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Dealing with change on the railroads

Railroads were so important that they actually changed the time. Before the 1880s, every major city had its own local time, based on calling it noon when the sun was right over city hall. Noon in Philadelphia was a few minutes later than noon in New York; when the clocks in St. Louis said 11:50, the clocks in Chicago said noon. This customized time didn't matter much in the days of stagecoaches, but railroads needed to run on a schedule that everybody understood. In 1883, the major railroads laid out four time zones for the United States; these time zones are still basically what Americans set their watches by today.

The year 1877 was a bad time for many white railroad workers. The four largest railroads in the United States cut their pay by 10 percent. When union members went on strike, federal troops were called in to break up the picket lines. In the fighting that followed, more than 100 people died. During this time, the last federal troops protecting blacks were withdrawn from the South.

Chinese workers also faced trouble. After they finished building the Central Pacific railroad west from Sacramento, the jobs for low-paid Chinese far outnumbered those for other workers. When the Chinese population of California reached nearly 10 percent of the state total, jobless white residents launched violent attacks against the competitive Asians.

Under pressure, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), barring all further settlement from China; this first law to limit national immigration stayed in effect for 60 years. Some exclusionists even tried to take away the citizenship of Chinese born in the United States, but the Supreme Court slapped them down in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), saying that all people born in the United States are citizens.

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