By Jessica Kosinski
The history of the American railroad system is undeniably amazing. Without railroads many of the U.S. cities and states as we know them today simply wouldn’t exist. The coming of the railroad allowed many sparsely populated areas to become the big cities that they are now. The railroads led to the growth and development of many businesses because they transported people, building materials, animals, and various goods from one part of the country to another. You might be surprised to know that they could not have done any of that without railroad lanterns. So, let’s take a peek at these unassuming, yet vitally important pieces of railroad equipment.
The Practical Significance of Railroad Lanterns
These days, it is easy to take train travel for granted, but in its infancy the railroad system was a lot more dangerous. They didn’t have the computers and other technologies that are available today. As a result, engineers, conductors, and station masters had to always be on their toes, and they also had to develop innovative ways to communicate with each other.
While you might say that railroad lanterns offered a beacon of light to the railroad industry, they were not needed as light sources so much as signal beacons. In the early days of train travel the train yards were too loud for employees to communicate verbally. That led to semaphore flags being used by railroad employees to signal to one another during the day. Although that system worked great, communications completely broke down at night when the flags couldn’t be seen. That’s what led to the development of portable railroad lanterns, which workers could use to flash elaborate signals to each other in the darkness.
Antique Railroad Lantern Construction
One problem that early railroad workers faced is that they were always on the move. Their jobs could also be more than a bit hazardous at times. As a result, they needed railroad lanterns that could take a lot of wear and tear and still work reliably. In general, those early lanterns consisted of a light source inside a glass globe. That globe was set on a base and surrounded by a wire cage that could protect the globe from a certain level of damage. Some railroad lanterns made in certain time periods and for certain purposes were encased in metal housings instead of wire cages for added protection.
Railroad Lanterns by Age
Fixed-globe lanterns were the earliest types used in the United States. They were common during the Civil War era, as well as the 20 years or so after the Civil War. As the name suggests, their globes couldn’t be removed at all in many cases. Some could be removed, but not without a great deal of time and effort. Collectors can find many different styles of fixed-globe railroad lanterns now because they were not constructed in any sort of uniform way at the time.
In 1865, fixed-globe lanterns started to give way to a new tall-globe style, which was originally made by William Westlake. Around that same time signal oil became the most popular fuel for railway lanterns, and the new lantern design Westlake came up with accommodated that fuel better.
After World War 1, kerosene gained popularity as a fuel for railroad lanterns. That fuel tended to work better in yet another form of railroad lantern, known as the short-globe lantern. Short-globe lanterns were used commonly from the close of World War I all the way to the 1960s.
Railroad Lanterns with Other Styles and Uses
It’s also important to note that different lanterns were used for different purposes. All of the lanterns above were crew lanterns, also known as trainmen’s lanterns. Inspector’s lanterns and conductor’s lanterns were also used throughout the entire history of the railroad. The two lantern types were designed with totally different materials, looks, and purposes. An inspector’s lantern had to be extremely durable and focus light well so that they could inspect train cars. A conductor’s lantern, on the other hand, was much more decorative. It was often one of the most memorable icons of train travel for passengers. Many conductors also received special lanterns as awards for their service.
Collecting Railroad Lanterns Today
If you want to collect antique railroad lanterns today then your first concern should be condition, but not in the way that you might think. Railroad lanterns in pristine condition are actually less desirable in most cases. That’s because they tended to take a beating during daily use. Though they were somewhat protected by their cages, many of the glass globes have not survived through the decades. Therefore, finding a lantern without a globe is considered normal. It’s also normal for the cages to have dents or rust. A lantern in perfect condition may have been extra stock that was never used. Even worse, it could be a modern reproduction.
Some collectors choose to focus on a specific type of railroad lantern, such as tall-globe lanterns. Many railroad enthusiasts seek lanterns that feature a specific route or line. Others choose to collect lanterns made by a certain company. Some of the most popular companies include Dressel, Keystone, and Dietz. Adlake, also known as Adams & Westlake, is also a common brand that collectors covet.
In general, railroad lanterns that have the company’s name or distinguishing markings tend to be more popular, but unmarked lanterns can also be great additions to your home. After all, railroad lanterns make great conversation pieces. Owning one or more of them is like owning a tangible piece of American history.