Railroad Marking Mysteries

One of the more interesting -- and sometimes perplexing -- tasks among railroadiana collectors is identifying railroad markings. Since the beginning of the industry, railroads marked their property with initials, mainly to discourage theft and pilfering. Occasionally items were marked with the full railroad name, but it was much more common to use initials such as "P.R.R". or "U.P R.R." Today, marked items such as lanterns, globes, keys, locks, and tools surface in the collectors' market and challenge collectors to link initials with specific railroads.

In some instances the task is relatively easy. Many initials are, for all practical purposes, unique and unambiguous. For example, "P.R.R." was the marking of the Pennsylvania Railroad and "G.N. Ry" was the Great Northern Railway. Other markings can be very ambiguous. Case in point: In the early 1900's two railroads with the same initials -- Monongahela Railroad and Montour Railroad -- operated in the same little corner of Western Pennsylvania. Both were coal-hauling roads, both used the marking "M.R.R.", and the evidence suggests that both even used similar equipment, for example, Dietz "Vesta" lanterns. The Monongahela Railroad was reorganized in 1915 and changed its name to "Railway" (abbreviated "Ry.") but items dating before this point in time cannot be attributed to one railroad versus the other, even if found in Western Pennsylvania. The task is complicated by the fact that other railroads in other parts of the country had these same initials, so an item marked as such can be anybody's guess.

To link initials with railroads, collectors rely on a number of sources. Two comprehensive references by Edson and Gross (See our book list ) list all known railroad names. There are also primary sources of railroad information, especially the "Official Guide", a commercial transportation reference, and business publications such as "Moody's Steam Railroads". One problem with most comprehensive reference lists of railroad names is that they are based on business records and not necessarily on known markings. It was common practice (and even current practice) for railroads to form subsidiary companies for purposes of construction, financial, or operational purposes. Such "paper railroads" may or may not have had actual markings applied to equipment. Nevertheless, the large number of such railroads adds to the list of possible candidates for a given set of initials and often makes the identification process a matter of probability rather than certainty.

In addition to consulting reference lists, it is sometimes possible to draw upon the expertise of collectors who bring more evidence to specific instances. A case in point is the long-standing ambiguity between two New England railroads, the Boston & Albany and the Bangor & Aroostook, both with "B.&A. R.R." initials. Scott Czaja, a veteran collector of New England railroad artifacts, has this to say about distinguishing lanterns with this marking:

"I believe that the key to most of the earlier lanterns is that the Boston & Albany RR started in 1869 (merger of Boston & Worcester RR and Western RR). Another key is that the Boston &Albany was under New York Central control for most of its life. Now for specifics:

Fixed Globes: The Boston & Albany purchased many fixed globe lanterns. These are both "cut" globes and "cast" globes. The cut globes are earlier and tend to be made by the New England Glass Company. These typically have the "dagger" out vents and rounded 5 point star intakes (on the base) with a the unique New England Glass Company pinch pot. The "cast" fixed globes were made by Steam Gauge and C.T. Ham Manufacturing. There are Clear, Red and Blues know to exist. These were "Engine" lamps that have a very small footprint and trended to be used as markers on the base of the engine (like a classification light) rather than as a brakeman's signal lamp.

Early removable Globe brasstops: Perhaps the earliest Brass Tops used by the Boston & Albany are those made by New England Glass Company. These are often triple marked (lid, bell, globe) and take what I call the "fat top" barrel globe. These globes are slightly shorter and have a wider opening at the top that a typical New England 6" barrel globe. They measure 5 ½" in height and 2 ¾" diameter at the top. These globes will also fit Boston and Albany Steam Gauge frames. RR Signal brass tops with barrel globes are most likely Boston & Albany also. I have had a Boston & Albany C.T. Ham that came with a barrel globe.

The earliest Bangor & Aroostook lantern that I know of is a C.T. Ham brasstop bellbottom with an amber etched extended base globe. A friend saw it in an add in Yankee magazine in the 1970s. An employee of the BAR scooped 3 great lanterns from the yard at Northern Maine Junction and this was one of them. The Bangor & Aroostook was formed in 1892, so this sounds correct. Another earlier style lantern that may be unique to the BAR is an Armspear (post "Railroad Signal Lamp & Lantern Co." form) in what we call the "big bell" tin top bellbottom. These have an oversized 7" bell (most bells are 6-6 1/2" diameters) and were probably purchased to withstand use in heavy snow conditions.

Because the Boston & Albany was under NYC control they tended to use many Dietz products. I speculate that All B&A RR Dietz #6 bellbottom lanterns are Boston & Albany. When standard reporting marks came onto the scene (post WWI), the Bangor & Aroostook started ordering their lanterns with BAR.

Some of the more common marks are:

  • New England Glass - fixed and removable globes - Boston & Albany;
  • Fixed globe C.T. Ham & Steam Gauge "Engine" lamps - Boston & Albany;
  • Railroad Signal Lamp & Lantern Co. Brasstops - Boston & Albany;
  • Dietz #6 bellbottoms - Boston & Albany;
  • Porters - Boston & Albany;
  • C.T. Ham 5 3/8: With barrel globe - Boston & Albany; With standard 5 3/8 globe - Bangor & Aroostook;
  • Adlake Reliables: B&A RR - I think are BOSTON & ALBANY (but the battle rages on);
  • Adlake Shorties (3" globe): BAR - Bangor & Aroostook (often with rubber bail handles for snow protection, etched globes tough to find, cast globes impossible to find);
  • Dietz Vestas: BOSTON & ALBANY (some with "B&A" cast globes, common with NYCS or NYCL globes); BAR - Bangor & Aroostook (pretty rare)." [End of Scott's comments. Thanks, Scott!]

There are a number of similar ambiguities, such as "M.C. RR" (Michigan Central Railroad versus Maine Central Railroad), the aforementioned "M.R.R.", and "S.I. Ry." (Southern Indiana Railway versus Spokane International Railway).

The key to resolving some of this ambiguity lies with more careful analysis such as Scott's commentary above. However, in all likelihood, some ambiguity in railroad markings may never be resolved. The real answers have been lost to time and will remain one of the mysteries of the hobby.

Comment received in early 2015: One possible source to check [for railroad marking information] would be Moses King's Handbook of the United States for 1893. The maps included contain numerous small rail lines that would soon disappear as a result of the financial collapse of 1892. The background information for these maps was collected prior to this date and gives a picture of the U.S. Railroad system at the height of its non-consolidated extent. [Thanks to AD]