Route 66 history: welcoming Standard Time and time zones

Greetings, fellow roadies!  If you, like we, got an extra hour of sleep in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning when the clock was officially turned back, then you might want to celebrate the creation of the U.S. Standard Time System.  It happened right on Route 66, though it wasn’t going to be Route 66 yet for another 43 years.  There’s even a marker at Jackson Boulevard and LaSalle Street to commemorate this.

In the aftermath of the destruction of downtown Chicago by the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, all of the central city was rebuilt, and pretty quickly, too.  One of the architects in the city who got nearly more work than he could handle was W.W. Boyington, whose Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station at Chicago Avenue and Michigan Avenue (then Pine Street) were among the very few structures that survived the fire.  Among Boyington’s commissions after the fire were two on Jackson Boulevard at LaSalle Street – a prestigious address as the financial district was being rebuilt in that area, and being on a boulevard assured that no commercial traffic or trolley cars would clog the artery.  On the northeast corner of the intersection was the Grand Pacific Hotel, a very swanky hostelry that stood across the street from the newly rebuilt Chicago Board of Trade Building, also designed by Boyington (it was a replacement for an earlier hotel that had burned during the fire).  Then as now, the CBOT Building had a large town clock by which many in the financial district set their pocket watches.  But how was the rest of the city – or, for that matter, the rest of the state or the region – to agree upon the time?

The Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, 1887

The Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, 1887, four years after the General Time Convention met

Though it may seem strange now, there was no single national time system being used.  Many towns and cities, especially along railroad lines, set their time according to the railroad’s clock.  The railroads themselves depended on local noon as the determining factor, but that resulted in more than a hundred different local time zones.  You can see how this made setting accurate train schedules difficult.  People may have really hated the railroads during the post-Civil War era – and particularly the robber barons who ran them at the time – but by default, they depended on the railroads for something as simple and essential as setting the time.  So when the railroads decided they had to do something to standardize the time system, you can bet everyone was interested.

The Grand Pacific Hotel II (1873–1895; a third, larger version was built on the same spot and opened in 1898 with 188 rooms) was one of the first two big, important hotels built in Chicago immediately after the fire.  It occupied a square half-block bounded by Jackson, LaSalle, Quincy Street and Clark Street and was owned and operated by Chicagoan G.L. Johnson’s Pacific Hotel Company and managed by John Drake (the hotelier for whose sons the Drake Hotel would later be built).  Although it was thought after the fire that perhaps the hotel was too large for the times, it was nevertheless rebuilt to its original footprint.  At the time, the Grand Pacific was considered one of the city’s luxury hotels, which also included the Palmer House, the Tremont House and the Sherman House, later known as the Hotel Sherman.  The Grand Pacific was designed by Boyington in the then popular grand palazzo style and served both travelers and wealthy permanent residents, some of whom did business across the street.  It was here that in 1883, delegates from all the U.S. and Canadian railroads held the General Time Convention to find a better, uniform way of setting the time.

Chicago Board of Trade - Boyington, circa 1885 (from Architectural Record, 1893) - edited

Chicago Board of Trade, designed by W.W. Boyington, circa 1885; its town clock was located in the tower (Architectural Record, 1893)

William F. Allen, the convention’s secretary, proposed a plan that established four equal time zones across the continental U.S.  A fifth zone was proposed for eastern Canada.  Each zone would be one hour ahead of the zone immediately to its west (later, this zone system would be adopted across the world to set 24 time zones in all, with an international date line to mark the beginning and end of a day’s time and the beginning and end of the zone map).  Within a single zone, all railroad clocks would strike the hour simultaneously, regulated by a signal sent via telegraph.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory had already had a similar time service in place for 14 years (since 1869); that is believed to be the first regular system of time distribution to railroads, cities and towns.  Within a year after its start, the Allegheny Time service had spread across 2,500 miles, and 300 telegraph offices along rail lines received its signal.  This, then, became the model for the system the convention adopted.  However, because the Intercolonial Railway, which served Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, decided to adopt Eastern Time, only four time zones were adopted at that point.

On October 11, 1883, the convention announced adoption of the Standard Time System, which began on Sunday, November 18, 1883.  On that day, the Allegheny Observatory transmitted a telegraph signal when it was exactly astronomical noon on the 90th meridian, and all railroad clocks in the U.S. and Canada were reset accordingly by time zone.  That Sunday became known as the “Day of Two Noons” because in many towns across the continent, local noon had been replaced by the second, standardized noon setting (thus, noon struck twice).  Other American observatories, including the U.S. Naval Observatory and observatories at Harvard College and Yale University, agreed to provide regular telegraphic time signals at noon Eastern Time.

This may have been the railroads’ own semi-private time system, but because of the great importance of setting accurate time, virtually everyone began to use the system immediately – including the federal government and most state and municipal governments.  The U.S. Congress finally formalized and adopted this time system on March 19, 1918 by passing the Standard Time Act.  Daylight Savings Time came later (and is an entirely separate discussion, so we won’t get into it here).

In 2007, the U.S. government enacted a federal law formalizing the use of Coordinated Universal Time as the basis of standard time.  Today, the time is officially set by NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and is transmitted from a few different locations, using data from the U.S. Naval Observatory and an atomic clock.  As a matter of fact, you can receive that signal online from a number of official locations including the University of Colorado at Boulder, where NIST has an outpost, and set your computer’s clock by it.

The Grand Pacific Hotel was torn down during the early Roaring Twenties, several years before Route 66 came into being, so that the Illinois Merchants Bank Building could be built and opened in 1924.  Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, one of the successor firms to D.H. Burnham & Co. and the same one that had designed the Federal Reserve Bank across the street on LaSalle, the impressive structure was soon renamed the Continental National Bank Building to reflect the merger that created the bank of the same name – and it was that name, Continental, that was inscribed above the main entrance on LaSalle.  That’s the building that travelers on the newly designated U.S. Route 66 would have seen in November of 1926, along with Boyington’s old Board of Trade Building on the south side of Jackson (that was demolished in 1929 and replaced in 1930 with the current structure by Holabird & Root).

The merger of the Illinois Merchants Bank with the Continental and Commercial National Bank in 1929 was merely the most recent:  at least three major banks located within a several-block radius had to merge over a 20-year period to create Continental Illinois National Bank, which lasted for more than 60 years.  Continental became insolvent in 1983 and would have failed entirely during the go-go-greed days and savings & loan debacle of the Reagan Administration if the FDIC and a consortium of other banks hadn’t bailed it out; nevertheless, it was the feds who oversaw the building’s massive renovation, which was completed in 1993.  Continental Bank was eventually acquired by Bank of America in 1994, which owned the building until late 2013, when it was sold to Berkeley Properties.

Standard Time System plaque on Continental Bank building (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Standard Time System plaque on Continental Bank building  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

And that marker?  On the Jackson side of the building, between the LaSalle Street corner and the first bank of windows on Jackson, is a brass plaque on the outside wall that commemorates the creation of the time system at the hotel in 1883.  It was presented to Continental Bank in 1971 – 88 years after the start-up of the Standard Time System – by the Midwest Railway Historical Society.  And there it remains.

Speaking of time, it’s time today to go out and VOTE – so don’t forget to hit the polls before you head home tonight!  Remember: voting is a right, but when you don’t exercise it, the tyrants win by default.

Until next time!

Your own Route 66 historian,



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