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There have been two great dispensations of civilization, the Greek & Christian and now comes the railroad.
southern textile mill owner, 1853
Julius Caesar regularized the calendar in 46 B.C. Pope Gregory XIII reformed it in 1582. King George III subtracted eleven days from the British calendar nearly 200 years later. On November 18, 1883, America’s railroad corporations stopped time.
In the 1850s Americans set their watches to eighty local times—thirty-eight in Wisconsin alone, twenty-seven in Indiana, twenty-three in Illinois. Noon in Chicago was 11:27 A.M. in Omaha, 11:50 A.M. in St. Louis, 12:09 P.M. in Louisville, and 12:31 P.M. in Pittsburgh. An 1883 railway gazetteer included time conversion tables for over 8,000 stations. Fingers plowed the ink off dark columns of type, plotting a route across the temporal Babel.
Yet, perhaps because few Americans traveled far, most of them tolerated this time quilt, to judge by the letters column of the New York Times, which printed seven letters of travelers’ complaints in fifteen years. Basically, Americans took nature’s word for time: Noon arrived when the sun looked nearest to being overhead, at times that differed with locations. (“A movement of one degree around the earth’s surface—about 48 miles due east or west in the United States—changes local time four minutes,” according to one authority.) Town clocks, to be sure, were set not by sundials but by almanacs that averaged the sun’s variations over months and years. A scattering of localities rented astronomically precise time from observatories, which wired them through Western Union.
These innovations, however, only welded time more firmly to place. “[I]t would appear to be as difficult to alter by edict the ideas and habits of the people in regard to local time,” a U.S. Senate report concluded in 1882, “as it would be to introduce among them novel systems of weights [and] measures.” The Senate failed to reckon with a self-sovereign power that, having “annihilated” space—a railroad-boomer verb phrase—sought dominion over time. The sun told time from Genesis to 12:01 A.M. on November 18, 1883, when the railroads dispensed with it. “The sun,” the Indianapolis Centennial commented, “is no longer to boss the job.” Fifty-five million people “must eat, sleep, and work as well as travel by railroad time. . . . The sun will be requested to rise and set by railroad time. The planets must, in the future, make their circuits by such timetables as railroad magnates arrange.”
Those magnates rode the mystique of progress. The founding of the Greenwich observatory in 1848 stimulated a worldwide movement to standardize time in zones of longitude. That Greenwich promoted itself as the “prime meridian” consternated the French, who urged Paris. American time chauvinists likewise objected to “John Bull’s time.” The railroads themselves only slowly came around to the idea. Rate wars undermined their will to cooperate. As competition yielded to consolidation, resistance weakened.
At an 1883 railway time convention, William F. Allen, the editor of the Traveler’s Official Guide to railways, used two maps to show railroad managers the advantages of standardizing time. One depicted the prevailing forty-nine different times in a fling of colors; the other, four broad bands, north to south, fifteen degrees of longitude apart. The old map, in the clashing hues of competition, represented “the barbarism of the past”; the new map, a consolidated rainbow, “the enlightenment we hope for in the future.” The delegates left persuaded, and with cosmic presumption set out to fix time.
When Britain adopted the reformed Gregorian calendar in 1752 a mob gathered outside Parliament demanding “Give us back our eleven days!” By contrast, the railroads’ imposition of standard time on the United States occasioned anxiety but not protest. On November 17 city jewelers, the New York Times reported, “were busy answering questions from the curious, who seemed to think that the change in time would . . . create a sensation . . . some sort of disaster, the nature of which could not be exactly entertained.” On the eighteenth, the master clock at Chicago’s West Side Union Depot was stopped at 12:00, waiting for the railroad-decreed noon, which arrived, via telegraph, nine minutes and thirty-two seconds later. “Have you the new time?” strangers inquired of one another. In Washington the attorney general ordered federal employees to conduct business in the old time. The railroads could not force their standard on the U.S. government. That would take an act of Congress. Popular disquiet over the issue delayed legislation until 1918, when government surrendered time to the railroads.
