All About Railroad Lanterns and Signaling

The very nature of operating a train and a train yard means that you have to have a means of communication. During the days of steam locomotives and early diesel, the noise and distance involved with train operations pretty much rules out speaking or yelling, especially since common radio devices weren't yet available.

Any device used would also have to be portable, since those working on the line were constantly on the move. While flags and semaphores might work during the day, how about at night? The most effective means of nighttime communications was the kerosene lantern (oil in the earlier days).

The kerosene lantern was a portable, efficient light source, that could be easily seen. Even after electric flashlights began showing up, some railroad workers still preferred the lantern because it lasted longer (i.e. no batteries), gave better light (i.e. the flashlight was too directional), and I've even read about where multiple lamps were used on cold nights to provide for some warmth. At any rate, lanterns have enjoyed a long history with the railroad and today have become collector items for those fascinated with the railroad as a hobby.

 Types of Lanterns


 Hand Signal Chart

 Signals And Their Uses

 Lantern Terminology





Types of Lanterns
   Fixed Globe Lanterns. The earliest type of railroad lantern was the fixed globe lantern, so called because the globe was cemented in a frame and could not be readily removed. This style of lantern was most popular in the decades that spanned the Civil War.
   Tall Globe Lanterns. Tall globe lanterns, also called "Tall Lanterns", are distinguished by removable globes of 5 and 3/8 inches to 6 inches in height. The removable nature of such globes was a real improvement over fixed globe models for obvious reasons of convenience.
   Shortn Globe Lanterns. Short globe lanterns or "short lanterns" came into production after World War I and continued to be made through the 1960's or early 1970's.
   Conductors' Lanterns. A special style of lantern used by conductors was the "conductors' lantern" also called a "presentation lantern". These were sometimes used as an award to a crewman and use as a decoration rather than actual use.
   Inspector's Lanterns. Inspector's lanterns were characterized by a unique but utilitarian design suited to examining rolling stock.


Various railroad workers, such as engineers and brakemen, used the lantern to signal instructions to others (such as the locomotive engineer). A rail yard is a busy place. Hooking up and rearranging railroad cars took a lot of coordination and proper communication. The lighted kerosene lantern was just the right tool for use at night. Railroads used four colored globes and one clear for their signaling. Below is a chart of common colors and their uses.

 The white/clear lantern was used by the brakeman to give the general, more common signals around the rail yard. They were swung by hand.

A white lantern (or a green lantern) could be used to stop a train at a flag station. A flag station is a location where one would want to ride one or two days a week, but would otherwise be too costly for a train to stop everyday if there weren't any passengers. It could be hung from the building or swung by hand.


  The red lantern was generally used to signal STOP. This could be at the tower, a flag station, etc.
Sometimes a red lantern was hung on the rear of the tender.

Sometimes a red lantern was hung on the end of a caboose as a rear marker.

A red lantern might also be hung outside the tower to indicate the train needs to stop for Form 31 orders. Orders are instructions from the dispatcher, delivered through the operator, to the engineer and conductor of a train which either gives them the authority to operate, as in the case of an extra train, or modifies the schedule which exists in the timetable. Unlike Form 19 orders, Form 31 orders require the train to stop and the engineer and conductor must each sign for the order.

   The blue lantern was used for marking equipment that wasn't to be moved. It was hung on the various equipment, such as boxcars or locomotives, that were being worked on.

 The signal green lantern was used as a tower signal for "proceed with caution".
The green lantern (or amber/yellow lantern) was also used by switch tenders to indicate that the switches were aligned properly.

The green lantern was also used by the wreck master (the one in charge at the scene of a wreck cleanup) to signal the wrecker operator and the engineer of the work train positioning the wrecker. The engineer of the wreck train could only act on a green signal given by the wreck master.

A green lantern (or a white lantern) could be used to stop a train at a flag station.


 The amber/yellow lantern was used to mark "camp cars". Camp cars were railroad cars that track repair men or other repair people lived in when many miles from home. They ate and slept in them.

Switch tenders (people that manually threw the railroad switches) also used the amber/yellow lantern (or the green lantern) for signaling to indicate that the switches were aligned properly.

An amber/yellow lantern could also be hung as a tower signal to indicate that Form 19 orders were to be handed up to conductor and engineer. Form 19 orders are "hooped" (affixed to a stick with a hoop on it that the engineer could put his arm through to grab it) up to the engineer and conductor by the operator once the train is underway. In other words, the train did not have to stop to receive Form 19 orders.

Hand Signal Chart

A white light was used for hand signaling. Below is a diagram of the various types of signals that would be communicated:

Signals And Their Uses

Lantern Terminology


Collectors of railroad lanterns have various terms that are used to refer to different lantern parts and types. Here is a brief list of some of the more common terms,.

Bail. The handle of a lantern, formed in a semicircular shape. It is usually made of round wire but occasionally of other material such as wood or tubular metal. Sometimes the bail was insulated with rubber or some other non-conductive material to be used in electrified operations where electrocution was a danger.

Burner. The metal device that holds the wick and ratchet to advance the wick.

Fount. The container that holds the lantern fuel, typically made of metal although very early ones were made of glass. "Twist off founts" were part of the lantern frame that could be removed by twisting and dropping it from bottom of the lantern. After these were discovered to be too prone to dropping off in service, most manufacturers switched to making the "insert fount" frame by which a separate fount was dropped into a well that was integrally part of the lantern. With a globe in the lantern, these founts could not drop out and hence were safer. Lanterns with twist off founts therefore tend to be older, although one lantern in particular was made until recently with a twist off fount the Dietz Vesta. Frame. The body of the lantern consisting of the dome, lid, verticals, horizontals, and fount container.

Globe. The glass form that enclosed the combustion chamber of the lantern. Different glass manufacturers made globes for railroad lanterns, among them Corning, Kopp, Macbeth (later Macbeth Evans) and others.There are a large variety of subtle shapes as well, which are covered in most reference books. Among tall globes (5 3/8" and thereabouts), collectors distinguish the "extended base" globe from the "Corning style" globe, the former being characterized by a 1/2 inch or so downward extension of the glass below the "bulb" portion of the globe. The "Corning Style" globe was a later style that lacked this extended base. Among short globes is a special style called a "fresnel" globe distinguished by deep horizontal ridges that act to amplify light.

Globe retainer. A stamped metal fitting (or combination of fittings) that resides inside the smoke dome and that holds the globe in place. Typically the globe retainer fits snug against the globe under spring tension.

Horizontals. The horizontal wires or stampings that are part of the frame and that surround the globe to protect it. Horizontals are usually made of round wire or plate metal. Most lanterns have either single or double horizontals.

Markings. Most but not all lanterns were marked for the railroad that bought them. Typically these are initials, which are in some instances obvious or well known indicators of the railroad and in other instances more difficult to identify. For example "A.T.& S.F. Ry." is definitely the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway but "M. RR" could be any of a number of railroads.

Complicating the picture is the fact that some of the manufacturers (or workers on the production line) were not always scrupulously careful about ensuring that the markings were completely accurate.

Many (but not all) globes were also either etched or cast with railroad markings as well, and the same identification problems apply here. In some instances, a set of initials simply remains ambiguous as to the real railroad reference, but this gives collectors another thing to talk about. NYC Dietz Vesta.

Verticals. The vertical wires or stampings that connect the top of the lantern to the bottom and that partially enclose and protect the globe. Verticals are usually made of round wire or plate metal. In the case of plate metal stampings, collectors refer to these as "flat verticals".