Our daily lives are completely consumed by time. Whether it pertains to our schedule or that of someone else, we are always looking at the clock. Nobody wants to be late, and impatience builds if we do. That’s the nature of time.
Through the span of our existence, the need to measure time has gone from the development of the ancient sundials to the synchronization of digital clocks. Surprisingly, time was taken for granted until a railroad man figured out a solution.
William Frederick Allen (1846-1915) was one of six children born to Joseph Warner Allen (1811-1862) and Sarah Burns Norcross (1815-1882) in Bordentown. His father was a high-ranking civil engineer who was employed by the Camden and Amboy Railroad as a contractor when he was only 20 years old.
Although he was young, Joseph Allen’s services were also retained with the construction of the Harper’s Ferry and Cumberland Railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Long Island Railroad, the Erie Railroad, and the Dundee Water Works Plant in Passaic. In 1854, he was elected to represent Burlington County in the New Jersey Senate and served two terms under the Whig Party. Through his statesmanship, he was considered a viable candidate for governor until circumstances changed when the Civil War began.
Instead, he was appointed to recruit and take command of the Ninth Regiment, New Jersey Volunteers, which consisted of 12 companies of 100 men each. For his efforts, he obtained the rank of colonel, and was presented with a sword as a token of appreciation from Gov. Charles Olden.
Embarking on an expedition aboard the ship Ann E. Thompson to meet Union Brigadier Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commander the North Carolina Expeditionary Force, off the Hatteras Inlet, Allen and 11 other men, including the ship’s captain and surgeon, manned a surf-boat during a furious gale to report to Burnside inside a fort.
After departing the meeting, as their vessel passed through the breakers, the churning waves capsized it. The men frantically clung to the hull as it rocked with violence. Unable to hang on, several men floated away from the boat. One vanished under the current. Allen and the surgeon drowned as well, but their bodies were recovered an hour later by a schooner laden with troops that rescued the other men.
Sewn in canvas, the bodies of the two men were eventually placed in coffins and shipped to the Trenton Statehouse by rail. Lying in repose in the center of New Jersey Senate Chamber, their coffins were draped with American flags as visitors paid their final respects. Following this, the funeral cortege traveled to the train depot once, more as the surgeon’s remains were transported to his home in Paterson. Joseph Allen’s remains were transported to Bordentown for his funeral and burial. Two years later, an impressive 15-foot memorial of Pennsylvania marble was erected over his gravesite by surviving officers of his command.
William F. Allen was 16 years old when his father died. Like his father, he enlisted for military duty at the outbreak of the war. He was promoted to first lieutenant of Company C, Second Regiment for his proficiency as a drill master, but left on account of the personal loss that brought him much sorrow.
Like his father, he became a survey engineer for the Camden and Amboy Railroad. During the remainder of the war, he was the assistant survey engineer for the Freehold and Jamesburg Agricultural Railroad and the Long Branch and Sea Shore Railroad. Following the war, he helped survey and construct the Pemberton and Hightstown Railroad.
From 1868 until 1872, he was in charge of maintenance of the West Jersey Railroad. This was an extremely productive period for him in that he drew plans for the town site of Wenonah and married Salem County native, Caroline Perry Yorke, in 1871. With marital bliss (and eventual birth of four sons), William decided to focus on matters behind the desk rather than in the field.
The 1870s were perceived as the first real decade of railroad expansion. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 ignited a feverish intensity that changed the vast landscape of the country forever. Cities and towns throughout states and western territories emerged practically overnight as thousands of miles of track were laid by labor crews with picks, shovels, and mules.
The decade that began with approximately 53,000 miles of track in operation, increased to 93,000 miles by decade’s end. As a result, 50 different standards from individual railroad companies were in use regarding train schedules.
Individuals and scientists first proposed their ideas on time reform in 1869, but never agreed on a uniform system. Three years later, the General Time Convention was organized with the major challenge on finding a solution. William, who had a keen interest on the subject, was appointed editor of the popular “Official Guide of the Railways” the same year.
In 1875, he campaigned and was elected secretary of the General Time Convention. This was followed by the election of his position as secretary of the Southern Railway Time Convention in 1877. Eventually these conventions consolidated and became known as the American Railway Association.
In 1881, William was assigned the responsibility to write and present reports on potential options of time reform. After many months of rejecting suggestions, including single-meridian standards and the tracing of state boundaries, he proposed dividing North America along four time zones, based on where the commercial interests of individual railroad companies ended.
From the vantage point of the railroads and most businesses depending on them, this seemed logical rather than theoretical. William then pondered that perhaps the use of local time could be permanently removed as well.
In April 1883, he submitted his first report and plan to his constituents. Impassioned arguments were fiercely debated for months among citizens, planners and experts, since the notion of change on a grand scale is never easy.
By October, he tallied the votes from railroad managers. The majority had agreed to the new system with the General Time Convention officially adopting the standards. William’s resolution on the use of local time was also approved.
Across the country, the transition of standard time took place on Nov. 18 at noon on the 75th meridian. Although time seemed to be at a standstill, the jittery nerves of a few waited for signs of the Apocalypse. In reality, the whole affair proved to be anticlimactic.
Allen took his family from their residence in South Orange (where they lived since the late 1870s) across the Hudson River to New York City to witness history. Standing before the Western Union office where the time ball was lowered, a heavy crowd of chapeau-wearing bystanders heard the clap of noon resonate twice from nearby church steeples…once by the old time and once by the new time.
Allen expressed jubilation in his stance. His assignment was almost complete.
In April 1884, he presented his final report to the General Time Convention. He stated that most American citizens did not complain about standard time, although there were still those that grudgingly remained loyal to local time. Some cities resisted as well, but most did not. Of the 100 largest cities, only 22 believed that the new system presented a burden on its people.
Eventually, they too succumbed quietly to as opposition faded. Six months later, Allen was appointed by President Chester A. Arthur to serve as one of five U.S. delegates to the International Meridian Conference in Washington.
At the conference, representatives from over 25 European nations attended and adopted standard time, which was based upon Greenwich Meridian time. Gradually, all the nations from across the globe began to accept this system. Despite this success, it wasn’t until 1918 that Congress officially adopted standard time.
As the years rolled on, William Allen became involved in many organizations. He was a charter member of the American Railway Guild, member of the National Geographic Society, member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and of course, treasurer of the American Railway Association to name a few examples. In 1915, he died of a stroke in his South Orange home, with his family at his side.
You can truly say that he has indeed earned reverence as Father Time.