Railroads had long since accelerated the tempo of life, and a book, American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences (1883), traced that condition partly to this source. The author, George Beard, introduced a new term, “neurasthenia,” to describe the “nervelessness” or “lack of nerve power” brought on by “modern civilization” in its most emotionally invasive form, the railroad. Its shrieking whistle, the historian Barbara Young Welke observes, “shattered the traditional division between public and private,” and making the train on time quickened dictatorial anxiety. Using a new word, a Cincinnati paper feared that “the longer a man is a commuter the more he grows to be a living timetable.” “Today a nervous man cannot take out his watch and look at it when the time for an appointment or train is near,” Beard asserted, “without affecting his pulse.” He listed depression, dyspepsia, inability to concentrate, uterine irritability, and impotence as symptoms of neurasthenia. The diagnosis caught on. By 1888 a magazine editor could call “neurasthenia . . . almost a household word.”
Until the 1880s, when total railroad trackage and passenger usage both doubled over the decade, the speed-up captured by watchwords like “on time” and “on the tick” and “on the clocker” had occurred gradually, and under cover of celebration. Standard time focused a pent-up ambivalence. “Damn Vanderbilt’s time! We want God’s time,” one old party fleered at a railroad time consultant. Many pre-codgers felt the same way. Told that his train left at eight o’clock “standard” time, a Pennsylvania Irishman, thinking of Standard Oil yet making a railroad-resonant point, replied, “Well that settles it.” Settles what, asked the conductor? “Why, the whole of it. They’ll be gittin’ the wind next, they’ve got the time now.”
Pittsburgh banned standard time until 1887. Augusta and Savannah held out until 1888. City after city balked in Ohio. When the Bellaire school board voted to adopt standard time, the city council had the board arrested. The mayor of Bangor, Maine, vetoed a time-altering resolution passed by its city council. Any change “that disarms the customs of people handed down from time immemorial,” he argued, “should at least have the sanction of the State legislature.”
Standardizing time challenged both nature and democracy. “The system adopted by you,” editor Allen boasted to the railroad managers at their next meeting, “now governs the daily and hourly actions of at least fifty million people.”
But who elected the railroads to govern? “Today the 75th meridian is standard because the railroad kings have ordered it,” one congressman declared. “Tomorrow the railroads may make it the 76th, or the 80th.” Let the people decide, he said. Put time to a vote.
Private enterprise had done more than upend a convention rooted in millennia of observation and agreement. Standard time, the New York Herald observed, “goes beyond the public pursuits of men and enters into their private lives as part of themselves.” In his fascinating book Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, source of much of the detail above, Michael O’Malley explains: “Once individuals experienced time as a relationship between God and nature. Henceforth, under the railroad standards, men and women would measure themselves in relation to a publicly defined time based on synchronized clocks.”
Already they measured distance in time, translating miles into minutes. “[T]he real distance between New York and Philadelphia,” a writer in Niles Weekly Register noted in 1848, “is just the same as it was a hundred years ago—but the relative distance is changed from seven days to seven hours.”
To a Nebraska editor, the conquest of space and reordering of time offered “signal proof” that railroads were “the most potent factors of our progressive civilization.” He marveled that, “In a quarter of a century, they have made the people of the country homogeneous, breaking through the . . . provincialisms which marked separate and unmingling sections.” The railroads had knit back together a broken Union—but in their time and on their terms. Those twenty-five years yielded up a new dispensation. From November 18, 1883, the phrase “corporate America” meant most of what it suggested.
The railroad pierced horizons. Just before sleep young Richard Nixon would hear the whistle of a train cutting the night, inviting him to dream. Where might those tracks lead? The yearning the whistle spoke to, the train alone could satisfy. You could go anywhere. Track led on to track; possibility to possibility. The railroad formed a network; and, like the Internet, it drew investors with the prospect of “network effects”—the Golconda of connectivity, things joined multiplying the value of the same things apart.
