A Sign of the Times, Past and Present

“I want that sign,” said Union Station Foundation Director Roberta Beverly, and she meant this one, located on 17th Street in Ogden, right where the railroad tracks cross. “I’m going to call Union Pacific and see if they’ll give it to me.”


Actually, I’m not at all sure the sign is old. It doesn’t look old, although what is written on it is.


The sign, canted to the right on a couple of steel poles, says “Entering Pacific Time Zone,” and you are probably thinking “…but the Pacific Time Zone doesn’t start until the Nevada state line.”


And you’d be right, as long as you aren’t talking about the railroad.


Actually, the sign is a nice reminder that it is the railroads, not us, who invented time zones, so if anyone has the right to say where one of them begins and ends, it is the railroads.


Back in the late 1800s there were no time zones in the United States, or anywhere else. Time was whatever a local area agreed it was, and since everyone needs a starting point most people agreed that noon, or 12:00 sharp, was when the sun was highest in the sky from where they were standing.


The problem with that system was that it doesn’t account for the fact that earth is round — solar noon in Evanston, Wyoming, is not the same as solar noon in Ogden. Railroads trying to schedule things based on local times found themselves quickly getting very confused, publishing schedules that tried to include local times, but can you imagine the problems?


And what if the conductors on two trains, coming from opposite directions, had set their watches according to different local times 45 minutes apart. If those two trains are trying to share the same track, and hoping the other guy is on schedule to hit the siding, well, you can imagine the result.


So in the later 1800s the railroads, nobody else, set up time zones. Areas hundreds of miles wide were all deemed, by railroad command, to have noon at the exact same time.  The railroads set up four of those zones to cover the entire US, roughly based on how far the sun traveled in an hour in the sky.


But not always. For example, until the late 1930s, at least, the time zone dividing Utah and the West Coast (Pacific Time Zone) ended just west of Salt Lake City. There was not much west of Salt Lake to worry about, all the major train junctions were east of that line (including Ogden) so that’s where the line was put.


As Tooele and other areas built up it became inconvenient to have two time zones in Utah, so the line was moved to Wendover. Nobody apparently cares if Wendover has two time zones. Let them figure it out.


So why is that sign still sitting in the middle of Ogden?


I suspect that, once trains going west leave the Ogden rail yards there’s nothing of importance, railroad-wise, until Nevada, so the engineers are told to re-set their watches then. Maybe someone is worried they’ll get to Wendover and forget.


And when they come back east, of course, they see the other side of the sign which reminds them they are entering the Mountain Time Zone — with Mt. Ogden in the back in case there’s any doubt.