Depot Agent's Office

Depot Agent's Office


19th Century


In 1830, only 23 miles of railroad track existed the entire United States. By 1880, there were over 100,000.

By this time, there were efforts to transform a jumble of local railroads into a national transportation system. This entailed a standardization of equipment, train signals, ticket procedures and baggage handling, as well as the coordination of train schedules.

There was also no such thing as standard time.


Until 1883, most Americans obeyed solar time, or time told by the sun. Even though many people owned some type of mechanical timekeeper which kept mean time, these clocks and watches were set by a sundial or the position of the sun itself (the best reference point being 'high noon', when the sun reached its highest point in the sky).


There is a relationship between solar time and location: the earth rotates and the sun seems to travel westward across the continents, high noon travels with it. This means that cities only a few miles apart have different high noons and different local times. This made things complicated for those that ran and used the railroads. Could a passenger arriving in Pittsburgh at 4:00 p.m. New York time catch a connecting train leaving Pittsburgh at 4:00 p.m. Pittsburgh time? The confusion only increased as rail lines were extended into the west, covering a greater span of longitude.

Many scientists, professionals, and officials felt that local time was an old-fashioned notion which may have worked when communities were fairly isolated, but was impractical in a society increasingly linked by telegraph and railroad. Standard time was essential for technical and commercial progress.


Standard time was a big issue at the time. Many people felt that local time, or time told by the sun, was nature's time or God's time, and should not be overturned by anyone, especially the railroads. 

America Synchronized 


Most railroads maintained a single time across their entire line (usually that of the biggest city they served) for safety and efficiency reasons.

In the middle of the 19th century, a busy railroad station would likely have had several clocks, each indicating the time used by a particular line.

In the 1850s, some railroads began subscribing to the time services offered by American observatories, paying to have accurate astronomical time signals telegraphed to each station along their individual lines. Because of services like this, a haphazard but practical system of regional standard times had evolved by the mid 1870s. Thanks to cooperation between railroads, by 1880 the traveling public only had to puzzle through through 53 distinct railroad times (down from over 80 in 1870).

Between 1872 and 1882, scientific and professional societies devoted a great deal of thought to the issue of standard time. They generally rejected the idea of a uniform public time for the entire country, advocating a time zone system that would be more in keeping with solar time. 

Several plans were advanced, and while most of them agreed on four zone boundaries and zone standards (i.e. whether to base the zones on Greenwich meridians or meridians  of major American cities).

It was not a scientific organization or a legislative body but a group of railroad superintendents that instituted standard time. In October 1883, the General Time Convention approved a plan establishing five North American time zones (four in the US and a fifth covering easternmost provinces of Canada) based on the Greenwich meridians.

On November 18, the "day of two noons", Standard Railroad Time was put into effect. While the switch to standard time itself only amounted to a small adjustment of clocks and watches (usually less than half an hour forward or back), it represented a big conceptual change. While many communities accepted and even embraced the change as a sign and condition of progress, others thought it unnatural and refused to use it. However, it did slowly gain acceptance, and by the time standard time became law in 1918, most communities had already adopted it.