GRAND FORKS — The North Dakota Legislature has taken up time — not in the sense of passing time, but time as an issue. Time as an issue has bedeviled North Dakota since the state was new 136 years ago. In fact, the development of North Dakota as a state coincides almost exactly with the beginning of time zones.
Time zones were a creation of the railroads, which needed standard time in order to maintain schedules. Without time zones, every station would observe solar time, which meant a few minutes difference for every few miles of travel.
Time zones made timetables possible.
The impact on North Dakota was not universal, however, because the state’s two major railroads used a different boundary for the edge of the time zone. The Northern Pacific observed Mountain time when it crossed the Missouri River; the Great Northern didn’t change its clocks until it crossed the Montana border.
This left North Dakota in two times zones, with the area north and east of the river in Central time and the area south and west of the Missouri in Mountain time — except for a small sliver served by a Great Northern branch line, long since abandoned. The Great Northern’s adherence to the border gave northwestern North Dakota a unique position. The sun rose and set later — on the clock — than anywhere else in the Lower 48.
Variant time zones caused real confusion in the Bismarck-Mandan area almost from the beginning. North Dakotans today think of these cities as a metro area, but that’s a relatively recent notion. Mandan, on the west bank of the river, observed Mountain time while Bismarck was in the Central time zone.
This was chaotic, since many Mandanites worked in Bismarck and many Bismarckers worked in Mandan, which at the time had more heavy industry while Bismarck was the shopping and governmental center. The city of Mandan adopted central time in the 1960s. So did the school district.
The railroad, however, held on to Mountain time. As a result, the time zone boundary, effectively, ran along the lot line separating our backyard from our neighbors. Suezette and I both worked in Bismarck, but our neighbors were railroad employees. We observed Central time; they lived on Mountain time.
Most of rural Morton county remained in Mountain time, and this was a contributing factor to something called “The Strip,” along U.S. Highway 10, where a cluster of bars and restaurants sprang up. You guessed it, they observed Mountain time, which allowed for closing an hour after watering holes in Bismarck that observed Central time had closed down. Several of the establishments along “The Strip” became hangouts for legislators, who could keep up the business of the legislative day well past midnight, when bars closed in Bismarck. Each of the political parties had its own favorites along The Strip. If you were looking for Republicans, you went to one place. If you wanted to find Democrats, you looked in another. Even when Central time was extended over the strip, this kind of “after hours” opportunity arose again, just a little west or south of the Mandan city limits.
Gov. Art Link, a teetotaler, attempted to end this practice in the early 1970s by suggesting that the entire state should be in one time zone. He alienated quite a few legislators by opting for the Mountain time zone, sensible enough from his perspective since he was from the far western edge of the state. The impact would have been to put North Dakota an hour behind Minnesota, and that wasn’t acceptable to cities such as Fargo and Grand Forks, which then as now, were intimately linked to Minnesota interests.
I learned about the vexing issue of time from Ken Knudson, a legislator from Taylor, N.D., which is near Dickinson in the Mountain time zone. Rep. Knudson had a wry sense of humor and a habit of looking sideways at issues. Time, he told me, is something to argue about when all other arguments have been exhausted.
Mountain time was an important issue for Knudson, because it emphasized the uniqueness of the Missouri Slope, the counties west of the Missouri River. Plus, it linked them to the ranching areas of South Dakota’s West River Country, and to northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, Cowboy Country, all of it.
Although these ties were strong, and remain strong, Central time has inched westward. The effective boundary between Central and Mountain time is now the boundary between Morton and Stark counties. Mandan, the Morton county seat, uses Central time; Dickinson, the seat of Stark County, observes Mountain time. The cities are less than 100 miles apart.
Time has been an issue in each of the last three legislative sessions in North Dakota. Bills to end Daylight Savings Time and to place the entire state in the Central time zone were defeated in 2017 and 2019.
This session, the House passed a bill that would put the whole state on Daylight Saving Time but this is contingent on actions by other entities. The law would take effect only after the U.S. Congress approves and neighboring states adopt savings time.
The bill was recommended by a Senate committee last week and could meet its fate any day, if it hasn’t already. I can’t report that here, deadlines being what they are in the new newspaper business.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.