A Springfield railroad watch comes home

91-year-old watch still keeps time

One of the most fascinating pieces of Springfield’s history is, at least to me, the Illinois Watch Company. Renowned in its day for accurate and beautiful watches, the company operated in Springfield under a succession of different monikers from 1869 (or 1870, depending on the source) until 1932. I'm lucky enough to own a piece of that history.

The Illinois Watch Company factory was located near Lanphier High School, on the site of what is now the headquarters of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. It was on the cutting edge of mass producing watch movements – a new concept at the time – and at its peak, the company employed about 1,200 people.

My grandfather, Merle Wacker, owned one of the Illinois Watch Company’s most popular and revered models, the Bunn Special. He was a train engineer until his unexpected death in 1977, and when he died, my mom and dad got his watch. They recently passed it along to me, and I couldn’t be more excited.

It’s no wonder the IWC was so well-regarded: despite being 91 years old and having sat mostly idle for about 40 years, this thing still runs. A very cursory test showed that it still keeps pretty good time. Although the crystal (the window covering the watch face) is a bit cloudy, the movement (the internal gears and such) is absolutely beautiful.

The serial number (4514355) on the movement places the year of manufacture at 1924, according to this list. The watch was probably used when my grandpa got it, and he likely bought it second-hand from another railroad man who either retired or died. Each engineer had to buy his own watch, and they were considered something of an investment because you couldn’t be a railroad engineer without one.

You can tell this watch was used often because of the heavy wear on the case, especially the stem. The case is the original “Wadsworth” 10k gold-plated “open” style, meaning it didn’t have a metal cover over the crystal. The back of the case screws on, and inside the back cover, there are tiny engravings from watch repairmen recording their adjustments. In the days before computers, railroad watches were one of the most important tools in keeping trains from colliding. Everyone had to be on the same time, so these watches were required to be serviced at regular intervals.

It’s worth noting that there’s a modern Illinois Watch Company in Quincy, and it’s my understanding that they hope to someday start making watches once more. If that happens, they’ll be one of the only – if not THE only – watchmakers in the United States.

I also have a padlock and two keys from the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (CCC & StL), which my grandfather worked on. The lock still works. 

The CCC & StL was commonly known as the “Big Four” because it was a conglomeration of four major systems. It operated from 1889 until 1976. My grandfather worked on the Peoria and Eastern Railway, one of the branches of the CCC & StL which passed through Bloomington.

I’m not sure under what circumstances this lock and keys were “liberated,” but the company that owned the railroad no longer exists, as it was bought by another company and later broken up into several other companies, one of which was the predecessor to Amtrak. 

Although my Grandpa Merle died before I was born, owning a piece of something that defined him gives me a sense of his time and place in the world. For reasons beyond my understanding, knowledge of our ancestors and their history gives us grounding in our own lives. Perhaps it gives us something to aspire to. Maybe it informs a small part of who we are. Whatever the reason, knowing that the watch my grandfather carried every day was made in the city I’ve chosen to call home makes me feel more connected to him and to Springfield.

Check out larger pictures in the slideshow.

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