America’s railroads often “built ahead of demand,” laid tracks to people-less places. “Railroads in Europe are built to connect centers of population,” Horace Greeley reflected, “but in the West the railroad itself builds cities.” Build it and they will come. European observers viewed this strategy as incipiently suicidal. What if they did not come? If investors had similarly interrogated schemes for laying broadband cable ahead of broadband demand, they might have saved billions in the telecom bust of 2000–2001. Regarding Americans, it’s not enough to say, with John Kenneth Galbraith, that speculation buys up the available intelligence. The romance of big recruits them for ventures of scale.
“By the 1840s,” the railroad historian James A. Ward writes, “promoters and railway financiers discovered that isolated lands had a pecuniary worth they could extract even before their railroads gave them any market value”—by securing land grants from governments, then selling the land to speculators and settlers to pay for construction. Ralph Waldo Emerson likened “[r]ailroad iron” to “a magician’s rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.” Railroad corporations routinized the magic. Government provided the land, 155 million acres of it—in Minnesota the equivalent of two Commonwealths of Massachusetts, in California of two New Hampshires. And men so ruthless that one who wrested millions from this marriage of powers, Jay Gould, was reputed to be “the worst man on earth since the beginning of the Christian era.”
By 1800 a half-million Americans had migrated from the original colonies across the Appalachian barrier. They might have gone to the moon.
“Nowhere did eastern settlements touch the western,” Henry Adams writes in his history of the United States during the first administration (1801–1804) of Thomas Jefferson. “At least one hundred miles of mountainous country held the two regions everywhere apart.” Snaking through gaps in the mountains in Pennsylvania and Virginia, three wagon roads, unimproved since the French and Indian War of the 1750s, formed the only land link between the regions. A journey up one of the few rivers to the interior might end wetly in a waterfall.
The river systems turned their backs on each other. “The valley of the Ohio had no more to do with that of the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the Roanoke, and the Santee, than the valley of the Danube with that of the Rhone, the Po, or the Elbe.” Nearly a quarter of a century before the Erie Canal, Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury under Jefferson and James Madison, had outlined plans to link the valleys by canals. But by land, Americans believed, it would take “centuries of labor” to “conquer those obstacles which Nature permitted to be overcome.”
Without a bridge able to bear the weight of an industrializing economy the sundered regions might evolve into separate countries.
“Whether we remain in one confederacy,” Jefferson wrote in 1804, after completing the Louisiana Purchase, “or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederations, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part.” Jefferson was ready to concede to geography, in Adams’s words, “the experiment of embracing half a continent in one republican system.”
Even along the seaboard, after nearly 200 years of expanding settlement, Adams wrote, distance barred larger integrations: “Each group of states lived a life apart.” As late as 1812, a wagon pulled by four horses took seventy-five days to go from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina. Between Boston and New York stagecoaches ignobly competed with fast walkers. The road from Philadelphia to Baltimore was “tolerable” but a driver “rejoiced if in wet seasons he reached Washington without miring or upsetting his wagon.” On his hundred-mile journey north from Monticello to the new capital in Washington, D.C., Jefferson wrote his attorney general, five of the eight rivers he had to cross had “neither bridges nor boats.” South of Petersburg, Virginia, “even the mails were carried on horseback.” When you had taken the stagecoach from Charleston to Savannah, you had exhausted the public transportation of the South.
If American geography mocked the presumption of the United States, it vetoed a united economy. Coastal towns barely tapped their hinterlands. Privately operated turnpikes supplied the only considerable point-to-point transportation. Their tolls, however, discouraged wide use; a survey of the records of western Massachusetts farmers between 1750 and 1855 found only one entry for a turnpike toll in 1,827 trips to market. Inclemency and season often rendered impassable the alternative “shunpikes,” poorly maintained by embarrassed citizens working off their taxes.
