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The Peoria Watch: once the official watch of the Santa Fe Railroad

Nancy-Lee Mauger

When looking back on Peoria’s rich manufacturing past, tractors and whiskey tend to get most of the attention while the Peoria Watch Co. often gets lost in time.

But, during an admittedly brief period—from 1886 to 1888--the company produced one of the finest and most innovative timepieces in the country, noted historian Steve Gossard on WCBU’s “Postmark Peoria” series with Steve Tarter.

The Bloomington-based Gossard detailed how the company came to locate in Peoria in 1886 after stops in Newark, N.J., Chicago, San Francisco and Fredonia, N.Y. Despite all the moves, the Peoria Watch Co. immediately distinguished itself with its claim as “the only anti-magnetic watch manufactured in this country.” That was an important attribute for those working in the railway business booming at the time.

Advertised as the official watch of the Santa Fe Railway, the ad line was “any railroad man who has ever used ‘the Peoria watch’ will never use another.” The watches in question, of course, were pocket watches. Wristwatches wouldn’t catch on with the public until the World War I era, said Gossard.

Lydia Moss Bradley, founder of Bradley University, invested $250,000 in the company, the equivalent of $8 million in today’s currency, allowing the firm to build a three-story building in Peoria.

But two years later, the Peoria Watch Co. was in trouble. The firm’s secretary was arrested for embezzling and the daily production of watches had fallen to 20 a day, a far cry from the 1,400 watches being produced each day by Elgin, the largest watch company at the time, said Gossard.

The company closed in 1888 after having produced some 40,000 watches, said Gossard, who owns several of the historic timepieces, himself. “Some of the watches produced by the Peoria Watch Co. are quite valuable today,” he said.

While the Peoria Watch had its day, watchmaking lived on in Peoria at the Bradley Polytechnic Institute (as Bradley University was known when it opened in 1897). The school’s horological department, which closed in 1961, graduated 11,000 students in just over 60 years who were tutored in the art of making timepieces. Westlake Hall, a building on the Bradley campus, was previously known as Horology Hall.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.