Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Time Is It?

Railroad Time-What Time Is It?

In the old TV and movie westerns I grew up with, the conductor of the train carried a nice big watch attached to a chain. He would pull it out at various times and check it, reassuring everyone that the train was right on time. But what time was it?

Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul RR, 1874
As I typed my upcoming novel, A Tarnished Knight, the heroine, Victoria, who was fleeing her abusive husband and the bounty hunter chasing her, asked the station master what time the train left town. As I searched railroad time tables and checked the distances between stations, I discovered that during the year my novel takes place there was no  standardized measure of time.

Each community marked their local time when the sun was at its highest--noon. Some towns rang a bell, or fired a gun, and others dropped a large ball from a centrally located mast. The jeweler in town would set your watch for you, but in a town with more than one jeweler, that time might vary between jewelers by several minutes.

Before the railroad began transporting people across the country, it didn’t matter that a town a hundred miles east or west would have noon a few minutes before or after. Time was as different as the towns the train passed through.

Seth T DD railroad wall clock
So each railroad began keeping its own time table. This was usually based on the time at either its headquarters or most the important terminals. A train station in a large city might have five or six different clocks, one for each railroad running out of that station, with each railroad running on its own time. A train traveling east to west would use several different ‘noons.’ The railroad in my story, the Union Pacific, had six different time settings.  
These railroad times were posted at the stations and in the timetable booklets. To help alleviate this confusion between local time and railroad time, newspapers as well as each railroad, posted timetables converting the railroad time to local time. For each nine miles traveled, east or west, your watch lost or gained about a minute.

Another hindrance to the schedule was that trains didn’t stop at every depot along the way. However, in front of these stations was a metal pole with a large red metal ball at the top. If there was a ‘high ball,’ the engineer rode right through, but if there was a ‘low ball’ that meant the train needed to stop. Delays like this further confused an already chaotic system.

The problem was finally solved in 1883 with the standardization of time zones. England, Scotland and Wales had already standardized to Greenwich Mean Time in 1848. The need for change was taken up here in the U.S., but it wasn't until October 1883 that the railroads finally agreed to the General Time Convention and adopted the five time zones we know today.

Now when the conductor checked his watch railroad time was the same time as every watch and clock in every town.



Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West, Skyhorse Publishing, 2007

Cooper, Bruce Clement, Consultant Editor, The Classic Western American Railroad Routes, Chartwell Books, Inc., 2010


  1. How interesting, Kathy. I didn't think about that for America of a couple centuries ago, but it makes perfect sense. In a society like today, where we're so 'time' conscious, we don't always consider the more relaxed perception of earlier days. In the medieval era of my stories, time certainly was governed by the sun and moon. No watches nor clocks on the wall :) Good post!

  2. Would there have been sun dials and hour glasses? But if they left one village on foot and traveled to another it would not have made a difference. Still America was the last to join the rest of the world with standardized time.

  3. Kathy, this is fascinating information! I never knew that. Growing up in Girard, I remember hearing a siren everyday at noon. Our town is very historical, what with the yellow house and Battles bank and the Dan Rice mansion, etc. In fact, there's a white hitching post right across the street from where I live! The noon-day siren must have come from that very same explanation you gave. =) I love to see turn-of-the-century photos of our town. Wonderful post! I like how you tied it into your novel as well. It gives that much more perspective on the old western days. I love trains, too!

  4. Hi Traveling Gal,
    We have the fire whistle blast at noon here too. Now a days, with atomic clocks and cell phones we don't have to check our watches, but I'm from a different generation and when the whistle goes off I still find myself double checking the time at the bottom of my computer screen. I love old photos too. All these people lived and breathed and died in the same space we live in and all we have left to validate there existence is their face in a photo. I wonder what happens to all the photos floating around cyber-space in a hundred years?