Alaska Life

Curious Alaska: The state used to span 4 time zones. What happened?

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Question: What happened to all the different Alaska time zones?

Curious Alaska: In the 1980s, Alaska reduced its number of time zones from four to two. But even today, a slice of the Aleutian Islands is still an hour behind the rest of the state.

A part of the Alaska mystique died that year — at least, according to one account from the Daily News.

It was 1983, and the relatively young state spanned four total time zones, fracturing the state into a puzzle of different moments in the day from Juneau to the Aleutians, which, according to news reports, was a boast on Alaska postcards.

The U.S. Department of Transportation consolidated the time zones and a New York Times report called it the “one of the most comprehensive time zone changes in the last century.”

Alaska students would have to walk to school in the dark each winter, state employees would get more daylight at the end of the day and the change would stir less confusion among tourists flying from Nome to Anchorage, news reports at the time declared.

On Oct. 30 of that year, clocks in Anchorage and Fairbanks didn’t change because daylight saving time was ending, which would usually have prompted setting the clock back one hour. Clocks in Southeast shifted back two full hours, away from Pacific Standard Time. Those in a small segment between Southeast and Southcentral would turn their clocks back one hour — off of Yukon Standard Time. This also meant eliminating Bering Sea time, and those in Kotzebue and Nome shifted their clocks ahead an hour. Clocks west of Unalaska and clocks on the Metlakatla Indian Reservation wouldn’t change.

The majority of the state would transition to what was then called Yukon Time (an hour behind Pacific Standard Time), though news reports stated the name was expected to change to Alaska Time in the future.

The decision, proposed by Gov. Bill Sheffield’s administration and the Alaska legislature, was the subject of a March Daily News section, where readers wrote in with a variety of perspectives. Some argued in favor of keeping the existing time zones while others fully supported the consolidation.

The Department of Transportation held public hearings on the decision and received hundreds of letters about the potential change before one attorney wrote the final decision, which was signed by transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole, an ADN story at the time reported.

The mid-’80s change impacted then-Palmer resident Tony Pippel significantly. He was working in insurance at the time and said the shift pushed him an hour closer to people he was doing business with outside the state.

“You had to make your calls pretty early in the morning to catch anyone still open back east,” Pippel said.

Even being closer to the West Coast was easier, he said, plus the change standardized things in Alaska and made travel easier.

Today, a small segment of the state is still on its own clock — known as Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time. Adak, an island west of Unalaska and far out in the Aleutians, operates an hour behind the rest of the state. That means waking up extra early to do business, said Steve Carroll, who runs a hotel business serving caribou hunters, Navy veterans who were formerly stationed there and those in search of the island’s rare birds and plants.

Carroll on Monday had been up since 5 a.m. because a New York-based prospective traveler rang early to inquire about lodging. The New Yorker asked if the call had woken Carroll.

“I said, ‘Yeah, but that’s OK,’ ” Carroll said.

He’s used to the time zone by now, though he still has to wake up fairly early to check on orders of supplies and parts before places in the Lower 48 close at the end of the day. He does most of his business between the hours of 6 and 11 a.m. since, as Carroll noted, there’s no Home Depot on the island, though Amazon does deliver.

In the 1800s, the Lower 48 set up Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones to bring order to railroad travel. But at the time, Alaska didn’t have railroads and was left out of the new time zone system, historian Frank Norris wrote in 2001 for the Alaska Historical Society.

In the 20th century, Alaska went through many rounds of time zone pingpong amid two world wars, several debates and proposals as well as tension over whether to move the capital from Juneau to the Railbelt before the ultimate decision in 1983.

That tension, Norris said in a recent interview, spurred Gov. Sheffield to propose the time zone consolidation as a means of burying the hatchet between the two regions of the state jockeying for the capital. The Railbelt was two hours behind Southeast for many years.

“That meant that there were several hours a day where businesses couldn’t talk to each other,” Norris said. “And so Sheffield essentially said, ‘Let’s meet halfway.’ ”

But it was a compromise, Norris said, because it moved much of the state off sun time — meaning the sun wouldn’t be near the highest point in the sky at noon for most communities.

“Something’s got to give,” Norris said. “You either have a whole bunch of different time zones, which you could argue Alaska really ought to have ... but it’s either that, or you have these very odd times of the sun coming up and going down. So there’s no perfect system.”

But when it comes to the long lens of history, Alaska has only really relied on time zones for a short period of time, said Ian Hartman, an associate professor of history who chairs the history department at University of Alaska Anchorage.

“This is a state that has for far longer relied upon the rhythms of the season for purposes of subsistence,” Hartman said. “When the salmon run, when the ice breaks up off the rivers, when the snow starts to melt, when you can engage in some type of subsistence lifestyle is going to be far more, I think, important than a time zone — which in a lot of ways is arbitrary.”

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