SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


30 years ago, it was Time for a debate


June 29, 2012

Ketchikan, Alaska - Alaskans are a fractious bunch.

As an old adage goes, one Alaskan is a crowd and two Alaskans is an argument.

We argue about the weather. Each section of the state claims to have the worst in some way. We argue about the beauty, each section is the best in some way.

We even argue about which part of the state is the most argumentative. My money is on the MatSu, but there are times when our own little Southeast slice of heaven can turn even the slightest difference of opinion into the Hatfields and the McCoys. Artist Ray Troll has dubbed Ketchikan the “proud home of recreational fighting.”

Once upon a time, nearly 30 years ago, we even argued about the time. In those days it was easier to get a grip on the size of Alaska. It spanned four time zones, the same as in all of the contiguous Lower 48.

jpg Extend Daylight Time

Extend Daylight Time
By Tab, The Calgary Sun
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Cagle Cartoons, Inc.

But then, in an effort to bring Alaskans “closer together” Governor Bill Sheffield proposed eliminating two of the four time zones. Naturally, that also started an argument.

As with many issues of contention in Alaskan, the time zone proposal had to do with the 800 pound gorilla of Alaskan arguments, whether or not to move the state capitol out of Juneau.

Some Southeast residents, primarily those in Juneau, felt that moving the capital closer to the Railbelt – time wise – would help blunt efforts to move the capital, which had led to another statewide vote in November of 1982.

Residents in the rest of Southeast Alaska were more interested in staying on Pacific Time because most felt that they had more interaction with Seattle and other West Coast communities than they did with Anchorage and the Rail Belt.

Time had always been a fairly local proposition in Alaska, with the huge state covering enough longitude to qualify for five time zones. National Park Service Historian Frank Norris says that prior to 1900 time was determined by longitude.

“Based on that system, clocks in Wrangell (located at 132 Degrees West Longitude) would strike noon 12 minutes before those located in Sitka (at 135 Degrees West Longitude),” Norris wrote in a 2003 issue of the Alaska History Journal. “This system proved slightly vexing to ship captains and commercial traders who traveled long distances. Most people, however, traveled little; thus there was little pressure to change the existing state of affairs.”

In Ketchikan, it was assumed that whatever time it was in Seattle was good enough, even though – according to the longitude theory - Ketchikan should have been at least 30 minutes behind Seattle. Watches and clocks were set by calling the phone company, which checked in every morning with Seattle for the correct time.

Even so, old timers say, time was not as crucial to the day to day events as it is now. In the summer, most work began not long after sunrise and ended in the dusk of nightfall. In the winter – when things slowed down dramatically – outdoor work was limited to daylight as well, although indoor commerce found itself beginning in darkness in the morning and ending in darkness in the late afternoon.

The only significant public display of timekeeping took place at noon, when Ketchikan Spruce Mill would rattle the windows of downtown with its horn. In the summer, canneries would also mark break times with bells and sirens, but since the breaks were not consistent the public at large couldn’t set their watches by the sounds.

As in a lot of other areas, the Alaskan/Canadian Gold Rushes of the 1890s and 1900s brought change. The US Army, which was responsible for keeping order in territory, wanted more established times. Three zones were created. Alaska Standard Time – one hour before Pacific Time – was established in Southeast, then the most populous part of the state. Additional time zones were also established for Central and Western Alaska.

This delineation stayed in place until 1940. Time changes for daylight savings time also came into effect in the early 1920s.

Another change came into effect during World War I when Alaska Standard Time was moved two hours – rather than one hour – before Pacific Time. But since it was a slower time, a time when there was little instantaneous communication between Alaska and the Outside World, most residents continued to observe Alaska Time as an hour before Pacific Time.

By the mid 1920s, though, there was a move to change Southeast’s time to that of the Pacific Coast. In 1926, the Ketchikan City Council voted to adopt Pacific Standard Time. According to the Ketchikan Chronicle, the move had strong support from fishermen, tourists and businesses doing business with Seattle interests.

The Daily Alaska Empire (Juneau) noted that the while the idea was also proposed in other Southeast communities, none followed Ketchikan’s lead. In the 1930s, some communities followed Seattle’s lead and moved to Daylight Savings time, but the actions were not region or statewide.

Shortly before World War II, in April of 1940, Juneau voters chose to move from Alaska Standard to Pacific Time. During World War II, the rest of the state moved to Pacific Time. But at the end of the War, when the rest of the country repealed “War Time,” Southeast as a region stayed on Pacific Time.

Eventually, time zones became further established with most of Southeast on Pacific Time, Skagway on Yukon Time, the Rail Belt on Alaska-Hawaii Time and Western Alaska in a fourth time zone.

