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Staff photo by Doug Strickland Engineer Nick Colman looks out from the window Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum steam engine 4501 Wednesday, June 17, 2015, at the Chattanooga Choo Choo in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum hosted a round trip excursion from Chattanooga to LaFayette, Ga., for the members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors's National Convention. Norfolk Southern Corporation Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors, Charles W. (Wick) Moorman was on board for the sentimental journey.

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Watch and clock collectors kick off convention with steam train excursion from Choo Choo to LaFayette

Hugh and Ruth Overton own a Victorian house in Carthage, Mo., that's packed with antique clocks. They just sold their mail-order clock repair parts business that they launched in 1974.

The Overton's lifelong involvement with clocks began by chance, when Hugh popped into a bookstore to kill some time and thumbed through a book about clocks while Ruth worked late at her accounting job in Dallas, Texas.

"If I ever get rich, I want to collect clocks," he told his wife that day.

"We never did get rich," she said Wednesday. "But we have a house full of clocks."

The Overtons are among the roughly 1,400 people in Chattanooga this week for the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors' (NAWCC) national convention. It's being held at the Chattanooga Marriott Downtown hotel and Chattanooga Convention Center.

The four-day event kicked off Wednesday morning with conventioneers taking a six-hour excursion on a 10-car Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum train pulled by a steam locomotive that went from the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel to LaFayette, Ga., and back again.

The convention's theme this year is the relationship between clocks and trains.

Railroads led to the standardized time zones used today. Before railroads, the time of day might vary by, say, 10 minutes between such as cities as Chattanooga and Atlanta, said Steven Humphrey, executive director of the NAWCC.

"Every town set their clocks by the sun at noon," Humphrey said.

The lack of standardized time caused problems for rail travel. For example, a train conductor wouldn't know when to get on a side track to avoid the scheduled arrival of another train.

"It made for some fairly spectacular accidents," Humphrey said.

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The public can visit “The Railroad Time Service,” an exhibit of railroad timekeeping pieces in the Chattanooga Convention Center’s rooms 14-15 from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. today and Friday and 9 a.m.-noon Saturday. There’s no charge.

So time zones were standardized. Railroads and other businesses led the way, Humphrey said, and the U.S. government tagged along behind.

"The U.S. didn't adopt time zones until World War I," he said.

The pocket watches that railroad conductors carried had unique features, chief of which was that instead of setting the time with a knob, you had to unscrew the face and set the time with a lever on the watch face.

"That way, you could not accidentally change the time on it," Humphrey said.

"It might take a month and a half of your salary to buy a good railroad watch," he said. "But that was one of the requirements of the job."

Pocket watches and other railroad-related timepieces, such as train depot "regulator" clocks that conductors set their pocket watches by, will be on display until Saturday in the Chattanooga Convention Center.

"It's probably one of the finest exhibits on railroad timekeeping," Humphrey said.

The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors has about 14,500 members and 150 chapters around the world. Conventioneers who took Wednesday's train ride included a contingent of 11 people from Australia.

"Alice Cooper was a member for a while. He's not now," Humphrey said. "The Dalai Lama was a member for a while and got the magazine. My understanding is he does have a small wristwatch collection."

Watches aren't worn as commonly as they once were, since many people now rely on their cell phone to check the time.

When Humphrey sees people pull a phone out of a pocket to see what time it is, he jokes, "Oh, you're back to the pocket watch."

Actually, a cell phone is a good timepiece, he said.

"If you want really accurate time, you look at your phone," Humphrey said. "It's probably the most precise time that anybody's ever been able to carry in their pocket."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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