Trumping the sun

With a few year old interest in environmental history, I’m finally getting around to reading William Cronon’s book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. For those not familiar with it, it’s a history of how Chicago’s development and the settlement of the west were interdependent processes, and it’s kind of the flagship work of the metropolitan theory of the frontier. Like most environmental history, it treats nature as a sort of participatory agent in history. It’s totally brilliant.

The second chapter is about transportation, and in particular, the railroads, and I’m struck by how the picture it paints of people’s experience of railroads and place differs from my own experience. For me, coming from a world of airplanes and interstates that don’t enter cities, riding the rails was a humanizing method of travel. For me, it was a way of interacting with the landscapes I traveled through far more than I’m used to. But when they were first introduced, railroads had the opposite effect. Cronon writes about railroads’ “liberation from geography,” because far more than previous methods of transport, railroads were largely unaffected by changes in weather and season, and they succeeded more than any other method of travel at drawing straight lines between market centers.

Further, railroads changed people’s sense of time. Not only did they dramatically shorten the time it took to travel from one place to another (imagine, now a three-day trip from Chicago to Seattle is nothing short of quaint!) but they literally standardized Americans’ experience of time. Cronon writes:

Before the invention of standard time, clocks were set according to the rules of astronomy: noon was the moment when the sun stood highest in the midday sky. By this strict astronomical definition every locale had a different noon, depending on the line of longitude it occupied. When clocks read noon in Chicago, it was 11:50 AM in St. Louis, 11:38 AM in St. Paul, 11:27 AM in Omaha, and 12:18 PM in Detroit, with every possible variation in between. … And so, on November 18, 1883, the railroad companies carved up the continent into four time zones, in each of which all clocks would be set to exactly the same time. (79)

It would be another three and a half decades before the government got around to officially recognizing the time zones, but everyone was pretty quick to adopt the railroad’s distinctions. When technology trumps the sun and the seasons, it’s hardly a wonder people felt so optimistic about settling the Great West. And here I thought riding the rails would be some sort of back-to-the-land-and-the-people populist/environmentalist journey of self-discovery. Sort of puts things into perspective. And I’m not talking about vanishing points on the horizon.

Fittingly, just outside Chicago.

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