Transportation costs—for wagon, team, feed, teamster, and lodging— meant that farmers could not profitably ship corn more than forty miles or wheat more than eighty. By land, in 1815, it cost an estimated 30 cents “to carry one ton of goods a distance of one mile,” Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell write in A New Economic View of American History. By boat upstream, the cost fell to 6 cents; by raft downstream to 1.3 cents; by ocean to less than one cent. These economics suggest why the ship, not the covered wagon, dominated trade to the first West. Using technology essentially unchanged for centuries, traders sailed down the Atlantic coast, into the Gulf of Mexico, and up the mouth of the Mississippi to New Orleans.
Over 1,800 flatboats arrived in that port in 1807, carrying whiskey, pig iron, lumber, and nonperishable agricultural goods from as far north as Pittsburgh, but only a hundred boats departed upstream. On flatboats descending the inland rivers shipping costs were conscionable; on keelboats pulled upstream by as many as thirty hands they could mount to $100 a ton. And the pace upstream—New Orleans to Louisville in four months—was of a man staggering.
For want of transportation the western economy stagnated. With farmers unable to ship their goods east, surpluses accumulated. Prices fell. Subsistence farming persisted. Producing for use not sale, western farmers did not have the money to buy eastern goods priced to cover the cost of transporting them. Meanwhile, relative scarcity inflated food prices in coastal America.
 The information in this and the previous paragraphs is taken from Michael O'Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (New York: Viking, 1990), pp. 58-136; John E. Stover, American Railroads (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 157-58; John R. Stilgoe, Metropolitan Corridor Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 203-5; Carlton J. Corliss, The Day of Two Noons (Washington: Association of American Railroads, 1951), pp. 5-16; and Ian R. Bartky, "The Adoption of Standard Time," Technology and Culture, vol. 30, no. 1 (January 1989), pp. 25-56. Also from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Evening Transcript, 10/25/1883.
 O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 109.
 Ibid., p.113.
 For Britain, see Washington Post, 10/29/1883, p. 1. For jewelers, see New York Times, 10/17/1883, p. 1.
 For the attorney general, see New York Tribune, 10/17/1883, p. 1.
 Barbara Young Welke, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 40, 157-58; James A. Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life (Knoxville: University of Kentucky Press, 1986), p. 108. For more on George Beard, see Linda Simon, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray (New York: Harcourt, 2004), especially pp. 97-167.
 O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 146.
 New York Times, 2/23/1889, p.1.
 O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 132.
 Ibid., p. 129.
 Ibid., p. 134, 135.
 Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life, pp. 111-12.
 O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 128.
 For Greeley, see David E. Nye, America as Second Creation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), p. 157; Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life, p. 82.
 Ward, Railroads and the Character of American Life, p. 81; Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Young American," in Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 213.
 Gustavus Myers, The Great Fortunes, vol. 2 (Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1910), p. 44.
 Seen in Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Thomas K. McCraw, Richard S. Tedlow, Management: Past and Present (Cincinnati: South-Western Publishers, 1996), Case 2, p. 38. Said of Jay Gould by fellow swindler James R. Keene; also, O'Malley, Keeping Watch, p. 191.
 Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1 (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1930), pp. 7, 8, 83.
 Tedlow et al., Management, Case 1, p. 54.
 Adams, History of the United States, vol. 1, p. 14.
 Winifred B. Rosenberg, "The Market and Massachusetts Farmers, 1750-1855," Journal of Economic History, vol. 41 (1981), p. 30.
 Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), p. 147.
 George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860 (New York: Rinehart, 1960), p. 5.
 Richard Wade, The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 40.
 Atack and Passell, A New Economic View of American History, p. 156.
 Lance Davis et al., editors, American Economic Growth (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 486.
 Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keysar, Daniel J. Kevles, inventing America: A History of the United States, vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 29.
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