Time warp for the Iron Horse

The historical character and function of Truckee owes much to its location along the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Logging, ice harvesting, winter sports and tourism have long played a vital role in the region’s economy. For more than a century, Truckee has been considered the “Gateway to the Sierra” and a vital link to North Lake Tahoe.


In 1914, May was mailed to her grandmother’s house in Grangeville, Idaho. She is still the first and last person to be legally transported as mail in the United States. | Courtesy Nevada Historical Society

Railroads accelerated the development of the West in the 19th and early 20th Centuries by opening 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 West’s 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.


“A meticulous and methodical person, Charles F. Dowd had studied the problem and developed an original idea to divide the United States into four sections based on meridian lines.”


Before the invention of the Iron Horse, people traveled between cities and towns by foot, horseback or stagecoach, making for a slow and uncertain trip. Business was conducted on 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.

In an effort 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. 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, N.Y., ran 20 minutes behind the New York Central Railroad time. The Lake Shore line lagged 15 minutes behind Buffalo’s “sun time.” It became so confusing that principal railroad stations installed arrays of clocks set to show the local time, the railroad time and the various times in the largest cities along the line.

Even large Eastern cities kept their own time. Baltimore was 3 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 frustrating.

Once the first transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, however, the problem became so acute that it was 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, N.Y., 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 would cover 15 degrees of longitude or 1 hour in time, with the meridian of Washington, D.C. as the primary one. The railroads and press recognized the value of Dowd’s brilliant plan, but it ran into resistance. The nation’s 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.

Dowd did not give up. For 12 years, he traveled the country attending railroad conventions, 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 Dowd’s time boundary lines to avoid them passing through cities, and the primary meridian was changed from Washington, D.C., to Greenwich, England, the site of England’s Royal Observatory. Professional associations, such as the American Meteorological Society and the American Society of Civil Engineers, strongly supported Dowd’s 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 Dowd’s idea. The use of standard time was immediately accepted by all sections of the country despite that 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 that 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, he was killed at a train crossing in Saratoga, N.Y., 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, wanted to visit her grandmother who lived some 60 miles away in Lewiston. She hadn’t seen her grandma in more than a year because the family was too poor to afford the passenger’s fare on the railroad. But, her parents did know Len, the local postal clerk. They dressed their daughter in her best skirt, blouse and coat, and took her to the train depot. Len accepted a payment of 53 cents to send May as “mail” on a postal car. Railroad employees made sure that May made it to her grandmother’s house safe and sound. She is still the first and last person to be legally transported as mail in the United States.


Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at thestormking.com. He can be reached at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.