That’s where things remained until the 1970s, when the capital move debate began to dominate statewide politics.

In 1979, the Juneau City-Borough Assembly – at the urging of Mayor Bill Overstreet - requested that the Federal Department of Transportation move northern Southeast Alaska to Yukon Time, hoping this would ease some of the tension with the Railbelt. This was approved and in April of 1980, Juneau and Haines joined Skagway in the Yukon Time zone. Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka stayed in the Pacific zone.

This change occurred despite the fact that a rebellion had occurred in Juneau with a majority of the residents opposing the move. The state government also asked the federal government to leave Juneau and Haines in Pacific Time, but the Federal DOT refused, at least initially.

Opposition intensified – residents in Juneau even tried to recall several Assembly members who originally proposed the time change – and the Federal Government agreed to reassess the time change. By the end of 1980, it had decided to revoke its decision to move Juneau to Yukon Time.

In the 1982 elections, voters turned down the capital move question, but newly elected Governor Bill Sheffield decided to “bring the state closer together” by putting nearly the entire state on a single time zone. Sheffield proposed that the Railbelt move up one hour and Southeast move back an hour, putting both areas on what would be called Alaska Time.

Western Alaska and the far Aleutians would also be moved up an hour but would still remain an hour behind the rest of the state. The Federal Government modified the proposal slightly and put Western Alaska into the unified time zone, leaving only the Aleutians in the Western Alaska zone. The new zones went into affect in October of 1983.

Naturally, in Southeast – especially Southern Southeast – the move to a new time was controversial. Residents of Metlakatla and the Annette Island Indian Community opted to stay on Pacific Time, which is why there is an hour time difference between Ketchikan and Metlakatla when Ketchikan goes off Daylight Savings Time each fall.

Residents of Ketchikan were also generally unhappy with the time change. The time change was set to coincide with the normal “fall back” from daylight savings to standard time in October 1983.  So in effect, Southeast residents “fell back” two hours that year. Whereas sunset was at 6:09 on Oct 30 it was suddenly at 4:02 on Oct. 31st. By contrast, residents in the central part of the state didn’t change their clocks at all. By not “falling back” an hour they were suddenly on the same time zone as Southeast.

Among the complaints aired in the Ketchikan Daily News was that the move hurt business with Seattle. This was the same argument that Metlakatla used, because the Native community said it did more business with federal agencies in Seattle and Washington D.C.

Locally, it was also felt that the increased darkness in the afternoon was dangerous to children coming home from school. School Superintendent Darroll Hargraves told the Daily News that the district was expecting a few days of “grumpy, hyperactive kids” because biological clocks would be out of whack.

Police chief Dan Anslinger said the additional darkness in the afternoon would create a danger because many school children would be walking home in the dark. “Having an extra hour of light in morning won’t do anything for us,” Anslinger told the Daily News.

Local air traffic operators also faulted the change. The two-hour fall back meant that flights would have to end by 3:30 pm in December and January. “We’ll have to be back well before the normal work day is over,” Ketchikan Air pilot Don Nobles told the Daily News.

The change did spur one positive change for local sports enthusiasts. The loss of an hour of daylight eventually spurred the community to spend more than $500,000 to put lights at Dudley and Walker Fields.

The anger at the time change was so deep that hundreds of names were gathered on petitions and in 1984 the Ketchikan City Council voted to go back to Pacific Time. But that vote was contingent upon the Borough Assembly taking similar action. Prior to the Assembly vote, Governor Sheffield contacted its members and asked them to put off action and give the time change a chance to work. The Assembly voted 6-1 to “study” the proposal further.

Still citizens groups in Ketchikan and other Southeast communities continued to press their case for a return to Pacific Time. In 1986, the Federal Government turned down their requests. According to the Ketchikan Daily News, the refusal was because officials felt that allowing individual communities to choose their time zones would create greater difficulty in terms of commerce and communications.

For a while, several Ketchikan residents informally protested by remaining on Pacific Time. At least one business, Murray Pacific, joined them.

The company, which did a large percentage of its business with companies in Seattle, felt it was losing at least two hours of business time with the West Coast. So it polled its employees and they unanimously supported staying on Pacific Time.

 At the time, one employee noted that going to work an hour later in the morning was a good thing because there was less competition for the use of the family bathroom.

Since the 1980s, there have been several proposals to alter the time zones again. The most common suggestion is for Alaska to stay on Daylight Savings Time year round. But none of the proposals have received wide scale support.

On the other hand, the capital move, which Governor Sheffield hoped to forestall by condensing the time zones - continues to be debated – and argued over – year after year.




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Historical Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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Dave Kiffer ©2012


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