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Switching to Railway Time


Some people like to complain about Daylight Savings Time when they lose an hour of sleep by setting their clocks ahead each spring. In the early 1880s, citizens also complained about time because the U.S. had no standard time zones! In fact, there were fifty-three different railway time zones across the United States. Cities had different times because they used “sun time,” based on when the sun was at its peak, at noon.

In the east, there was “Boston time” and “New York time.” The North Dakota railways ran on “Chicago time” or “Minneapolis time.” These local time standards created “great inconvenience and no little confusion, particularly to railroads and travelers.” Railways had to avoid collisions, and tourists had to frequently adjust their watches to local time.

That changed in 1883, when a Railway Time Convention met and agreed that all major railroads would adopt Standard Time. This agreement, supported by James J. Hill, whose “Manitoba railroad” passed through Grand Forks, created the current four time zones. This was “one of the most useful reforms possible,” wrote the New York Times, to help “the heretofore often bewildered traveler.”

The date to adopt the new standard had been set for November 19th, but Midwestern railways were not ready to make the change on that day. It wasn’t until the following Sunday, November 25, 1883, that most North Dakota’s cities instituted our familiar Central Standard Time.

All “watches and clocks” had “to be put twenty-eight minutes faster than formerly.” This gave most of the state the same time as St. Louis, Missouri, because the “standard meridian for ‘central time’” passed “almost directly through St. Louis.” So, time flew by that day as the twenty-eight minutes disappeared. In other parts of the nation, the clocks had to be turned BACK to noon and those places experienced what was called the “Day of Two Noons.”

The most important impact of Standard Time in North Dakota was to regularize North Dakota’s train schedules because it was such a vital mode of transportation in that era.

On North Dakota’s main streets, jewelers and clockmakers adjusted their street clocks, and everyone east of the Missouri River re-set their pocket watches, wall clocks and clock towers to tick in Central Standard Time. With the full backing of railways and with the full cooperation of the citizenry, commerce and freight became better regulated and coordinated by a new national system for marking the hours and minutes and seconds of one’s life.

So, on this November the twenty-second, we turn back the clock to look at a time when North Dakota turned its clocks ahead to Standard Time.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Editorials,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, November 22, 1883, p. 2.

“The New Time,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, November 25, 1883, p. 2.

“Railway Time Belts,” New York Times, October 10, 1883, from N.Y. Times archive.com.

“Turning Back The Hands,” New York Times, November 19, 1883, from N.Y. Times archive.com.

“The Change of Time,” Minneapolis Tribune, November 21, 1883, p. 6.

“Turning Back The Hands,” New York Times, November 19, 1883.

“The New Railway Time,” Yellowstone Journal, November 24, 1883, p. 2.

“The New Time Standard,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, November 29, 1883, p. 2.

Fargo Daily Argus, November 27, 1883, p. 1.

Fargo Daily Argus, November 20, 1883, p. 1.