Railroad Lanterns and Lamps

Lanterns and lamps were used daily as a tool of the trade for railroad workers in the past. They were the best means of communication when operating and directing trains. These lanterns communicated signals  between trains, stations, and workers, since loud working environments and the distance involved in train operations negated communication by speaking or yelling.

Railroad Kerosene Lantern With Clear Glass Globe and Wire Caging

Railroad lanterns and railroad lamps serve two separate ways of signalling. Railroad lanterns have a globe surrounded by a metal frame or caging and a fuel source, originally oil and later kerosene. A railroad lantern was portable and was an effective light source that could be easily seen at night from a distance. The railroad worker would swing and move the lantern in different ways according to what message he wanted to send.  For instance, to give a stop signal, the lantern would be swung back and forth horizontally across the tracks and the signal to proceed was to move the lantern up and down vertically.

In addition, different coloured globes or lenses, of both the lanterns and lamps, were used to mean different signals. Red, Blue, Yellow, and Green and Clear/White, had its own significance. For example, a lantern with a blue globe was hung on equipment to mark that wasn’t to be moved. A lantern with a green globe was used by switch tenders to indicate that the switches were aligned properly and to proceed with caution.

Railroad lanterns are often classified into five different categories. These are: fixed globe lanterns, tall globe lanterns, short globe lanterns, conductors’ lanterns, and inspectors lanterns.

Unlike lanterns, railroad lamps were designed to be stationary and were made out of sheet metal or cast metal. While they may have handles on them for transportation, they were generally larger than lanterns and had lenses to magnify the light, rather than a globe. Additionally, while lanterns were primarily used at night, lamps were used during the day as well as the night.

A Railroad Signal or Marker Lamp
Further Investigation Needed to Identify Correctly

Railroad lamps include: marker lamps, switch lamps, classification lamps, crossing-gate lamps, semaphore lamps, and each were mounted in different places and gave different signals.  Marker lamps, for example, were hung on the last car to signal the end of the train.  Whereas, switch lamps were mounted to a railroad track switch and would indicate, using specific colours, which position the switch was set to.


“PIPER TORONTO” engraved on the top of the lamp

1 thought on “Railroad Lanterns and Lamps

  1. Good afternoon, I have a Adlake 4-way lantern w/out exhaust on top. Made a touch lamp with it but the globes are incased in a brass backing and ring to hold in place with a clamp. I am dumbfounded on how the inside light shines thru the globes to be seen from the outside? I hope you will be able to answer solve this? Thank You!

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