It’s hard to imagine the days when the average person didn’t know what time it was and neither did anyone else. Sure, they had an idea of what time it was based on where the sun was in the sky, but few people lived by the minute. In the United States prior to 1883, it was common for a town to pick a time that was displayed on a central clock somewhere, often based on what time “high noon” occurred. Another town down the road was likely to have a different time on display. Some people had clocks and watches, of course, but there was no unified way of setting time across a region so that everyone would be synchronized. What happened in 1883 to change this method of managing time? In short, it was railroads.
The railroad industry began in North America in the early 1800s with various charters for construction of the first rail lines. Colonel John Stevens gained the first charter in 1815, but the first charter to actually put a working passenger and freight line into action was awarded in 1827 to a group of merchants in Baltimore, Maryland. The Tom Thumb began its passage along 13 miles of track in 1830. In three short years, more than 380 miles of railroad were in operation, and by 1840, 2,800 miles of track were in use.
Since this industry was booming and expanding rapidly, traffic on the lines soon became a problem. Agreed upon procedures were in place, but unknowns like the weather, delays, breakdowns, or human error proved to be dangerous for passengers and crew alike. Without direct communication, the trains were running based on timetables alone. The first passenger train accident due to timing miscommunication and assumptions happened on 5 October 1841 near Westfield, Massachusetts.
The Western Railroad was running two passenger trains and one freight train along nearly 140 miles of a single track between Albany, New York and Worcester, Massachusetts. The head-on collision of the two passenger trains on a blind curve resulted in the death of one conductor, William Warren, 26, and a young boy, the son of a Mrs. Bloodgood. The reports of how many were injured varied from between 17 – 50 passengers, many of whom suffered broken arms and legs, and among them one poor one woman who reportedly had both arms and both legs broken. The community was outraged, and public opinion fell squarely upon the surviving conductor and the companies running the rail line. Mr. Moore was the surviving conductor who had jumped to safety at the last minute. He was an easy scapegoat, but he insisted he had been following orders. When the delayed Western train hadn’t shown up after a 30-minute wait, the Eastern train was told to go ahead. The conductor and engineer planned to go to the next turn out and wait again. They did not make it to the next turn out, and the blind curve apparently robbed both engineers of the opportunity to stop the trains in time.
A spate of deadly train accidents in 1853 was the impetus to begin making railroad regulation a priority. On 12 August 1853, two trains running on the same line had a head-on collision due to the north-bound train conductor being newly appointed to the position and using a milkman’s borrowed watch upon which to base his train’s time. This inaccuracy cost the lives of more than 20 people that day and placed even more scrutiny upon the railroad industry to find a solution to the time problem.
As a result of this accident, the suggestion for a “standardized” time was included as one of the more important methods to improve safety. England’s rail system chose to use a standardized time in 1847, and New Zealand was the first country with standardized time officially adopted in 1868. With American railroads expanding exponentially across the continent, the need to modernize time in a similar fashion was becoming more and more pressing.
The push to standardize time was met with resistance. Surely it didn’t make sense for there to be one time for the whole country. If it was 7:00 am in New York, roughly coinciding with sunrise, the same time in San Francisco would still be dark for three more hours. A better solution was devised by an educator, Dr. Charles Dowd. He defined four time zones encompassing 15 degrees each, beginning at the 75th Meridian west of Greenwich and demarcated thereafter at the 90th, 105th, and 120th Meridians. Time would be one time within each zone, fixing the problem of having differing times in each city, while also acknowledging the solar time in each region. He presented this idea to a committee of railroad superintendents in New York in 1869 and published a pamphlet in 1872 that arrived at the above time zone meridians. Unfortunately, Dowd’s solution took quite a while to be widely accepted.
Train companies tried to solve the problem themselves in other ways. The best option most companies had was to create more accurate timetables and to ensure that their conductors were using high quality, reliable pocket watches. Any old watch wouldn’t do, as was evidenced by the milkman’s watch just not being up to par with the job. Even with the best in watch technology, problems persisted along the railways. Not only did accidents continue to occur, but a growing number of travelers were confused about the railroad schedules. How should they interpret the time schedules? Were the departure and arrival times based on a single local time or the local time at each place? Was the time in Pittsburgh the same as it was last month? Was this train going to meet their steamboat on time?
By 1880, nearly 100,000 miles of track were in use and the demands of passenger travel and freight delivery were ever expanding with more need to coordinate schedules accurately. Since there were upwards of 50 different time schedules for trains running in the same region, the railroad industry agreed at their 1883 convention to adopt Dowd’s time zone concept, except they placed the zone demarcations along their railroad hubs. On the morning of 18 November 1883, this plan went into effect, conductors resynchronized their watches, and plans to have this mandate approved by the government moved forward.
