On October 11, 1883, railroad executives met at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago to adopt a system of four standard time zones for the U.S.: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific (as well as Intercolonial, now known as Atlantic Time in eastern Canada). Previously, towns & municipalities set their clocks according to the solar noon, which resulted in a multitude of “local” times scattered throughout each state. As train travel became faster and travel times shortened, accurate timekeeping became more relevant. The time zone system was developed by William F. Allen, secretary of the General Time Convention, an organization of American railroads concerned with coordinating schedules and operating standards which eventually evolved into the American Railway Association. Allen’s system followed Greenwich Mean Time, which had been established by the British in 1848, and the U.S. zones were based on solar noon at 75, 90, 105 and 120 degrees west of Greenwich. The circular to the left, dated November 13, 1883, is the official notice to CB&Q employees noting the company-wide shift from “Chicago Time,” to the new Central Standard Time, which was nine minutes slower. All company clocks and employee watches were to be reset accordingly, and the new system permanently implemented at noon the following Sunday, November 18. The great importance of the switch was clearly emphasized:
“After the change has taken effect Superintendents will not allow any conductor or engineer to run until they have acknowledged in writing or by telegraph that they understand the change to CENTRAL STANDARD TIME and that they have set their watches to conform to it.”
Thus began Railroad Time, and the entire nation would eventually conform to it, setting schedules and business hours by the railroads’ clocks. Interestingly, the U.S. government had nothing to do with the switch to railroad time, though they followed it as well. Congress did not officially enact the Standard Time Act until March 19, 1918, when it also implemented Daylight Savings Time.
A commemorative plaque marks the site of the October 11, 1883 meeting in Chicago, and describes the process of switching to Standard Time on November 18. The Grand Pacific Hotel is long gone, but the existing building, currently a bank, displays the plaque on its southwest corner at Jackson and La Salle streets. Donated in 1971 by the Midwest Railway Historical Society (now the Midwest Railway Preservation Society) the plaque serves as an interesting reminder of the railroad industry’s influence and authority in 19th century America.