Above. A small bell from a horse-drawn trolley. It is marked C.P.N.&.E.R.R.R.CO. Photo by madeleines8940. Below. A locomotive bell from a Norfolk & Western steam locomotive. Click on images for larger versions.

Since the very beginnings of the industry, bells have been closely associated with railroading. The horse-drawn railways of the 1800's hung small bells on horses' bridles to indicate their presence, and bells were used -- and continue to be used -- on virtually all steam and diesel locomotives.

In his book "Railroad Collectibles", Baker writes, "About 1840, bells became standard equipment on engines, but their main function was to warn both humans and animals to watch out for the coming train. In the very early days, a man on horseback rode ahead of the locomotive waving a flag and shouting 'The train is coming.' When a bell was added, it was the fireman's job to ring it, and many a fireman would develop such a distinctive touch on the bell that his friends and family would become familiar with its tone and cadence. When President Lincoln's body was carried by train from Chicago to Springfield in 1865, the engine's muffled bell tolled the entire distance." (Baker, pg 161.)

When a locomotive was scrapped, the bell, along with maybe the whistle and builder's plates, were often the only items salvaged. Some salvaged bells had a second working life in churches, camps, farms and factories, while others were simply used for presentation or ornamental purposes. More than one railroad official had a polished locomotive bell decorating his office. While some bells were lost to metal scrap drives during the world wars, many have survived to become a specialty item for contemporary railroadiana collectors.

We say "specialty" because locomotive bells are *heavy" and not for everyone. Not only do they take space to display and effort to restore, but they require a crew and/or equipment just to move. Bells and their accompanying cradles can weigh hundreds of pounds, and it's a good guess that attempts to move a heavy bell have been responsible for more than one medical bill. However, few railroad artifacts match the presence and beauty of a gleaming, polished locomotive bell. And few railroadiana items -- with maybe the exception of whistles -- can so dramatically announce a collector's love of railroads to the entire neighborhood.

Here are some points about bells:

  • As a general rule, authentic railroad bells are either large, massive locomotive bells (ranging from 12" to 17+" in diameter) or very small bells (around 3" diameter) from horse-drawn trolleys. Most locomotive bells are around 15" to 16" in diameter, measured on the outside of the widest end.
  • Large steam locomotive bells were made of cast metal -- usually bronze or brass. Some smaller locomotive bells, such as those used on diesel locomotives were made of iron or steel.
  • While the bell itself was one piece, the bell assembly typically consisted of the cradle, which attached to the locomotive body, the yoke, which fit into the cradle and attached to and swung with the bell, the clapper, which was the metal piece that struck the bell on the inside causing the ring, and the "pull-arm", which was a lever to which a pull rope was attached. There also were various hex-nuts and fasteners as part of a bell assembly.
  • Bell assemblies differed in the bases of the yokes and how they were mounted. On some early, smaller steam locomotives that had a lot of height clearance, bells used top-mounted pedestal yokes. Later in the steam era when engines became much larger, bells were hung on front-mounted yokes for clearance purposes or top-mounted yokes that allowed the bell to swing. Still later, diesel locomotives and engines like the Pennsylvania Railroad's GG1 Electric used bells that were attached to the frame of the locomotive and that did not swing at all. Such bells were actuated or rung by an air ringer. Top mounted bells are most popular with collectors because they display the best and are usually associated with large locomotives of the steam era.
  • Horse-bells were often marked with cast initials indicating the trolley line, but locomotive bells were usually not marked for the railroad with a few exceptions (see picture below).
  • On Identifying the Origin of Bells...Bells are sometimes found with stamped or cast numbers, and a common question concerns how easy it is to identify the railroad and locomotive based on these numbers. According to one experienced collector, "You will often find numbers stamped in the top of a bell. The railroad would stamp the locomotive number into the top of the bell each time the bell was used on a different locomotive. I have seen bells with as many as three or four numbers stamped in the top. This would be on large roads of course. In general the casting number is not a help, but on a Baldwin locomotive, the bell would sometimes have the Baldwin code stamped into it like the back of their builder's plates had until 1930 or 1931. We can sometimes trace the info back through SMU in Texas. They have most of the Baldwin records and can trace the numbers when you make an inquiry. In general bells and headlights are difficult [to trace] unless you have a record to trace the origin of the item." Another experienced collector says, "The numbers on the yoke and rocker are casting numbers -- sort of like part numbers that the manufacturers would use. They have nothing to do with the engine number since on any specific class of locomotive, all of the part numbers would be the same. The bell itself *might* have a number stamped into the top of it. That is the only way that I know, with one very rare exception, and this exception is an extremely rare occurrence. Sometimes a guy might have painted the engine number on the bell, but this did not happen very often." In general, the best way to know the origin of the bell is through the seller who has some sort of documentation. For example, the seller may have originally bought the bell from the railroad and therefore personally knows what locomotive it came from. Of course as time goes one, such personal knowledge may become lost. Update: We have received many emails asking for bell identification information. Sorry, but we cannot answer questions about the age or origin of bells. All the information that we have on locomotive bells is on this page.
  • Since it can be difficult to trace the origin of a bell through markings, it is especially important for current owners to document everything that they know about their bells as a means of preserving history. For example, they may have been told details by the previous owner -- railroad name, locomotive type and number, how it was acquired, etc. -- that would otherwise be lost to time if not written down. This has already happened with many bells.
  • When purchasing a bell, condition is important since most collectors eventually hope to have a shining display piece. Some questions to ask are: Is the bell polished? Tarnished? Beat up? Dented? Been used by a bunch of kids for target practice? Does the bell have a yoke and rocker? (If it is just the bell casting itself, you can't ring it, so what's the point?) Bell restoration can be a very lengthy and time-consuming process, and there are many stories in the hobby of collectors spending a lot of blood, sweat, tears and $$$ in a bell restoration project. If successful though, the result can be the crown jewel of a collection. See the bell restoration advice suggested by collectors on our restoration page.
  • It is common to find small, railroad-marked hand bells in internet auctions and antique shows, sometimes accompanied by fanciful stories about conductors using them to announce that the train was leaving. While historians cannot swear that no conductor ever used a hand bell (particularly in the early days of primitive railroading), the use of hand bells was certainly not standard practice among conductors. The railroad-marked hand bells that show up in today's market are modern imports -- fakes. See our fakes pages.
  • The cost of a nice locomotive bell can be well over a thousand dollars. As with any historic artifact, older and rarer bells command higher prices. For example, a bell from, say, a Rogers steam locomotive from the 1800's, will command a higher price than a bell from a 1950's-era diesel locomotive. Similarly, a nice big, brass bell off of a sexy passenger engine or a great hulking freight engine is generally worth more than a small steel bell off of a switch engine.

