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The Depot, the Station Agent, and Lanterns

Updated: Jan 25

Like traffic lights at roadway intersections, the movement of trains was governed by mounted and handheld signals, including the colorful lanterns on display in our Depot museum. The green, yellow, and red trio we know today has its origins in railroad operations.

Our lanterns are out in the open, yet hanging inconspicuously on the wall in the Station Agent's room. But the lanterns' key role in safety on the railway shouldn't be overlooked and is fun to explore. I spent a recent Sunday afternoon at the museum doing just that.


Hobbyists

My interest was peaked by a local museum visitor who came in just to see our lanterns. He had heard that we had a blue one in the collection, which we do. Unlike the more common clear and red lanterns, blue, this person claimed, is more difficult to find (more about its meaning below). His curiosity and enthusiasm for his hobby as a collector sent me into our archives and online to learn for myself. My online searches eventually took me to Railroadiana Online and their section dedicated to lanterns. Thus, I entered into the world of the railroad lantern hobbyist.


Signaling

Functionally, lanterns were the method of handheld signaling by engineers, conductors, workers, and station agents during darkness, whereas flags were used during the day. Other types of lanterns with different construction than those in the photos above were mounted on locomotives, railcars, and track switches.


For the most part, the colors and hand signaling motions were the same from railway to railway. But each published their own set of safety rules and the engineers, conductors, workers, and station agents were all obligated and required to abide by the printed rules of their employing railway. The accompanying photo of one of these rule books shows three of the most basic signaling motions--stop, reduce speed, and proceed. Additionally:

"Employees whose duties may require them to give hand signals, must provide themselves with the proper appliances, keep them in good order and ready for immediate use. Employees giving hand signals must locate themselves so as to be plainly seen, and give them so as to be plainly understood." -Burlington Northern Railroad Safety Rules

The "Tongues of Fire" and "Uses" stories on the Railroadiana site offer more examples of the silent yet effective signaling techniques common to the railyard.


Colors

The lanterns in the accompanying photo are all of the same make and very similar models. Their differences in color is determined by the color of the glass, or "globe" that is installed in each. The five globe colors in our collection and their meanings are:

  1. White - Safe to proceed

  2. Green - Proceed (white and green could be used together in certain circumstances)

  3. Yellow - Proceed at reduced speed

  4. Red - Stop or danger ahead

  5. Cobalt Blue - see below

"Cobalt blue was always used ONLY for the purpose of marking equipment that was being attended to by car knockers (and was referred to as the car knocker's lantern)" -Lantern Stories and First Hand Accounts, Railroadiana Online

A car "knocker" was a person who inspects or repairs railroad cars.


The IHM Lantern Collection

The signaling lanterns in the photos and on display at the Depot museum were all manufactured in the 1920's and early 30's by the Adams and Westlake Co., which also went by A&W or "ADLAKE" for short. By this time all railroad lanterns were using kerosene for fuel. The use of kerosene instead of whale oil or something called "lantern oil" was driven by supply issues during WW I. These signaling lanterns are of the short-globe variety given their 3 1/4 inch height. The lantern with the red globe is the "250 Kero" model. This can be seen in the photo of the lantern top, where it reads in the inner circle "ADLAKE" No. 250 KERO".


Our cobalt blue globe is the 300 Kero model which was first produced in 1930. The numbers in the model names indicated the size of the lantern's burner. There were also 200 and 400 models of the kerosene short-globe lanterns from A&W. Like all of the short-globes in our collection, the cobalt blue globe is of the "cast" variety, meaning that the glass was manufactured by pouring it into a mold, and two molds were fused to create the complete globe. The fuse lines stand out just a bit and are visible on all of our globes.


The cast method also allowed for the names of railways or the lantern model name to be incorporated into the globe. The words "ADLAKE KERO" can be seen in the photo of the pencil rubbing taken from our cobalt blue globe.

 

Slight pause as I reemerge from the world of the railroad lantern hobbyist...

 

A week after that fateful museum visit from the local lantern enthusiast, another visitor popped in and admitted that he was just killing time while his family was finishing lunch at a nearby restaurant. After a brief chat we found ourselves alongside the lanterns and I took the opportunity to share my new-found lantern knowledge for the first time. It was fun and he seemed to enjoy it too. As he turned to wander further into the Depot, his last comment was "I just got my admission's worth!"

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