My grandfather’s pocket watch

This was something I wrote without any real clear idea of where to publish it. I just ended up posting it here on my blog, and then on Facebook.


My grandfather was an engineer for the Boston & Albany Railroad. This was his pocket watch. It is a Ball Official Standard. I think it was made in the 1920s, but I’m not sure.

grampa's watchWatches were a big deal for railroad people back in the old days, because time was critical in the railroad business. Getting somewhere on schedule mattered, but it was more than that.

Maybe a freight train is coming from the opposite direction. Maybe you need to pull your train onto a siding to let it pass. If your watch is eight or nine minutes slow, and the other freight gets to the siding before you do, the trains could collide.

That’s what happened in Kipton, Ohio on April 18, 1891, in what came to be known as the Great Kipton Train Disaster. It was a train wreck that killed nine people, six of them postal clerks, and it changed time forever.

Here is what happened:

The fast mail train known as #14, with three mail cars and two parlor cars, was headed west at full speed on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad tracks, about 40 miles west of Cleveland. Coming in the other direction, at much slower speed, was the Toledo Express, a train consisting of five coaches and two baggage cars.

great kipton

This is one of the engines involved in the 1893 Kipton train crash

At an earlier stop, the Toledo Express crew had been instructed to pull onto a siding up ahead at Kipton to let the mail train pass. And they would have done that, were it not for some issues involving the crew’s watches.

The conductor of the Toledo Express said later that he never looked at his watch, thinking that the engineer would look after the schedule. But a later investigation revealed that the engineer’s watch had stopped working for a critical four minutes before starting up again. A few miles out of Kipton, the engineer thought he had a comfortable seven minutes to get his train out of the way of the oncoming mail train, when he actually had just three.

The engineer of the mail train saw the Toledo Express on the tracks ahead and hurriedly applied the brakes, but it was too late. Here is what the Atlanta CONSTITUTION newspaper said of the crash:

“The engine of the Toledo Express was knocked squarely across the track, and that of the fast mail reared in the air, resting on the top of the other… The first and second mail cars were telescoped and smashed to kindling wood, and the third crashed into the first two and rolled over on the station platform, breaking the windows of the building.”

The crash was big news across the country, and it resulted in an investigation that found the Toledo Express crew to be at fault. The investigation also focused on the engineer’s faulty watch.

And this is where we get back around to Grandfather Frederick’s Ball Official Standard pocket watch.

After the crash, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad appointed a Cleveland jeweler, Webster Ball, to investigate the railroad’s timekeeping issues. Ball found that railroad crews did not use any particular time or watch standards in their work. Two years after the crash, in 1893, Ball produced a new set of standards. From that time on, railroad pocket watches had to be accurate to within 30 seconds per week; have 15 jewels; and had to have a white face and black Arabic numerals. Since variances in temperature could cause watches to speed up or slow down, they also had to be temperature compensated.

Also, the standards required railroad engineers to have their watches inspected regularly. After each successful inspection, the engineers were handed certificates that guaranteed the watches’ reliability. Watch repairs had to be paid for by the engineers themselves, although they could get loaner watches from the jeweler while their own watch was being fixed.

So my grandfather had a Ball watch. So did everyone else in the railroad business at that time.

Ever heard the phrase, “on the ball?” It’s a phrase that relates to promptness and accuracy, and it traces back to Webster Ball.


BA engine

This is a locomotive that was operated by the Boston & Albany Railroad. This photo was taken in Springfield, Mass., my grandfather’s daily destination from Boston. It would be very cool if that was him hanging out of the window, but we’ll never know.

One day in, I think, 1951, my father took me to the Boston & Albany railroad yard in Boston, and we climbed up into my grandfather’s engine. I was 4. We hung on while he hooked up the cars, a process that involved getting the engine up to a little speed backwards and then banging it into some freight cars. I don’t remember much about that, except that it happened quite a few times, and the process involved a lot of banging and clanking and hanging on.

engineer capsA couple of years later, my grandmother and aunt drove me into Boston in my aunt’s blue Ford. We pulled off to the side of Storrow Drive near what is now Boston University, and waited near a railroad overpass. In a while, my grandfather’s train approached the overpass – right on time, I assume, because of his Ball Official Standard. He waved out the window, and blew the air horn. He was even wearing one of those blue-and-white striped engineer’s caps, which I just learned you can still buy at Wal-Mart for about 10 bucks.

My grandfather worked hard all his life, was lucky enough to have a good job through the Depression, and he was looking forward to retirement. But in 1956, at age 64 and just six months before collecting his good railroad pension, he walked home from the bus stop one night, climbed into bed, and died of a massive heart attack. The unfiltered Chesterfields he had smoked all his life finally caught up with him.

Many years later, when I was about 64, his daughter (my aunt) died, and I got my grandfather’s Ball Official Standard pocket watch. It was the only thing I wanted.