Stepping Back in Time: An Horological Visit to Lancaster, PA
To the casual observer, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with its tidy towns and the waft of manure from plowed fields on the spring breeze, is a far cry from the vaunted watchmaking regions of Europe. But there are similarities between this rolling farmland and the mountain valleys of Switzerland and Germany: a history of rural isolation, strong Puritan work ethic and cold winters.
A mechanical timepiece is truly a universe on your wrist, whether conceived in the workshops of mountain villages in the Jura or the farm country of central Pennsylvania.
I flew in to Harrisburg International Airport one balmy weekend in April with two family heirlooms in my carry-on bag, both Hamilton pocketwatches I intended to bring back to their birthplace: Lancaster. They had belonged to my grandfathers, one on each side of the family tree. Both are railroad-issue timepieces, sturdy and accurate in their day, with lever-set movements, gold plated cases made somewhere in Illinois, and enamel dials. One, a calibre 924, was built prior to 1910 and was in rough shape, missing its hands and both its hairspring and mainspring, no doubt cannibalized sometime during the mid-century to repair another watch. This one belonged to my father’s father and spent countless years in the chest pocket of his coveralls while he worked as a line foreman for the Soo Line railroad. The last watchmaker’s signature scratched inside the caseback says “1948.”
The other Hamilton, a 1920s calibre 992, belonged to my mother’s grandfather and had seen considerably more pampering. The decorated case still shines, and a few twists of the crown starts the big balance wheel swinging its dutiful 18,000 beats per hour. If not for a small chip on its Montgomery dial, this one could have been made within the past decade rather than the Roaring ’20s.
Railroad pocketwatch 992
Railroad pocketwatch specifications dictated a minimum of 17 jewels, 5-position adjustment and a lever set movement, all of which the famous calibre 992 possessed. Over 600,000 of these were made during a production run that spanned from 1903 to 1941. It’s perhaps the finest American pocketwatch made, and you can pick one up for a few hundred bucks on eBay.
Commissioned for the U.S. Navy, the Type 21 and Type 22 marine chronometers were used as navigation instruments on naval ships in all theatres of World War II. A two-day power reserve and a fuse-and-chain mechanism ensured accuracy and reliability in the days before LORAN and GPS.
The first electric watch was invented by Hamilton in 1957 and the technology appeared in various forms, including the asymmetric Ventura, a watch famously worn by Elvis Presley. The Electric disappeared right around the time the first quartz watch was introduced in 1969.
Hamilton was one of the companies in the late-’60s race to introduce the world’s first self-winding chronograph. In a partnership with Heuer, Breitling, Dubois-Depraz and Buren, the resulting Calibre 11, or Chrono-matic movement, with its micro-rotor and distinctive left-hand crown position, appeared in various watches, including the Hamilton Pan-Europ.
Mechanical watches are wonderful heirlooms, their mainsprings releasing the energy of generations of hands that wound them. I have taken great pleasure unscrewing the casebacks of both of these relics, admiring the hand-decorated bridges and wheels and the engraved place of origin: “Lancaster, PA.” That place always conjured up a pastoral scene in my mind, a land of Amish buggies and stone farm fences, a place that time forgot. But a visit to the Keystone state showed me that watchmaking is alive and well in the U.S., and that for any self-respecting American watch enthusiast, a visit to this cradle of American watchmaking is a must. Save yourself the expensive ticket and the French lessons. Catch a flight, or better yet, make a road trip, to Lancaster.
In Europe, horological history is well preserved and the culture continues to thrive. City centers have historic clock towers that chime every hour, famous horologists are entombed at Westminster and pilgrimages can be made to the great watchmaking meccas of the Vallée de Joux and Glashütte. In the United States, we don’t have much left from our days as a watchmaking powerhouse. There are a handful of American towns where watches were built, such as Elgin, Illinois and Waltham, Massachusetts; even in those places, little evidence remains beyond the odd plaque and antique shop watch cases. But Lancaster County, Pennsylvania continues to be a trove of American watch lore.
Lancaster was home to the Hamilton Watch Company from 1892 until the mid-1980s and was, at one time, producer of some of the finest timepieces in the world. While Europe had a long tradition of handcrafted, complicated timepieces, American companies were the first to industrialize the watchmaking process, scaling it from the artisanal to the mass produced, while preserving a level of quality control envied around the world. In fact, it was a certain F.A. Jones of Boston who took what he learned from the American watch industry and brought it to Schaffhausen, Switzerland in 1868, establishing the International Watch Company (IWC) to produce American-style, sturdy but simple pocketwatches in large numbers. American watches focused on accuracy and durability over complications and ornate decoration to suit the needs of an expanding nation. The growth of railroads in the U.S. drove the need for precise timepieces to keep trains on schedule and prevent accidents. Hamilton became the watch that timed America’s railroads.
