Have you ever thought about what it would be like to have to try and communicate a message to someone without a phone, radio, or computer? What if all you had was a lantern? Would you be able to send messages using signals? That is exactly how railroad workers from the 1850’s to roughly the 1960’s would communicate with one another.
There were several types of railroad lanterns. These included lanterns in passenger cars, lanterns used by the conductor or given to the conductor to honor his years of service or lanterns used to send signals. During the day, flags were used to send messages, such as stop, proceed, or to let the conductor know the tracks were aligned. By day this flag system worked great, but at night or in situations where there was not a lot of light, flags were not the best tool. Instead railroad workers would use lanterns as a way of communication and in some cases a source of warmth on especially chilly nights. The light from lanterns could be seen from a distance, and when coupled with the noise from the rail yard, light was by far the best way to communicate. Another benefit of lanterns was that they were portable and could be carried from point to point or placed on various pieces of equipment.
Lantern signals would happen one of two ways. The first way was through colored globes: clear, green, yellow, red and blue. Clear globes were used by brakemen and were used for general signals from
the rail yard. Clear globes could also be used at flag stations to signal that a train needed to stop. A flag station is a station that trains do not stop at unless signaled to do so. Green globes were used by the tower station to signal that the train should proceed with caution, used by switch operators to show that the switches were aligned properly, or by the wreck master to signal the engineer of the work train positioning the wrecker. The yellow globe was used either to mark camp cars, which were cars that railroad repair workers would live in while on the job away from home, or by switch tenders to show that switches were aligned properly, or they were hung as a tower signal to tell the engineer, conductor and operator that the they had Form 19 orders. Red globes were used as signal for stop. They also were used to tell the train that it had Form 31 orders which required the train to stop. Blue globes were used to mark equipment that were not to be moved; it showed that that piece of equipment was being worked on.
The second method of signals involved physically moving the lantern. By moving the lantern side to side you would be signaling stop, whereas by moving the lantern up and down you would be signaling to proceed. The signal to move back would be to swing the lantern vertically in a circle going no higher than your head. To signal to reduce speed one would hold the lantern out to their side, and to show that the train has parted, the signal would be to swing the lantern vertically in a circle using your whole arm’s length. To apply the brakes one would swing the lantern horizontally above the head and to release the brakes one hold the lantern an arm’s length above the head. To learn more about hand signals visit here.
Using lanterns proved such an efficient and effective way of communication on the railroad that even when technological advances came along, like the flashlight, many workers preferred the lantern. There were several companies that manufactured railroad lanterns, but only a few that continues that work today. Adams & Westlake Co. or Adlake as it is more commonly known, was one of the most well-known companies for producing railroad lanterns. The company was founded in 1857 in Chicago and started off by selling railroad supplies and equipment, and with the push to move west via railroad power, the company prospered. In 1927 the company moved to its present location in Elkhart, Indiana and still continues to produce railroad equipment and supplies.
Here at the High Plains Museum we have four lanterns used by the Rock Island Railroad. The
lantern on the top left was not used as a signal lantern but instead as a lantern for bunk cars between 1890 and 1930. The image on the right is one of the lanterns that used a colored globe to send signals. This lantern has a red glass globe and was used on the Rock Island Railroad. The lantern to the left is a kerosene lantern used on the railroad from 1890 to 1930. The last lantern image is a lantern that was used by the freight conductor on the Rock Island Railroad.
Today lanterns used for railroad signals are not used to the frequency they were during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Technological advances such as the radio and phone have outstripped the lantern in terms of communication. However, lanterns can always be used in cases of emergency and would still be extremely useful for railroad workers. Can you think of other objects that at one point played a huge role but have been since been used less thanks to new advances? Please leave your comments in the section below.
Look for more posts in this series about our wonderful collection of Sherman County history.