 10:59 it didn’t mean 11 –  it might be the difference in the Panama crashing into the rear of the freight or passing by at top speed.  

If the watch was off even a minute it could be a disaster.  In the 19th Century, train wrecks were common – there was no set times. Time was most estimated by the sun. Around 1885 different railroads held a meeting and established four time zones across the United States.  

This helped reduce wrecks but since trains were practically all single track lines, timing was still vital.  The primary brands of watch the railroads would certify were Illinois, Hamilton, and Elgin.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that they certified a Hamilton wrist watch and this only after the steam engines had passed into history.  

Today the diesel engines have two way radios and cell phones.   In the early days the brakemen had the most dangerous job on the road.  Many were coupled between cars when they had to step in between to couple the air hoses. The only signal at night between the engineer and the brakeman was the lantern.  I’ve heard old timers talk about how they would be a little late and  would be sweating making it to a siding on time.  

Another hazard was a freight being longer than the side track  and the brakeman would have to put out flares and torpedoes to warn the oncoming train.  In that case a saw-by was necessary.          

This required the freight train going through the siding onto the main line while the passenger train would pull onto the siding. When the rear was cleared the freight would back up enough to clear the other end of the siding so the passenger train would pull back on the main track and continue on its way.  

Today trains consist of more than a hundred cars and sometimes a second engine called a pusher will be on the rear.  In the old days, a second engine would be behind the first engines and was called a double header.

In the 1870s a man named George Pullman took a cross country trip on a train and it was such a miserable ride in the day coaches of those days that he came back to Chicago and designed the first sleeping car – which became known as a Pullman.

His design was an instant success and Pullman constructed a town on the outskirts of Chicago to house his workers.  Eventually Pullman had his own porters that serviced the Pullman passengers.  As a child, I rode in Pullmans and it was a first class experience. In the 1930s American Airlines adopted the idea and outfitted a DC3 with beds converted from the seats.         

The Pan Am China Clipper that crossed the Pacific before World War II also had sleepers for the passengers.  Well, as  usual I rambled all over the place, but I hope you found it interesting.  

I always welcome input, so let me hear from you.  My email address is or write me at P.O. Box 613190 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great week.

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