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Standard Railway Time


For centuries, the accurate measure of time was unnecessary. People measured time in the transition from day to night and back again. Devices invented to provide a slightly more accurate measure included the sundial, sand timers, and burning candles. These methods were not terribly accurate, but were adequate for the times. Life continued, despite the inability to precisely denote the time.

Clocks and watches were eventually developed, but until the mid-18thcentury, these were primarily for the wealthy. The lower classes still ordered the day according to the sun. Back when travel and communication were slow, time was not a major issue. Passengers in horse drawn coaches were happy if they got to their destination within hours of their planned time of arrival, and mail delivery was less than dependable.

Then the railroad arrived. Time became more crucial. Travel became faster and more reliable. It was important for the trains to run on time. But each railroad ran on its own time. The Pennsylvania ran on Allegheny Time. New York trains ran on New York Time. Trains running out of Chicago ran on Chicago Time. From Buffalo to Chicago the standard was Columbus time, even for trains that didn’t run through Columbus. Sandford Fleming, a Canadian engineer, recognized that the system was chaotic and unworkable. He led the effort to standardize time.

On this date in 1883, precisely at noon, all North American railroads adopted a new standard time for all railroad operations. This new system was called Standard Railway Time. It established time zones across the continent. Although the advantages were obvious, it took a while for the system to be adopted by the general public. It wasn’t until 1918 that Congress adopted standard time zones based on the railroad zones.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of railroads in the history of North Dakota. They facilitated the settlement of the Great Plains, allowed farmers to ship their products, and helped stores stock their shelves. The importance continues today with trains a hundred cars long shipping oil, grain and other goods. And it’s thanks to the railroads that we have live and work in the Central and Mountain time zones.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Greenwich Mean Time. "http://wwp.greenwichmeantime.com/info/railway.htm" http://wwp.greenwichmeantime.com/info/railway.htm Accessed 30 August, 2014.

Library of Congress. "http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/nov18.html" http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/nov18.html Accessed 30 August, 2014.

WebExhibits. "http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/d.htmlhttp://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/d.html" http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/d.htmlhttp://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/d.html Accessed 30 August, 2014.