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Vince Staten: Before railroads got involved, towns across country set own time

Staff Report • Jun 4, 2013 at 9:39 PM

Bristol was in Central time? When?

Rick Wagner says that when he worked in Bristol that’s what people always told him, that once upon a time, Bristol was on Central time.

“The Eastern time zone, until after World War II, ended between Abingdon, Va., and Bristol, Va.-Tenn. That meant you could get on a passenger train in Abingdon at 9 a.m. and arrive in Bristol, Va., about 8:40 a.m. If Bristol was on Central time, obviously so was Kingsport, Hawkins County and Knoxville — unless the time line was drawn very squiggly.”

That matches Ronnie Montgomery’s recollection, that we were all on Central time. “I vaguely remember when I was very young, I’m 74 now, that this area was on Central time. I would imagine that it changed sometime in the late 40s maybe after World War II and before the Korean War, although I am not sure. I do remember my grandfather always when he asked about time wanted to know if that was railroad time?”

And this brings us to the heart of the matter, a matter that I instigated last week with a column on the cyclone of Rye Cove. Newspaper stories at the time, 1929, said the cyclone struck at 1 p.m. Central time, and several readers wondered if that meant this area was on Central time then.

The railroads created the four time zones in 1883. Before that, towns set their own time, usually based on the sun. One city might say it was 9:30. Twenty miles west a town might claim it was 9:20. That played havoc with train schedules. It literally was no way to run a railroad, and the rail companies drew up time zones and eventually got the government in on the act.

Ronnie said, “There used to be so many different time zones throughout the country that it was difficult for people to know when the passenger train would be coming through. I think they were actually just implemented helter skelter. You would go from one area on Central to Eastern to Central and Eastern and so on.”

Rick thinks it’s too bad the line between Eastern and Central times wasn’t down State Street in Bristol. “Two states, two cities, two times. The possibilities are endless on that one.”


And speaking of going back in time, as the train from Abingdon to Bristol did in the 40s, I have a story about Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, the most free spirited of the many free spirited basketball players who were in the old American Basketball Association (1967-1976).

Marvin ate McDonald’s hamburgers on the bench, paraded around the dressing room in a full length mink coat, with his uniform underneath, and accused his teammates of selfishness because they wouldn’t pass him the ball when he had 48 points and needed only one basket to score 50. In one season alone he missed more than 100 team practices. But his most famous miss was a plane flight.

As Bob Costas, then the team announcer for Barnes’ team, the St. Louis Spirits, tells it in the book “Loose Balls:” “Because of the change of time zones our return flight would leave Louisville at 8 a.m. and arrive in St. Louis at 7:57 a.m. Marvin looked at that and announced, ‘I ain’t goin’ on no time machine. I ain’t takin’ no flight that takes me back in time.’”


It’s time to move on from this discussion about time. But before we go…

When I was in Chicago last week, I formulated a theory on why the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908. I took a picture to prove my hypothesis.

The marquee at Wrigley Stadium displays what it calls “Cubs Time.” My phone displays current local time.

The marquee said, “Cubs Time 11:39.” My phone said “11:41.” The Cubs are two minutes behind the rest of the world!

And when you are trying to hit a fastball that can make all the difference in the world.

Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@timesnews.net or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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