Train Time | Letters | Chicago Reader

Train Time 

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To the editors:

These are comments on your review of Mr. O'Malley's book about time [November 30], and I can't be sure which parts of the review are taken from O'Malley and which is your commentary. I hope you will forgive me for choosing you as the most accessible target.

Your review cited the situation whereby a farmer might milk cows all through the year at the same solar time, but have to get his milk to a train--as long as milk traveled by train--that operates on daylight saving time during the summer months. This situation did not arise because the railroads only switched to daylight saving time schedules for suburban trains during the summer months. The intercity passenger trains and freight trains operated on standard (non-daylight saving) time throughout the year. If you wanted to catch the scheduled 8:40 AM train for Indianapolis, you arrived at the depot an hour later if your watch was on daylight saving time.

The review also mentioned the watches carried by railroad men. The railroads would only accept certain makes and models and they had to be presented to a RR watch inspector at regular intervals, but the railroads were not generous employers. They most emphatically did not supply the watches. The railroad employees had to buy their own, just as the passenger conductor had to buy his blue uniform with shiny buttons bearing "NYC" or "L&N." Railroad men bought these large and expensive approved watch movements and then paid additional amounts for a suitable watch case. A freight fireman would have an expensive watch movement in a cheap nickel-plated case secured to the bib of his overalls by a leather fob. A hotshot passenger conductor would have his watch in a gold case on one end of the chain draped across his vest. Wrist watches were considered effeminate and did not become popular until WWI, but they were never approved for railroad use.

I grew up in the twenties in a railroad household and lived on dinner-table railroad gossip. Both my father and grandfather were railroad telegraphers and they sometimes used the clicking of a knife-fork against the dinner plate to exchange private comments, a practice which was not appreciated by my mother.

John J. Bowen

Orland Park

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