In 1859, the iron tracks of the Sunbury & Erie Railroad stretched to Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, bringing regular train service within a few miles of the Woolrich mill. Yet while regular train service brought a massive building boom to central Pennsylvania, that wasn’t its only legacy. It also inspired the creation of one of Woolrich’s most enduring designs: the Railroad Vest.
Also known as the “Utility Vest,” the original styling is graced with rough charcoal wool, and a light grey pinstripe. The material is thick enough to feel immediately warm and durable, yet smooth enough to make the call for an evening out on the town. As appealing as the material is, it’s the pockets that make this piece truly tick. Today’s wearers turn to the Woolrich Railroad Vest to stash their iPhones, business cards, notebooks, screwdrivers, fly boxes, digital cameras, and everything and anything you can think of.
But originally, it was all about the pocket watch. Keeping time for a railroad man in the 1800s was about more than just getting passengers to their destination on time. It was to help decide whether to allow another train onto a single stretch of tracks.
When things went well, pocket watches hummed and trains moved smoothly between growing hubs of commerce in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. But when they went bad, due to a watch stopping for example, tragedy followed.
In 1891, the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railways experienced just such a failure, as a conductor’s watch failed in Kipton, Ohio. A mail train collided with a passenger train just 50 feet from the depot station, and eight people died. Perhaps the only bright spot of the crash was the appointment of Webb C. Ball as Chief Time Inspector for the railroads. A jeweler and watchmaker from Cleveland, Ball was tasked with identifying the cause of the accident, and ensuring it never happened again.
Ball’s work led to the creation of railroad-wide standards for time keeping. By the early 1900s, railroad watches were subject to numerous requirements such as only using American-made watches, only having open-faced dials, and having a maximum variation of four seconds per day.
If you’re snooping around for a collector’s item, the earliest major brands of railroad-grade watches were the Waltham Watch Company and the Elgin Watch Company. The Hamilton Watch Company and Illinois Watch Company are another couple to look out for.
And when you find that watch, make sure to put it here.