Railroad Biographies Jacob Bachtold


Jacob Bachtold was the Grand Central Terminal Clockmaker.

(Photo clipped from an old New York Central Headlight)



The real works behind the 1,000 clocks at Grand Central Terminal, where time is an immutable law dispatching trains on the precise second and shutting gates in the path of sprinting commuters, is Jake – Jacob Bachtold-Clockmaster of the Terminal for the past 42 years.

As the minion of the law of time, Jake makes a daily tour of inspection, Mondays through Saturdays, to all the principal seventy-five clocks of the Terminal which lay down the law to would-be train-catchers. The tour also takes him behind the scenes into the offices of the railroad operating departments where clocks govern the dispatching of trains and crews. Jake makes this tour with his own prized pocket watch in hand, covering the almost three miles in an hour, including short stops for minor adjustments to erring timepieces.

Jake is a mild-mannered man with a shaggy mane of sparse white hair and blue eyes peering through thick lensed glasses, a casualty of his profession. At 68, his right hand shakes just a slight bit now and is the reason that he has given up repairing watches at home in spare hours.

He has approximately 1,000 clocks under his care located in the Terminal and its office building and in stations and signal stations and offices as far as the limits of the New York Central’s Electric Division – at Harmon on the Main Line and at White Plains on the Harlem Division. He often catches a train out to these points to fix important clocks that cannot be removed for any length of time; but others are sent into his workshop in the Terminal with a simple note: “Jake, this darn thing keeps losing a minute a day.” The most important clocks under Jake’s care are the Chief Dispatcher’s Master Clock, the great clock over Park Avenue on the facade of the Terminal and, the golden four-faced clock atop the Information Booth on the Upper Level of the Terminal.

Jake checks the Master Clock several times a day, for this clock above all others must be always on the second. Once an hour it automatically sets every other electric clock in the Terminal and is set itself by a wire from Western Union twice a day. It is this clock which all train schedules must obey.
The Park Avenue clock gets Jake’s careful attention twice a week. He reaches this clock by climbing several ladders to a platform where he keeps tools and oil for this special job. which consists in cleaning and oiling the great mechanism and leaning out windows in the clock to tighten screws and clean the stained glass face.

The golden four-faced clock Jake keeps especially accurate because it is the arbiter of many a possible argument between a late commuter and a gateman who has just slammed shut a train gate. When a frustrated commuter begins to wind up about shutting the gate early, the gateman merely has to point to the golden clock. Its graceful form framed in highly-polished brass, this famous clock carries a prestige and authority which is never questioned.

Jake was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, and got his first job as a helper in a local watchmaker’s shop at the age of 12. When he was 16 he became an apprentice and at the age of 23 he left Switzerland for the land of opportunity. Within a day on landing at New York City he had a job with the Wittnauer Watch Company on Maiden Lane. Three years later he entered the service of the New York Central at Grand Central Terminal, where he has been ever since, seeing the number of clocks under his care grow in number from 200 to 1,000. They take up his full time now, but in the early days he worked during spare time installing electric wiring in the Terminal, which was then under construction. 

Jake is married and lives in Brooklyn. He arrives at work sharp at 8:15 a. m. and begins his day immediately he steps from the subway by glancing critically at the clock above the stairs from the East Side IRT

From The American Horologist and Jeweler magazine, January, 1946. Courtesy of ELGINTIME.COM


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