Lantern Stories and First Hand Accounts

There is no shortage of rule books that describe how lanterns were to be used in railroad operations. But firsthand accounts are not common, and based on what railroaders say, there was a lot of variation in the way lanterns were used on specific lines. Here are some comments. Also see a second page of first hand accounts and an article "With Tongues of Fire: Railroad Lanterns" that first appeared in a 1953 issue of "Railroad" Magazine. We welcome other comments. Email us via the Contact Us page.

"I spent a lot of time around the RR in the late days of oil lantern use in the late 1960s. The Nickel Plate used the amber signal for two main purposes: 1.) to mark a cut of camp cars at night (a lantern was hung on a hook attached to a round yellow sign lettered "CAMP CARS"); 2.) as a tower signal at night to indicate that Form 19 orders were to be handed up to conductor and engineer. The NKP also specified an amber lantern as std equipment on locomotives. The signal green globe color was used as a tower signal for "proceed with caution" and also by the wreckmaster to signal the wrecker operator and the engineer of the work train positioning the wrecker at night. The engineer of the wreck train could only act on a green signal from the wreckmaster. I remember a tool car in a wreck train being well equipped with lots of unfired Adlake Keros with green and blue globes. The red globe color was always used as a danger signal and to signal "stop", danger ahead. 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 a car knocker's lantern), however, I once saw a NYC camp car cut in Silver Creek, NY, that was marked with a blue circle sign with hook and blue lantern attached. The NKP required tower operators to have lanterns lit and ready for use during all hours of darkness. Oil lanterns and lantern filling tinware were everywhere in the late 1960s. You could find them hanging in almost any shanty, all interlocking towers, cabs of diesel locomotives, cabooses, maintenance-of-way equipment, Fairmont motor cars, etc. NYC/PC used at least one, and many times two clear lanterns to mark rear ends of passenger trains until Amtrak. They even hung them on the end of express boxcars in passenger and mail trains when an express car was the last car in the train, often the case in later days. Many NYC and PC cabooses could be seen at night with a red lantern hanging from the chain on the end of a bay window caboose platform. This was very common. Some state laws required RRs to maintain oil lanterns as alternate signal sources even when battery powered lanterns had been in use for more than 30 years.

I observed another common practice in the use of oil lanterns: Oil lanterns were often "ballasted" with two bundles of red fusees, one placed on each side of the bail attachment to the frame. Two or three fusees were bundled together using train order twine, then tied to the lantern to weight it down so it would not tip over when train slack ran in. Torpedos were also attached to the horizontal guard wire of a lantern for the same ballasting purpose. This was a favorite practice when lanterns were used to mark ends of passennger trains. One or two lanterns could always be seen on the rear platform inside the "fence" with their fusee and torpedo ballast attached.

Pennsylvania's N5C and N8 steel cabin cars were built with two heavy vertical steel beams at the center on their ends to fortify their structures for heavy pushing. There was a bracket welded onto a round bar cross member running between the beams that was a favorite place to hang oil lanterns. With a lantern in vertical position, railroaders would lock the bail of an Adlake Kero and bend the bail around so it would slip under the bracket and hang vertically without swinging. If you ever find a PRR or PC lantern with its bail bent in this fashion, it's because it was used as I've described.

I always found it interesting that virtually no lanterns with PRR or NYCS markings could be found anywhere after the Penn Central merger. Everything around after February, 1968, had a PC logo marking. PC bought a very large quantity of new lanterns and filling tinware. It was amazing! Where did all of the older lanterns go?? There were none to be found despite a hard effort searching.

I became acquainted with a retired ERIE telegraph operator who worked mainline towers and block stations in western NY, like NE, MS, DV, CM, and others, until most closed around 1979. He also collected lanterns for a long time and once told me that when something new was introduced, such as new hardware markings after a merger, all old stuff disappeared very quickly. Guys took the stuff home, and a lot went on the scrap pile. [Sent 5/27/2005 and 5/31/2005 by AS]

"When I started out we had oil burning lanterns. We had two lanterns on every engine, a red and a white. The fireman had to keep the globes clean and filled with kerosene." - Eldon Plaugher as quoted in "Working on the Western Maryland" published by the Western Maryland Historical Society.

I worked on the railroad during the 40s, 50s & 60s. My last station was a flag stop for passenger trains. On the timetables the station was designated as a flag stop, so the hogger was alerted. We never used a lantern. We had a green-over-white flag with a special station light to indicate passengers. To my knowledge green-over-clear [globes in lanterns] were strictly a presentation thing. I can remember some of the old conductors carrying a lantern with the green-over-clear. By the way I am 82 years old -J.H.