Q: What would it take to move the little chunk of far West Texas where I live out of the Mountain Time Zone and into the Central Time Zone like the rest of the state?
Tim Holt, El Paso
A: This deceptively mundane inquiry proved to be much more stimulative than it appeared on first read. In sitting down to think about exactly how to address it, the Texanist initially wondered how long the furthest reaches of West Texas have resided in a different time zone than the rest of Texas. And that got him to thinking about time zones in general, which got him to thinking about the keeping of time in general. And about the longitudinal divisions of the earth, and the four-dimensional space-time continuum, and Zeno’s paradoxes and other heady matters. And, well, before you knew it, there the Texanist was, tumbling headlong down a deep, deep rabbit hole of internet research the likes of which he hasn’t seen since formulating a reply to that gentleman from East Texas who inquired a few years ago about why flour tortillas are readily available in a variety of sizes while corn tortillas usually come in just that one diameter.
“When, exactly, was the dawn of time?” the Texanist found himself contemplating. “What time is it on the moon? “Gee, is it funny how time just slips away? Or, really, not so much?” The Texanist’s mind was racing. Duodecimal and sexagesimal numerical systems! Julian days! Gregorian calendars! International Atomic Time! Coordinated Universal Time! For a minute there the Texanist considered the possibility that he may have gotten some tainted CBD oil (the Texanist has been experimenting) in his afternoon fruit smoothie.
But before too long, the Texanist was snapped out of his reverie by way of a barrage of snippy emails from his editor. He had his own questions, also having to do with time, largely concerning just what the hell the Texanist had been doing with all of his. Duly reprimanded, the Texanist refocused his efforts.
For a little perspective, let’s take a moment for a brief history lesson on the keeping of time in Texas. Many years ago, the passing of the sun and moon across the sky was tracked in a much less precise manner than it is today. Though merely observing recurring seasonal changes, taking note of the annual movements of animals, and glancing at the sundial once sufficed as ways of measuring the passage of the hours, days, weeks, months, and years, today we’re more demanding. Now it’s all Google Calendars, Apple Watches, cesium 133 isotopes, and hyper-precise atomic clocks.
Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t until November 18, 1883, that the first system of standardized time was instituted across the United States. Prior to this big synchronization more than a hundred different local times were kept across the country. Set to “high noon,” the moment when the sun was perceived to be highest in the sky above a specific locality, these manifold clock settings passed muster for most of the nineteenth century. But as railroad trains grew faster and more prevalent, and the need to better coordinate those locomotives’ comings and goings became more urgent, railroad companies thought it wise to sync up the clocks. The country was thenceforth divided into four time zones—Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. El Paso and most of the Trans-Pecos region were situated in the new Mountain Time Zone, which uses the 105th meridian west of Greenwich as its basis. That made a great deal of sense, given that this meridian passes through Texas just 120 miles east of El Paso. The rest of Texas resided in the Central Time Zone, which is roughly centered on the 90th meridian west. That, too, made a great deal of sense, since the 90th meridian passes through Mississippi and Louisiana, just a few hundred miles east of Texas’s central population centers. Since this entire scheme had been implemented by the railroad companies and not the federal government, the exact lines of demarcation shifted a bit over time, depending on the industry’s whims. The Texanist even found one map from 1913 that placed all of Texas, El Paso included, in the Central Time Zone.
But as the practical benefits of standardized time—it made conducting commerce and travel much smoother—became ever clearer, the U.S. government eventually saw fit to codify the zones with the passing of the Standard Time Act of 1918. El Paso and a significant chunk of West Texas were officially placed in the Mountain Time Zone.
In 1921, though, Congress changed its mind and placed all of Texas in the Central Time Zone. El Pasoans, however, ignored the law and continued to operate on Mountain Time. And that was the lawlessness of the land until April 13, 1966, exactly one week before the Texanist’s time on earth commenced.
The Uniform Time Act of 1966, which passed on that date, compelled all parts of the country to conform with the standard time zones in which they had been placed. But El Pasoans were staunch in their preference to remain in the Mountain Time Zone. After all, the city’s two largest neighbors, Ciudad Juárez and Las Cruces, New Mexico, with which it conducts a great deal of commerce, were both in the Mountain Time Zone. So, on April 30, 1967, exactly ten days after the Texanist celebrated his first birthday, El Paso was placed on Mountain Daylight Time on an interim basis. And then on April 10, 1970, as the Texanist was looking forward to his fourth birthday, the Uniform Time Act was amended, and El Paso and neighboring Hudspeth County were officially placed in the Mountain Time Zone. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.
So, what, to get back to your question, would it take to unify Texas time? Well, first and foremost, it would take a good reason to do so. And that good reason just doesn’t seem to exist, at least if one goes by the apparent wishes of most El Pasoans (though not, apparently, yourself). El Paso is situated so far west that it’s closer to San Diego than it is to Houston. (San Diego, California, that is. Though El Paso is also closer, by a scant 37 miles, to San Diego, Texas.) And given the city’s business ties with Ciudad Juárez and Las Cruces, it’s no wonder that most of your fellow 915-ers seem to have concluded that being in the Central Time Zone, an hour ahead of those municipalities, would be more complicated than being an hour behind the rest of Texas.
It is not, however, impossible to change a city or region’s time zone. Over the past twenty years, fifteen communities across the country have switched zones, though none of them were in Texas. All it takes is an act of Congress. Any request for such a modification would need to come from the “highest political authority in the area,” which, in the case of El Paso, would be the El Paso County Commissioners’ Court. The ultimate decision would be based on how the proposed change would affect the “convenience of commerce” and, of course, on the community’s own desire. Which, again, in the case of El Paso, seems to be to maintain the status quo.
Now, if you’ll excuse the Texanist, he’s going to go get himself a smoothie and spend a good long while pondering exactly why it is that the northwestern corner of Culberson County observes Mountain Time even though the entire county is officially located within the boundaries of the Central Time Zone. It’s a real head-scratcher. Fortunately, the Texanist has all the time in the world to contemplate it—as long as his clock-watching editor doesn’t come a-calling, that is.