In the days before city lights and GPS, railroad lanterns served a very important purpose: they communicated signals at night between trains and stations. Sometimes, a timely lantern signal meant the difference between life and death. In one romanticized 19th-century story, for example, a 15-year-old girl named Kate Shelley saved the Fast Atlantic Express from a broken bridge by alerting a station agent, whose lantern signal to the train averted disaster.
In the most basic sense, railroad lanterns have four components: a base, a wire guard (or cage), a chimney, and a glass globe housing the light source. The cage protects this globe from damage, but, even so, antique lanterns with intact globes are rare.
Lanterns can be divided into a few basic categories. The first is the fixed-globe lantern, the earliest type. These were most popular from the time of the Civil War to a few deca...
Unlike later lantern designs, the globes on fixed-globe lanterns could not be easily removed from the lantern frame. And since railroads were still young, these lanterns were generally not very standardized and were made in a variety of styles.
In 1865, William Westlake built the first tall-globe lantern, which was widely used from the 1870s until World War I. The globes on these lanterns generally measured between 5 3/8 and 6 inches tall. Unlike fixed-globe lanterns, their globes could be removed easily, and the globes’ larger size made them better suited to burn signal oil, which was becoming the most common lantern fuel. Because these globes are relatively rare today, many collectors consider them the most desirable.
From after World War I until the 1960s, the tall-globe lantern gave way to the short-globe lantern, with globes measuring between 3 ¼ to 4 ½ inches tall. This smaller chamber size was better suited to burn kerosene, which had replaced signal oil as the main lantern fuel. Short-globe lanterns were manufactured by companies like Adams & Westlake, Armspear Manufacturing, R.E. Dietz, Lovell-Dressel, Handlan, Atlantic and St. Lawrence R.R., and Star Headlight and Lantern Company, whose slogan was “We Light the Way.”
The fixed-, tall-, and short-globe lanterns are known as trainsman’s lanterns since they were used by various crew members on a train. The fourth type of lantern is the conductor’s lantern, also known as a presentation lantern since it was sometimes given to conductors as an award or mark of distinction. As conductors had the highest status of any crew member on a passenger train, their lanterns were the fanciest, often with nickel or brass plating and ornamental lettering featuring the conductor’s name. The globe sometimes even had two colors for an added decorative touch.
The fifth and last main type of lantern is the inspector’s lantern, which was more utilitarian in design. Inspectors used these lanterns to examine train cars, so they had reflective surfaces designed to focus the globe’s light. Inspector’s lanterns were generally made from sheet metal so they would be durable.
Lanterns with railroad markings are generally more valuable than unmarked ones. The rarer and more unusual the marking, the more valuable the lantern.
Not to be confused with railroad lanterns, railroad lamps can be distinguished from the former by their lack of a globe. Lamps were solid metal cylinders with one or more lenses transmitting light from inside the cylinder. Sometimes these lenses were different colors.
Unlike lanterns, lamps were designed to be stationary and were made out of sheet metal. Marker lamps, for example, were hung on the last car to signal the end of the train. Classification lamps on a locomotive indicated what kind of locomotive it was. Other kinds of lamps included semaphore lamps, switch lamps, and crossing-gate lamps.
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