Train Timekeepers Featured at Lake Superior Railroad Museum

Northland Uncovered: Railroad Watch History

DULUTH, Minn – Railroad tracks cover thousands of miles throughout Minnesota including routes for freight rail, passenger rail and rail transit.

Back in the day, railroad companies helped many industries throughout the area to grow and prosper.

The trains are on time at the Duluth Depot thanks to a new exhibit featuring the watches responsible for railroad success.

“It allows us then to help interpret the impacts that railroading has on the United States from present–day back all the way even into the mid or early–1800s,” said Tim Schandel, Curator for the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.

Time keeping was incredibly important in railroad history, because ensuring these trains were on time could mean saving a life.

“To keep the trains apart it was necessary to know when the next train was coming and when they were due at a particular station,” said Schandel.

This issue brought on a new way of thinking.

“The railroads were one of the first big industries in the United States and as a result they needed to create certain things for themselves,” said Schandel.

These timekeepers introduced four time zones into the United States.

“Time in the United States in the 1850’s and 1860’s was local. By that I mean when the sun was directly overhead, that meant it was noon,” said Schandel.

Schandel explained this practice was a disaster for railroads as time could then vary just from Duluth to Superior, “they all got together as a group and worked through the details and created those four time zones we know today.”

Although this became practice for the railroads it wasn’t made official by the government until about 20 years later.

“It was a valuable tool for you, but again it was an important part of the overall ability to run the railroad safely,” said Schandel.

The watches displayed at the museum are unique.

They’re called a “lever-set pocket watch.”

This means time on them cannot be changed as it would be traditionally.

That’s because stems on the outside of common watches are too easy to accidentally alter, potentially making the time shown on them inaccurate.

“What these have is, you have to screw the face off and when you get the face off there’s a lever, that lever pulls out about a quarter of an inch, that engages the stem to change the time,” Schandel explained.

This made it virtually impossible to accidentally change the time.

Back in the day pocket watches were inspected at the Depot and Security Jewelers.

This exhibit is now open at the Duluth Depot.

The Depot is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Today, Minnesota has 4,444 route miles of railroads serviced by 20 railroad companies.

For more on this exhibit and the entire museum, head to


Categories: Community, Entertainment, News, Northland Uncovered