Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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How did people in the Old West really know what time it was?

We have atomic clocks that can keep track of the “real” time in millionths of seconds — but how did someone living in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, etc., in, let’s say 1855, know what time it was?

Obviously, people living then in the Old West or anywhere else in the U.S., would have had timepieces, probably windup pocket watches. But who kept the “master timepiece,” i.e., who knew what the time zone was they were living in — or were there such things in the 1850s as “time zones”? — and how did they keep that all straight.

Yup, you’re right — time zones and timekeeping in general in the 1850s, whether in the West or back East, was pretty much in casual disarray, to say the least. In his extremely valuable book, “The Look of the Old West,” William Foster-Harris explains that there was nothing but “local time” nationwide until the railroads finally standardized time zones in 1883. Their efforts were formally approved by the government shortly thereafter.

But prior to 1883, as in our 1855 scenario, Foster-Harris explained that local time was generally based marking “high noon.” This may have been done by a large ball being dropped from a tall tower in town, or even firing off a cannon. “High noon” was regarded as the time when the sun was directly overhead and cast no shadow or the shortest shadow of the day. He also said that local jewelers in most towns would be happy to set your watch for you to local time, but “when you started traveling out of a town, for each 9 miles east or west, your watch lost or gained about a minute” (p.183).

One more example of the impact the railroads had, not only on the settlement of the country but on the entire culture of daily living. For good or bad, the railroad unified the country, impacted everybody, and always ran on time!

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