Collectors often say that every vintage watch has a story. These tales may chronicle legendary exploits, great tragedies, or simply the ups and downs of an ordinary life. Whatever the narrative, it’s always fascinating to delve into the unique connection between a trusted timepiece and its owner.
When we receive a watch repair order for a 1969 Omega Speedmaster Professional, for example, we can’t help but think of the one that stepped onto the moon with Buzz Aldrin. Was our client or one of their relatives also a NASA astronaut? Maybe the original watch owner had a fascination for all things space? Or perhaps this timepiece’s story has nothing to do with space, but instead represents a beloved family heirloom?
As veteran horologists, we get excited to discover the tale behind a person’s vintage watch. In that spirit, we’d like to share the stories of three heroic watch owners and the timepieces that lived on to memorialize them:
1. Todd Beamer, 32-Year-Old Oracle Account Manager
According to his father, David, Todd Beamer was a picture of success. He had recently been promoted, loved his family, and had reached that stage in his life and career where he wanted to own a symbol of everything he had accomplished thus far. So, as his dad did before him, Todd bought a 36mm gold and steel Rolex Datejust “Turn-O-Graph” and wore it proudly.
As usual, Todd’s Rolex accompanied him on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as he boarded United Flight 93 to San Francisco for a short business trip. But he and his fellow passengers would never reach their destination. After less than an hour in the air, Al Qaeda terrorists took control of the plane and pointed it toward Washington, D.C., intending to crash it into a significant federal landmark.
According to a National Park Service account, Beamer tried to phone his then-pregnant wife with an Airfone but was unsuccessful. Moments later, he spoke to the operator, relayed what was happening, asked her to say the Lord’s Prayer with him, and told her to let his family know that he loved them. The last words the operator heard from Beamer were directed at his nearby passengers, “Are you guys ready? Okay. Let’s roll.” At that point, he and several other people on board stormed the cockpit to take back the aircraft. Shortly thereafter at about 10 a.m., the plane crashed into an empty field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.
Although Beamer and the others failed to save themselves, they are credited with preventing countless deaths that would have occurred had the plane hit its intended target in D.C. Today, partially melted and missing the crystal but still attached to half of its two-tone jubilee bracelet, Beamer’s watch sits in a display case at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan. Its date window lies frozen on the number 11, forever memorializing the day Todd and the others on Flight 93 paid the ultimate price to protect their country.
2. Casey Jones, 37-Year-Old Illinois Central Train Engineer
John Luther “Casey” Jones’ pocket watch is probably as legendary as he is. You can find the gold American Waltham timepiece with a seconds hand in an exhibit at the Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum in Jackson, Tennessee. What makes it a fantastic piece of history is that its hands are locked in place at 3:52 a.m., the precise moment Casey was killed and passed into American folk history.
Even before that fateful day in late April 1900, Jones was already well-known as a capable and consistently punctual train engineer. People also considered him a local hero, as he reportedly saved a little girl from certain death when she and some other children ran onto the tracks in front of his train.
When he finished his usual run from Canton, Mississippi, to Memphis, Tennessee, late the night of April 30, he didn’t hesitate to pull a double-shift and drive the train back to Canton for an engineer who called in sick. Jones and his fireman, Sim Webb, got moving right away, as the train was running more than an hour late.
Jones regularly “highballed” (a railroad term for driving at high speeds) his engines to ensure his trademark punctuality. However, this practice turned deadly when another train couldn’t move out of the way in time before Jones’ train would slam into it.
In the wee hours of the morning of April 31, near Vaughan, Mississippi, Sim Webb yelled out that part of the freight train ahead was still on the tracks and collision was inevitable. Immediately, Jones told Webb to jump off the train (which he did). He then hit the brakes and worked the whistle to warn those in his path. The eventual collision decimated Jones’ car with him in it, but because he stayed on board until the end to work the brakes, he was the only passenger who lost his life that day.
3. Oscar Scott Woody, 44-Year-Old RMS Titanic Sea Post Worker
On April 14, 1912, 15-year-veteran postal clerk Oscar Scott Woody was celebrating his birthday with four colleagues in a private dining room when tragedy struck the Titanic.
You might not think saving the mail is heroic, but it was. Much like the Wells Fargo drivers of the early 20th Century, sea post clerks considered the correspondence in their care as “a precious cargo” and were expected to protect it, according to the Encyclopedia Titanica. Woody and the other postal clerks on the Titanic were hand-picked for the voyage and seasoned professionals.
As soon as it was evident the ship had collided with something big and was likely flooding, Woody and his crew rushed back to the mailroom. They quickly embarked on the Herculean task of hauling 200 bags of registered mail to what they thought would be the safety of the upper decks. To give you an idea of the magnitude of their undertaking, each of those mailbags weighed about 100 lbs. While others looked anxiously for ways to escape the sinking ship, these brave postal workers worked feverishly to protect their cargo. Ultimately, this massive, time-consuming effort would cost them their lives.
At about 2:20 a.m. (5:18 GMT), the Titanic slipped away under the icy surface of the North Atlantic, taking Woody and the four other mail clerks with it. When sailors recovered Woody’s body ten days later, his Ingersoll watch was still in his pocket, along with the broken chain and attached charm. The timepiece looked like it had taken a beating, though, with a shattered and heavily fogged crystal. Historical experts believe the faint imprint of the missing minute hand between 4 and 5 on the dial means Woody, his watch, and the “unsinkable” Titanic probably all met their end at the same time.
His famous timepiece has been displayed at the Smithsonian Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Most recently, in November 2022, the watch sold to a private collector for more than $100,000.
Also, if you ever find yourself in Southampton, Great Britain, consider visiting the Civic Center. Inside hangs a memorial plaque honoring Woody and his British and American co-workers for standing “steadfast in peril.”
Vintage watches represent fascinating pieces of history, so if you are ever looking for a Cartier watch repair shop to take care of your grandmother’s vintage Tank Louis, consider sending it to us at Times Ticking. We’d love to discover your watch’s story.