Time Out for the Iron Horse | SierraSun.com

Time Out for the Iron Horse

Mark McLaughlinWeather Window
Photo courtesy Nevada Historical SocietyIn 1914, a little girl from Idaho was "mailed" to her grandmother's house.
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The historical character and function of Truckee owes much to its location along the nations first transcontinental railroad. Logging, ice harvesting, winter sports and tourism have long played a vital role in the regions economy. For more than a century Truckee has been considered the Gateway to the Sierra and a vital link to North Lake Tahoe. Railroads accelerated the development of the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries by opening up vast tracts of land to settlement and economic growth. Powerful locomotives pulled passengers and freight safely in a speedy and timely manner, which helped connect the far Wests isolated communities with each other and the eastern states. Although the corporations that owned and operated the various western railroads were commonly perceived as extortionist monopolies, 19th century railroad technology brought Americans together in ways they never expected. Before the invention of the Iron Horse, people traveled between cities and towns by foot, horseback or stagecoach, a slow and uncertain trip. Business was conducted upon arrival at the destination, whatever time that happened to be locally. The arrival of the railroads, and later the telegraph, changed all that. Once trains began running regular schedules, the diverse time-keeping systems from town to town became a serious issue for the railroads. The problem was that time was dictated by local custom. Each important community center fixed its own local time, usually by the sun, which was accepted by the surrounding countryside. No one knew or cared if the clocks in distant towns were either ahead or behind their own. To solve this problem, each railroad line devised its own system, which only added to the confusion. In each city there were at least two systems of time in use, local and railroad, and because each railroad line had its own time system, residents in towns with more than one railroad had to keep track of multiple clocks. For example, the local time at Buffalo, New York ran 20 minutes behind the New York Central Railroad time, and the Lake Shore line lagged 15 minutes behind Buffalos sun time. It became so confusing that principal railroad stations installed whole arrays of clocks set to show the local time, the railroad time, and the different times in the largest cities along the line. Even big eastern cities kept their own time; Baltimore was three minutes ahead of Washington, D.C. A popular gadget in those days was a device that could quickly calculate the various times. Without it, making train connections on a lengthy trip could prove very frustrating. Once the first transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, however, the problem became so acute that it became obvious that the country needed a uniform time system. Prior to 1870 there had been no attempt to develop a national time standard, but that year Charles F. Dowd, a Yale graduate and principal of the Temple Grove Ladies Seminary at Saratoga Springs, New York, published a pamphlet entitled, A System of National Time for the Railroads. A meticulous and methodical person, Dowd had studied the problem and developed an original idea to divide the United States into four sections based on meridian lines, each section to cover fifteen degrees of longitude or one hour in time, with the meridian of Washington as the primary one. The railroads and press recognized the value of Dowds brilliant plan, but it ran into resistance. The nations railroads were in the middle of a war over rates and other economic issues and not inclined to cooperate with each other. Many communities took a certain pride in their own sun time and were reluctant to make any adjustments at all. But Charles Dowd did not give up. For 12 years he traveled the country attending railroad conventions and promoting his plan to railroad managers, local businesses and civic groups. Gradually his campaign sparked a growing wave of public support for a national standard of time. Minor modifications were made in Dowds time boundary lines to avoid them passing through cities, and the primary meridian was changed from Washington to Greenwich, the site of Englands Royal Observatory. Professional associations like the American Meteorological Society and the American Society of Civil Engineers spoke out strongly in support of Dowds plan. In 1879 the chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific proposed enlarging the system to encompass the whole world. At last, in 1883, the American Railway Association, which represented the interests of 78,000 miles of railroad, officially adopted and implemented Dowds idea. The use of standard time was immediately accepted by all sections of the country despite it had no governmental authorization. In fact, it took Congress 35 more years, until March 1918, to officially legalize railroad standard time in the act which also established daylight saving time. In recognition of his dedicated effort to organize time zones into the system that we use still today, Charles Dowd received annual passes on all the railroads in the country. Ironically, Dowd was killed at a train crossing in Saratoga, New York, Nov. 12, 1904. Over the years, trains and railroad personnel have affected many people on a positive and personal level. In 1914, a little girl named May from Grangeville, Idaho, very much wanted to visit her grandmother who lived some 60 miles away in the town of Lewiston. She hadnt seen her grandma in more than a year because the family was too poor to afford the passengers fare on the railroad. The family didnt have any money, but they did know Len, the local Postal Clerk. They dressed their daughter in her best skirt, blouse, and coat, and took May to the train depot where they talked to Len. After he heard about their predicament, he accepted a payment of 53 cents to send May as mail on a Railway Post Office (RPO) postal car. Railroad employees made sure that May made it to her grandmothers house safe and sound, and she is still the first and last person to be transported as mail in the United States.

Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm,” “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 andamp; 2,” and “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly” are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.