Here are some pictures and additional information about bells:

Above far left: A bell from a Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railway steam locomotive used as a presentation piece. Above middle left: The plaque attached to the base of the CC&O Ry bell with an inscription reading,"This bell is from Carolina Clinchfield and Ohio Railway steam locomotive Number 411. A 2-8-2 Class K-4 Built by American Locomotive Company January 1923 and retired September 1952. J W Thomas, General Manager, Clinchfield Railroad". Above middle right: An exceptionally large bell with a diameter of 17 1/2" from a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway steam locomotive. Above far right: A bell from an Alliquippa & Southern steam locomotive, photographed in an antique store window (but not for sale).

Above far left: A locomotive bell used to decorate a hearth; it is 14 1/2" in diameter, mounted on a mahogany base, and believed to be a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bell due to the fact that a very similar one is pictured in a circa 1950 B&O gift shop catalog. Above middle left. The catalog illustration from a 1950's B&O catalog offering authentic locomotive bells for $185. Above middle right: A bell from Bessemer & Lake Erie SD-18 diesel locomotive #856. The bell is 12" in diameter and 9" tall to the top plus 3" for the stem. This bell was mounted in a frame mount on the locomotive. Click here for a picture of the SD-18, the bell being barely visible behind the fuel tank. Above far right. A bell from an early Baltimore & Ohio steam locomotive photographed at the 2006 Gaithersburg railroadiana show.

Above far left: An older style bell with a pedestal yoke from a steam locomotive; the bell is only 12 1/2" in diameter and marked "B&O RR" (Baltimore & Ohio Railroad). Above middle left. Closeup of the "B&O RR" marking. Above middle right: A horse bell from a horse-drawn trolley railroad marked "C.P.R.R.". Above far right. The inside of the same "C.P.R.R." bell .

Above far left. A horse bell marked "A.V.R.R.", probably from the Allegheny Valley Railway; Above middle left. A heavy bell from a Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad steam locomotive. The bell is 31" tall not counting the base which was made by a collector for display. Above middle and far right. Two views of a massive collection of locomotive bells, most from the Great Northern Railway.


  • Special thanks to all the collectors who provided photos and/or information for this page.

Other Sources and Further Reading.

  • Baker, Stanley.  Railroad Collectibles: Fourth Edition.  Collector Books, PO Box 3009, Paducah, KY 42001.
  • Cummins, Doug. "Jingle Bells". The Railroadiana Express, Winter, 2003, pg 10-11.
  • Hoffer, Rob. "All the Bells & Whistles". The Railroadiana Express, Winter, 1997, pg 6-7.
  • Marks, Richard. "Horse Bells". The Railroadiana Express, Summer, 1986, pg 11.
  • Plaquet, Roger. "Railroad Horse Call Bells". Key, Lock & Lantern, Fall, 2004, pg 7-8.
  • Smout, Mike. "For Whom the Bell Tolls". The Railroadiana Express, Spring, 1997, pg 10-11.