However, yet another fatal head-on train collision in Kipton, Ohio on 18 April 1891 was caused by poor attention to time and a stopped watch. The fast mail train #14 was running full speed when it hit the Toledo Express, which should not have been on the track. Both engineers and six postal workers were killed. This particular accident spurred the railroad industry and government officials alike to find a solution to keeping accurate time. They tapped well-known Cleveland, Ohio jeweler, Webb C. Ball, to help them set timekeeping and watch standards. As a result, the Ball Standard was created. Some companies provided watches, while other companies required their conductors to purchase one from an approved list. The approved watches needed a white face, Arabic numerals, bold hands, minute markers, at least 15 jewels, sturdiness, temperature compensation, a lever set mechanism, and accuracy within 30 seconds per week. Ball’s standards were adopted nationally and inspired the phrase “on the ball.”
The U.S. Congress finally approved national standardized time zones with the Standard Time Act of 1918. This act moved the official time zone demarcations to more rural areas and also added Daylight Saving Time as part of its standardization. Eventually, by the mid-1900s, almost every country had adopted an international time zone system, wherein there are 24 zones, each approximately 15 degrees wide, per Dr. Dowd’s original suggestion.
In 1830 the Best Friend of Charleston became the first regularly scheduled steam locomotive passenger train in the United States, making its debut trip leaving Charleston on the initial six miles of track of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company on Christmas Day that year. Up until this point, travel in the United States had been limited to overland trails and roads, which were often difficult to traverse, or they traveled by water, on river rafts and boats and all the danger and delays that came with them. The railroads solved many of these issues, making travel faster, safer and easier. This first trip in 1830 would eventually lead to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, which, along with Louisiana Purchase, Texas Independence, the California Gold Rush, the Oregon Treaty, and the like, would fuel immigration and migration, as well as growth and prosperity for the American West, living up to the ideology of Manifest Destiny.
Oftentimes our ancestors seem to disappear from an area where they had previously been rooted, with no clue as to where they may have gone. If this occurred to any of your American ancestors during the latter half of the 19th century, the use of railroad maps may prove beneficial in tracking down those elusive ancestors. Study the history of the area to learn when the railroads first arrived there, and look in the records of the areas where stops occurred along the railway for the names of your “missing” ancestors, as oftentimes these areas were centers for trade and industry, making them enticing for settlers.
The Library of Congress holds a wonderful collection of 623 select historic railroad maps which depict the growth of travel and settlement, development of industry and agriculture; the collection encompasses the years of 1828 through 1900. Historic railroad maps can be found in many state and university libraries, such as the World War I-era maps held by the University of Arkansas in Little Rock which document the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad, as well as the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Arkansas.
It took many employees to run these railroads, and numerous personnel records were created for them, documenting many biographical details of our ancestors. One of the major resources is the Railroad Employment Records collection for railroad companies operating in California, which includes payroll records, blacklists (employees who had been blacklisted from working on the railroads), seniority lists, and similar documents.This rich collection includes the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads during the time period they were completing the transcontinental railroad, linking California to the East Coast, 39 years after the first Christmas-day train left the Charleston station.
In addition to the adventurous type looking to settle in new lands, the ease of travel made possible by the introduction of railways made it well suited for many different types of travelers, from businessmen to vacationers, and even orphans. During the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century, the country was in the midst of another kind of movement, known as the Orphan Train Movement. In the 1850s there were thousands of children without homes and literally living on the dangerous streets of large cities without food or money, and left to their own devices. The social experiment to “rescue” these poor and homeless children moved approximately 200,000 - 250,000 children from major East Coast cities westward for adoption coordinated by entities such as the Children’s Aid Society, foundling homes and orphanages. It was believed that placing these neglected children with pioneers moving westward would be mutually beneficial, as the children needed care and the settlers needed help with their farms. The Orphan Trains were a precursor to our modern-day foster care system. Formal adoptions generally did not take place for the rehomed children, so there were normally no court records documenting these children on the receiving end. However, there are extant records for these children created by the agencies that aided in placing them on the trains, such as the New York Foundling Hospital or the New York Infant Asylum. In order to obtain records, one may be required to prove their immediate relationship to the rehomed child.
It is estimated that one in twenty-five Americans had a connection to one of the children that rode on the orphan train.
“When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go.” – Charles Loring Brace
From that first passenger train departing Charleston on Christmas Day 1830 to the millions of workers and passengers who rode the rails during the next century, one thing is apparent, iron horses helped to shape our country and the lives of our ancestors.
Another interesting article from our archives to expand your knowledge — Finding the Wayward and the Wanton: Ancestors Who Flew Too Close to the Sun.
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