America By Rail Blog

posted on April 12, 2013

For passengers, trains are a wonderful place to kick back, watch the scenery rolling by, and enjoy effortless trips from point A to point B. Behind the scenes however, are many skilled workers making sure everything runs smooth along the way. Before the invention of electricity and computers that gave rise to advanced forms of railroad signaling technology, trains required a great deal of coordination and manpower to communicate with one another along the railroad line. 

During the era of steam locomotives and early diesel, distance and noise along the tracks and in the train yards made speaking or shouting useless. Any mechanism used would need to be portable, since workers on the line were always in transition. While semaphore flags were successful during daylight hours, nighttime communication required lanterns to signal to one another. Railroad workers used lanterns as a hand signaling to device, swinging them in various ways to send a message such as to stop or slow the breaks.

Kerosene lanterns became the most effective way to communicate in the dark. In fact, these lanterns were so advantageous that many rail workers continued to use them even after more modern methods were introduced to the scene. Flashlights, for example, did not provide as strong a signal, were too directional, and required batteries to be changed frequently. Additionally, lanterns could double as a heat source to stay warm on chilly nights. 

For those spellbound by the history of railroads, lanterns have become a collector item worth scavenging for. The classic image of a man hanging off the back of a train with a lantern swaying back and forth is regularly associated with bygone America. Most lanterns had a black metal cage with glass insets around the interior light source, but there are many different lantern styles that emerged from the old railroad times. The five general lantern categories collectors usually identify include inspector, fixed globe, tall globe, short globe, and presentation or conductor lanterns.

Inspector lanterns were ordinarily made of sheet metal that had a reflective surface to point light in one direction. The flame was typically contained inside a globe-like structure. Fixed globe lanterns represent some of the first railroad lanterns introduced during the Civil War. The globes inside these lanterns were not removable, which forced workers to use different hand signals or lanterns to communicate. In contrast, tall globe lanterns were especially useful because the globe could be removed to alter the light source color, easily sending different messages with the same lantern. Tall globe lanterns became the most prevalent style of railroad lanterns during World War I. 

Following World War I, short globe lanterns became popular. Short globe lanterns had globes that were 4 inches or less in height. Shorter globes burned less fuel and were more easily transported than other bulkier lanterns. The last style collectors search for are presentation or conductor lanterns, which were used mostly for awards of recognition. These lanterns were still useful for work purposes, but their exterior brass or nickel plating made them more delicate. These distinguishing features made it easier for railroad lantern collectors and sellers to assess the value of individual lanterns.

Regardless of what the future of rail transportation brings, its past is a bright one. While railroad lanterns have long been replaced by more efficient forms of technology, they provide an important piece of American history in the evolution of transportation communication. Many railroad lanterns have now found homes in museums, antique shops, and collectors’ homes. These lanterns have also become popular as home d├ęcor accents to add a touch of history and aesthetic intrigue to modern spaces. Regardless of where they end up, railroad lanterns should be treasured for where they’ve been, the trips they once made possible, and the nostalgia they evoke.

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