TALE OF TAKOMA: Railroads, time zones and Takoma Park

IMAGE: Takoma Park train station. Image courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.

TALE OF TAKOMA • BY DIANA KOHN

This weekend marks the return of Daylight Savings Time. As you set your clocks forward, consider how our system of timekeeping owes its existence to an unlikely source – the coming of the railroads.

As trains began linking towns across ever-widening expanses of our country, railroad companies struggled to create timetables for departures and arrivals. Each town set their clocks by local time (usually based on the moment the sun reached “high noon”). Passengers and railroad workers alike were flummoxed by the ever-changing “time” when trying to make connections or coordinate arrivals and departures.

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Professor Charles Dowd set to work in the 1870s, dividing the map of the United States. into four time zones to create “standard time.” His idea received little support, however, until railroad engineer William Allen took up the cause. As author of the “Travelers Official Guide to the Railways,” Allen used his influence to lobby representatives of all the railways.

Finally, in 1883, the General Time Convention adopted the four time-zone system, establishing a uniform General Railway Time. On November 18, 1883, the “Day with Two Noons,” city after city shifted from local time to General Railway Time. But not all cities. Many chose to keep their own local times in addition to the railroads official time, a dual system only a bit less confusing than the old days.

The situation stood until 1918, when Congress passed the Standard Time Act, making the zone system mandatory. Boundaries continued to fluctuate but the idea finally stuck. The same Act also introduced the concept we are honoring this weekend – Daylight Savings Time. Instituted as a wartime measure, it was repealed nine months later, only to be reinstated during World War II.

Susan's version of B&O

B&O Map from early 1890s. Images courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.

Between 1945 and 1966, Daylight Savings Time was recognized or not at the whim of the states (and its voters). From one year to the next, different states took up or rejected the practice and employed different start or end dates than their neighbors, causing havoc for television schedules as well as train, bus and airplane timetables.

Finally, the Uniform Time Act of 1966 established one pattern for compliance (though states retain the right to be exempt). Since then, minor adjustments have altered the start and end dates.

Nonetheless, 1883 stands out as the moment that railroads prevailed in setting up an orderly timekeeping system.

But timekeeping wasn’t the only influence of railroads. For those of us in Takoma Park the year 1883 marks a more significant milestone – one that can also be directly traced to the railroad. On November 24th of that year, Benjamin Franklin Gilbert launched his grand idea for a commuter suburb. Prompted by the easy railroad access to the countryside north of Washington DC, he bought 90-plus acres centered on a train stop. It was the first purchase for what would become Takoma Park.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.