“Until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, communities had the power to establish their own time zones in what was known as ‘local mean time,’ determined by the position of the sun as it passed overhead. The state of Illinois contained twenty-seven different times zones, Wisconsin thirty-eight. In Pittsburgh the train station had six clocks, and each one showed a different time. When a clock struck noon in Washington, D. C., the time was 12:08 in Philadelphia, 12:12 in New York, and 12:24 in Boston” (Eighty Days, pg. 107).
I read the most marvelous book this summer, Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World. I highly recommend it. Much has been written about the impact that the transcontinental railroad had on American society and culture, perhaps most significantly in the act of standardizing timekeeping across the nation. What I did not know until I read Goodman’s work was that this monumentally important transformation happened in a single historical moment, the so-called “Day of Two Noons,” which occurred on November 18, 1883–exactly one-hundred-and-thirty years ago today.
A “General Time Convention” was held in Chicago by the country’s largest railroad companies on October 11, 1883. They agreed to divide the United States into just four times zones, and announced that all railway timetables would conform to the new standard beginning on Sunday, the 18th of November. Goodman notes, “This action had been taken without the consent of the president, the Congress, or the courts, but almost immediately it became the de facto law of the land” (pg. 107).
The Wellington Enterprise published on November 14, 1883 included a letter to the editor from one A. J. Smith, laying out the specific changes. “The standard adopted for the Railroad lines in the territory traversed by the ‘Bee Line System’ is that of the Ninetieth Meridian and will be called ‘central time,’ which compares with the time now in use as follows: Cleveland (Time is 33 Minutes Faster), Columbus (Time is 28 Minutes Faster), Cincinnati (Time is 22 Minutes Faster), Indianapolis (Time is 16 Minutes Faster), St. Louis (Time is 1 Minute Slower). In other words, from and after the date above given, the trains of these companies which have hitherto run by Columbus (Ohio) time, will be run by a standard which is twenty-eight minutes slower” (pg. 2).
It is easy to see how much confusion this difference in time would cause in a community that did not choose to conform. A train running according to the new schedule and due to arrive in Wellington at noon, would pull into the station at 12:28PM local time. John Houghton, always one to embrace change when it would benefit his community, wrote an editorial in the next edition of the Enterprise urging the town to adapt. He argued, “[Changing] would be better than to attempt to carry two kinds of time. We do not know who has authority to act in the matter, but we feel inclined to make a trial, and would be glad to get an expression from as many in the village as possible. If a sufficient number favor it the town clock can be changed, and in a little time we could adjust ourselves to the new arrangement with very little inconvenience” (11-21-1883, pg. 2) Houghton urged his readership to contact him with their opinions, which he promised to publish in the next issue.
He did not get the decisive agreement he hoped for. On November 28th, a second editorial reported that opinion in the town was divided regarding conformity to the new standard. Residents objected to pushing their clocks back and “losing” an extra thirty minutes of daylight in the winter. One individual proposed changing the town’s time to exactly thirty minutes faster than Standard Railway Time–an adjustment of two minutes in the opposite direction–so “we can tell railroad time at a glance, it being at all times at a point on the dial of our clocks and watches directly opposite the position of the minute hand.” Houghton persisted in his belief that “for the sake of simplicity, uniformity, and convenience let us have a change” (pg. 2).
I have not yet located the formal announcement of Wellington conforming to Standard Railway Time, though obviously they eventually did. Goodman quotes from a widely-circulated editorial first published in an Indianapolis newspaper, which speaks to the air of inevitability about the change: “People will have to marry by railroad time, and die by railroad time. Ministers will be required to preach by railroad time, banks will open and close by railroad time; in fact the Railroad Convention has taken charge of the time business, and the people may as well set about adjusting their affairs in accordance with its decree.”
UPDATE: By January 1890, more than six years after the events described in this post, Wellington still had not changed to Standard Railway Time. The village council adopted a resolution asking citizens to make the change “on or after January 20th” (Enterprise, 1-15-1890, pg. 5). But the date came and went, and though the town clock was adjusted to reflect the new time, “shops, factories, and public schools failing to adopt it, [they] decided to use what is known as sun time” (2-19-1890, pg. 5).
The issue flared up again in the summer of 1893. The town council ordered the town clock turned back thirty minutes on April 1st. The post office and many businesses followed suit. But by July the Enterprise opined, “It appeared to work very well for a few weeks, but the people soon became tired of having to stop and explain what time was to be used and a majority of them have returned to sun time” (7-19-1893, pg. 5). The newspaper actually began to argue against implementation, which drew at least one angry letter from a reader firmly against reverting to “barbaric times” (7-26-1893, pg. 5). But the editor stood his ground: “What is known as sun time has been recognized since the beginning of time, therefore it is hard to make the people see the necessity for a change” (8-23-1893, pg. 5).
Then finally: “Standard time has been adopted in all of the churches, at the opera house, council chamber, and on funeral occassions. This comprises about the whole; so when announcement is made, hereafter, it will be understood it is standard time” (10-11-1893, pg. 5). A full decade after national implementation, Wellington finally, as they say, got with the times.