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Running on railroad time

Summer 2015


At first blush, the keynote speaker at this year’s National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors convention might seem to be an unexpected choice: Executive Chairman Wick Moorman. In fact, inviting the leader of a U.S. railroad, whose business success depends on on-time train performance, was inspired.

Accurate timekeeping has always been crucial for safe, efficient operations on Norfolk Southern and its predecessor railroads. In the late 19th century, railroads were the leading market for American clockmakers, with high-quality, reliable timepieces placed in rail stations, offices, and shops. In the 1880s, the railroads were a driving force behind the creation of the country’s four time zones.

Moorman had plenty to share at the collectors’ annual meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn. – from photos of antique grandfather clocks housed in NS’ McKinnon and Goode buildings to his own 45-year-old Accutron wristwatch, the first railroad-approved watch not wound manually. Moorman purchased the watch in 1970 when he joined Southern Railway’s Engineering Department as a Georgia Tech co-op student. He said it still keeps accurate time.

Wick Moorman’s Accutron wristwatch.


Most of the antique clocks in NS’ collection date to the late 1800s and early 1900s and once were prominently displayed in stations on predecessor railroads, where timepieces were synchronized across the system to within a few seconds. For 19th-century railroaders, timekeeping was a matter of life and death. Those involved in train operations were required to synchronize their watches with the division’s standard clock before going on duty. During his presentation, Moorman noted several historical instances of train collisions due to conductors’ inaccurate watches. As a result, railroads devised elaborate timetables and rules governing train movement.

In addition to keeping time, many of the station clocks were elaborate structures manufactured from the best woods and embellished with elaborate carvings. “Clocks were made to be great art,” said Donne Jones, NS health promotions manager and a clock aficionado. “NS treasures them. They’re part of our historical legacy.”

That legacy includes a gold pocket watch that Southern Railway President Samuel Spencer was said to be carrying when he was killed in a train accident in Virginia in 1906. The watch is now kept in NS’ historical archives.

Wristwatches like Moorman’s Accutron became certified for use on railroads in the mid-20th century. Prior to that, only pocket watches were used.

One of NS’ most ornate antique clocks, built by E. Howard & Co. in Boston, between 1880 and 1890, is inside the 20th-floor board room at the McKinnon Building.
A pocket watch owned by Samuel Spencer,
a Southern Railway president.

Accurate timekeeping became standardized when the rail industry adopted the General Railroad Timepiece Standards in 1893, which required that all timepieces be railroad approved and inspected by certified watch inspectors every three months. Today, train crews are required to have watches in good working order with hours, minutes, and seconds in Arabic numbers.

The nation’s railroads were the impetus behind creation of American time zones. In the 1800s, some states had more than 30 different zones, with railroads using up to 100 different times. To maintain correct railroad time, passengers traveling from Maine to California had to change their watches 20 times during the trip.

By the 1880s, railroaders knew that the efficient movement of passengers and freight would be seriously compromised without a more uniform timekeeping system. In collaboration, American and Canadian railroads divided the continent into four time zones, creating a standard time. It took effect at noon Nov. 18, 1883.

While many welcomed railroad time, others were vehemently opposed, believing that big business was using standard time to become more powerful. The U.S. attorney general, Benjamin Brewster, refused to accept the time zones, telling government departments to refrain from adopting the system until Congress authorized it. Then, the story goes, Brewster tried to catch a train from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, only to learn that he was eight minutes late. In 1918, Congress approved standard time with passage of The Standard Time Act.      

A legacy of the business

Were it not for former Southern Railway President Bill Brosnan, many of the antique clocks owned by Norfolk Southern might have disappeared into history.

“Mr. Brosnan was interested in clocks and made it a point to make sure clocks didn’t disappear or were sold,” said retired NS Chairman and CEO David Goode.

When Southern merged with Norfolk & Western in 1982 to form NS, historic clocks adorned the offices of almost every Southern executive. With the opening of the McKinnon Building in 1988, most of those clocks ended up in Norfolk, with many taking up residence on the 19th and 20th floors.

Although still in good working order and regularly maintained by a clock repair and restoration service, most of the timepieces are no longer set to keep time. Blame that on the sway of the McKinnon Building, which interferes with the movement of the clocks’ pendulums.

During his tenure as CEO, Goode procured more of the antique clocks, including several when NS took over Conrail’s assets. “When we were closing offices on Conrail, I made it a point to tell somebody on Conrail that I save clocks,” he said. One of them now sits in a board of directors’ committee room on the 20th floor. Its case was made at Juniata Locomotive Works for Conrail’s predecessor, the Pennsylvania Railroad.

A clock located outside the executive dining room was manufactured in England around 1840 for the Central Rail Road and Banking Company of Georgia. Goode recalled visiting the Georgia governor’s office and seeing the clock’s twin, also used on the Central. 

One of NS’ most ornate clocks sits in the 20th-floor board room. Manufactured by E. Howard & Company of Boston between 1880 and 1890, it features a weight-driven, four-jar Mercury style pendulum and walnut case. “That was the zenith of engineering for its time and sold for a significant amount of money,” said Jones. “For American clockmakers, Howard was the Cadillac.”

Other E. Howard & Company clocks are found throughout the McKinnon Building, including several regulator clocks, known as pendulum clocks.

“Regulator clocks were the most accurate clocks in the railroad station,” Jones said. “They were often made for railroads and jewelers who used them to regulate watches being repaired.”  

One of the most unique clocks in the NS collection is a skeletonized Scottish clock, inscribed with the maker’s name: “Alex Witherspoon, Glascow, Scotland. Circa. 1801.” That clock moved with Moorman from the 19th floor to his new office on the McKinnon building’s 13th floor. Other clocks owned by NS were manufactured by the International Time Recording company of Binghamton, N.Y., Standard Electric Time Company of Springfield, Mass., and Seth Thomas of Plymouth Hollow, Conn.