Google Maps directed me through a busy, rundown part of Lancaster, and after a right turn on Columbia Avenue, I thought it was a mistake when I heard, “Your destination is on your right”. Yet there it was: the Hamilton Watch Company factory. I pulled into a Turkey Hill convenience store parking lot and switched off the rental car. Keeping an eye on the seedy characters in the car next to me, I fished my two pocketwatches out of my bag and stepped out, beginning to question if this was a good idea. I dodged traffic on Columbia and ran across to the large iron gate surrounded by hedges. Sure enough, there, between the black iron bars, were a large gold “H” and “W” — Hamilton Watch.
I managed to squeeze past the gate and walked up the brick path. The main building was still impressive in the late afternoon sun, its 90-foot clock tower standing regally over the red brick building where millions of watches were built, including the two I had in my pockets. I wandered the grounds for a while — past a daycare center that now occupied the newer wing of the former factory — and sat on a wooden bench below the main entrance. An elderly woman emerged from the door with a small dog, out for a walk. The building was now an apartment complex; I wondered if the people who lived there appreciated the history of their homes. I wanted badly to sneak in and walk the halls but thought better of it, instead cranking up the old 992 and letting it tick in the shadow of a building it had left almost one hundred years earlier.
While the Hamilton Watch factory may be a watch geek’s pilgrimage, in the end, there’s not much to see. But 20 minutes west of Lancaster, down U.S. Route 30, is the quaint river town of Columbia, where watchmaking history comes to life at the National Watch and Clock Museum. The museum contains one of the most impressive collections of timepieces anywhere in the world. There’s everything from a roomful of antique European long case clocks to a Breguet pocketwatch given as a gift to Napoleon’s sister, Seikosha aircraft clocks and Russian submarine clocks. But of course, in Lancaster County, it’s the American timepieces that take center stage: pocket- and wristwatches from the golden age of American watchmaking, from long-forgotten brands like Howard, Hampden and Ingersoll to the more famous Waltham, Elgin and, of course, Hamilton.
Hamilton is now Swiss-owned, by the Swatch Group no less, and is related to its American past in name only. The museum has a small display of Hamilton’s modern watches, but, despite being fine timepieces, juxtaposed next to the historic collection from Lancaster they pale in comparison. Here Hamilton’s role as a premiere American brand becomes obvious, painted among its railroad pocketwatches and some of the thousands of precision marine chronometers that helped the U.S. Navy navigate through two World Wars. While it’s easy to get nostalgic and a little melancholy at the loss of the great American watch industry, a step outside of the museum and a look across the street is all that’s needed to find evidence that the watchmaking tradition remains alive and well.
The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors have a School of Horology that runs a vibrant schedule of classes here geared to enthusiast tinkerers, jewelers and watchmakers. I signed up for the two-day “Servicing a Pocketwatch” course, which was taught by a young watchmaking couple who met at the prestigious, Rolex-funded Lititz School a few miles up the road. Over the course of a weekend, the nine of us in the class practiced rebuilding vintage Elgin pocketwatches, starting with simple disassembly and working up to replacing a mainspring, lubricating moving parts and resetting jewels. While intimidating at first, I found the keys to watchmaking success are patience, breath control, organization — and caffeine abstinence.
By Sunday afternoon, I was given a modern Swiss ETA 6497 calibre to play with, a movement that is found in various guises from Swiss Army watches up to $5,000 Panerais. I was struck by how little watch movements have changed in the past century, even between the American and the Swiss, a testament to the ingenuity that is the watch. The mechanical timepiece may come the closest to man-made perfection; it is truly a universe in your pocket or on your wrist, whether conceived in the workshops of mountain villages in the Jura or the farm country of central Pennsylvania.
My last stop, in the small town of Mount Joy, was a fitting bookend to a visit that started at the old Hamilton watch factory. Navigating past farm vehicles down the narrow Main Street, I found the historic bank building that is home to the RGM Watch Company. RGM is an American watch company through and through, still making watches in small numbers, by traditional means. It was founded by Roland G. Murphy, an American who spent some years in Switzerland before returning to Pennsylvania in 1992 to start his own atelier — though he would probably never call it that.
While RGM sells some watches that contain third party Swiss movements, it is best known for its classically American in-house movements, such as the Calibre 801, Pennsylvania tourbillon and the new Calibre 20. These movements bear the slow beat rate, oversized balance wheels and traditional finishing of classic Hamilton pocketwatches, and their bridges are engraved with the “Lancaster” name, carrying forward that proud tradition. The watches are housed in beautiful coin-edged cases that look decidedly mid-century with engine-turned barleycorn-patterned dials. RGM is a stubbornly traditional brand, limiting production to only about 400 watches per year, most going to seasoned collectors looking to add some rare New World influence to their collections.
It should come as no surprise that RGM is also an expert source for vintage pocketwatch repair, and as such I had come with the fullest intention to leave my long-dormant Hamilton 924 for resurrection before I flew back home. But my pocketwatch repair course had imbued me with a newfound confidence, and my visit to Lancaster had become a very personal journey — one that I intended to continue in my own home with the repair of grandpa’s railroad Hamilton. So I tucked the watch back into my pocket and drove back to the airport, noting as I left Lancaster County that I did not have much time to spare.