Dakota Datebook: Standard Railway Time

November 18, 2014
“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-18th century, 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


Dakota Datebook, Prairie Public (2014). http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/

Subject Matter

Social Studies

Related Media

  1. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: Water Communication
    Video: Rivers already provided an avenue for the movement of goods and people in 1803 when Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River to look for a waterway to the West. Later, shallow-draft steamboats became crucial for passengers and freight.
  2. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: The Decline of Railroads and Streetcars
    Video: The popularity of automobiles and trucks led to a decline in the building and use of railroads. One effect was the development of regional and short line railroads that served smaller communities. Several larger cities used local electric streetcars until the automobiles took over.
  3. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: Roads from WWII to the Present
    Video: World War II meant funding was diverted all but strategic roads and highways. After the war, the state had to play catch-up on road maintenance, helped by federal funding of the interstate system. In today's world, larger and heavier trucks are critical to transporting freight. In rural North Dakota, providing local transit for a growing senior citizen population is a big issue.
  4. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: Road Improvement
    Video: By the 1910s, state government began making an effort to improve roads by financially aiding counties, and the federal government began assisting with funding. The economic hardships of the 1930s meant less funds, but the state authorized the state patrol and began issuing drivers' licenses.
  5. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: Red River Oxcarts
    Video: Prior to the railroads, squeaky oxcarts were the primary means of transporting goods from the Red River Valley to St. Paul.
  6. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: Peerless Transportation
    Video: In their time, railroads had no peer in their ability to move people and goods, although shipping costs were high. The railroad companies helped increase immigration to North Dakota by actively marketing the opportunities here to foreigners, especially Scandinavians and Germans from Russia.
  7. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: Individual Freedom
    Video: The automobile age gave freedom of movement and choice for passengers and freight. With more people driving cars, the push came for better roads.
  8. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: In Mid-continent and “The Holy Dog”
    Video: North Dakota’s position in the center of North America has always made transportation a challenge with even the earliest peoples seeking ways to cover large distances of land. The arrival of horses to the Northern Plains had a radical effect on the Native American culture and way of life.
  9. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: Barnstorming
    Video: Early airplanes were a novelty and flying source of entertainment for bystanders, but they quickly became essential in the transportation of passengers and goods.
  10. Rivers, Roads, Rails and Air: “A Reluctant and Homesick Pig”
    Video: Although its course meandered like a lost and homesick pig, the Red River of the North was a major artery for steamboats, which coordinated with stagecoaches from St. Paul to Fort Abercrombie.