By Kylin Cummings

Since the beginning, railroads have used a variety of signaling systems to communicate in rail yards and 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 even shouting impossible to hear. Semaphore flag signaling (an alphabet signaling system based on waving a pair of hand-held flags in particular patterns) was successful during daylight hours. Nighttime communication, however, required lanterns.  Railroad workers would swing lanterns much like they would wave semaphore flags to send messages such as to stop or apply the brakes.

Railroad lanterns are quite different from railroad lamps — which had a distinctly different purpose.  Railroad lamps, which did not have globes, were designed to be stationary and were made out of solid sheet metal cylinders with one or more lenses transmitting light from inside the cylinder. Marker lamps, for example, hung on the last car to signal the end of the train; classification lamps on a locomotive indicated what kind of locomotive it was.

Lanterns, on the other hand, were more versatile and could be used to communicate a variety of messages.  Early oil lanterns proved to be the most effective way to communicate in the dark. These lanterns were so advantageous that many railroad workers continued to use them even after modern methods were developed. Later on, battery powered lanterns were used, but many railroad workers thought they provided a weaker signal, were too directional, and required the batteries to be changed too frequently.

In the most basic sense, the early styles of oil railroad lanterns have four components: a base, a wire guard (or cage), a chimney, and a glass globe housing the light source. The five general lantern categories are fixed globe, tall globe, short globe, conductor, and inspector lanterns.

FIXED GLOBE lanterns were among the first lanterns introduced during the Civil War. Unlike later lantern designs, these lanterns were generally not standardized and were made in a variety of styles. The globes inside these lanterns were not removable, which required workers to use different hand signals or different lanterns to communicate.

In 1865, William Westlake built the first TALL GLOBE lantern, which was widely used until World War I. The globes on these lanterns generally measured between 5 and 6 inches tall. Tall globe lanterns were especially useful because the globe could be removed or changed to alter the color of the light, easily sending different messages with the same lantern. The globes’ larger size also made them better suited to burn signal oil, which was becoming the most common lantern fuel. 

From after World War I until the 1960s, SHORT GLOBE lanterns were the popular choice among railroad workers. The globes were four inches or less in height. This smaller chamber size burned less fuel and was better suited to burn kerosene, which had replaced signal oil as the main lantern fuel.

The fourth type is the CONDUCTOR’S lantern, also known as a “presentation lantern” since it was sometimes given to conductors as an award. As conductors had the highest authority of any crew member on a passenger train (higher than the engineer), their lanterns were the fanciest. This type of lantern took special globes that were not standardized and sometimes were made of two colors for an added decorative touch. These lanterns were still useful for work purposes, but their exterior brass or nickel plating made them more delicate.

The fifth type is the INSPECTOR’S lantern, which was more utilitarian in design. Inspectors used these lanterns to examine train cars, so they had reflective surfaces made of metal or glass designed to point light in one direction. Inspectors’ lanterns were generally made from sheet metal for durability.

More efficient forms of technology long ago replaced railroad lanterns fueled by oil. Battery powered lanterns for railroad use began appearing around 1918. Their initial use was primarily in locations where fire and explosion risk was high. As the popularity of battery powered lanterns increased after the Depression, the market for oil lanterns decreased. Today, virtually all railroad lanterns in use in North America are battery powered.

The Sharlot Hall Museum has a huge variety of railroad paraphernalia in the permanent collection.  Come see a selection of 14 railroad lanterns that represent the different styles in the temporary exhibit case in the Lawler Center foyer. 

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.