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

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cross Country in a Concord Coach

Mark Twain called the stage coach, “an imposing cradle on wheels.”  Some passengers felt seasick. 

California Co.'s stage leaving Virginia City for California 1866
This strange rocking motion was the result of a major design improvement which did away with the steel springs of earlier coaches and suspended the body of the coach on thoroughbraces, heavy lengths of rawhide straps, mounted on steel stanchions.  

Instead of passengers feelings each neck jarring, vertical jolt, thoroughbraces produced a steady rocking motion.  The old springs were also hard on the horses.  Every time the stage hit a rock or hole, the vibration would travel through the traces to the animals’ shoulders and necks. 

And while these newly designed coaches were built in many places, none could compare to the quality of the coach manufactured by Abbott and Downing & Co., in Concord, NH.

A typical western Concord coach was about five feet wide and eight feet long. They were heavier than the eastern coaches weighing about 3,000 lbs. with a load capacity of 4,000 lbs. Only the finest woods were used and the company was especially careful not to use screws or bolts on the wheels, which were usually the first thing to break. The outside of the coach was painted red and gold, and yellow then sanded and varnished to a high shine. Floral and vine designs decorated the coach and a landscape was painted on the door.  On the door panel or above it was printed the stage’s destination. The name of the stage company and the stage’s number were printed on the panel under the driver’s seat.

Passengers entered the coach through one of two side doors, beneath which hung steel step plates. The seat cushions were made of coiled steel springs, stuffed with horsehair and covered with brown calf leather. There were three rows of seats, each big enough for three people.  Two seats faced forward and one faced backward. Those passengers in the backward facing seat had to interlock their legs with the passengers in the middle seat. Victorian ladies of course frowned on this practice. If extra seating was needed, three people could ride on the roof, which was covered with heavy, painted waterproof duck cloth. On rare occasions twenty to twenty-three passengers were squeezed on board.

Some coaches had glass in the windows, but glass didn’t last long in the west. Otherwise there were canvas curtains which were held by leather straps when rolled up, or secured with eye and turn-buttons when rolled down. Inside the coach were tug straps the passengers next to the windows could hang on to when the going grew rough.

Most stage coaches traveled none stop, and were equipped with outside lanterns.
Their average speed was five to six miles per hour. Every ten to twenty miles the stage would stop at a swing station where a fresh team, already harnessed, quickly replaced the tired horses. Every fifty miles or so, the stage stopped at a home station.  For a dollar, passengers could purchase simple meal of crackers, potatoes, hardtack, beans, jerky and black coffee. A new driver took over the next leg of the journey. After three hundred miles the passengers and their luggage was transferred to another coach.

In an article  entitled, Hints for Plains Travelers,  which appeared in the Omaha Herald  in 1877, the author listed several suggestions to help make stage travel more pleasant, though most people were unaware or didn’t care about such courtesy.

“Don’t smoke a strong pipe inside especially in the morning, spit on the leeward side of the coach… Don’t swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping… Don’t ask how far it is to the next station until you get there… Don’t discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed, if delicate women are among the passengers… Don’t grease your hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable ‘tater’ patch…”
In my newest novel, A Tarnished Knight, Ryder and Victoria spend a couple of days traveling on just such a coach. The reality of stage travel I discovered during my research was a bit different than the stage coaches pictured in the TV westerns I grew up with. Is the reality much different that what you thought?

He made her fall in love with him, then he took it all away.
Sources: Boyd, Eva Jolene, That Old Overland Stagecoaching, Woodware Publishing, Inc., 1993
               Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West A Fully Illustrated Guide,  Skyhorse Publishing, 2007