Railroad Lamps Maintenance:
A Lovell-Dressel Instruction Booklet

A marker lamp made by Lovell-Dressel and marked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Most lamps were painted black, although a few railroads painted their marker lamps "safety yellow" such as the example shown here.

Throughout their history, railroads have used a wide variety of signal lamps in their operations. Lamps have been used to indicate semaphore aspects, switch positions, train classifications, the need to pick up train orders, and many other functions. While today's railroads rely on electrically operated signals, the historical light source for signal lamps was a combustible fuel such as signal oil or kerosene. Such lamps required a lot of maintenance, and for obvious safety reasons, railroads focused considerable attention on this task. They even employed specialist "lamp tenders" whose job it was to regularly make the rounds of lamps in their territory and see that they were operating properly.

As a guide to lamp maintenance, manufacturers issued instructions that covered various aspects of lamp operation. The text of one such booklet, issued by the Lovell-Dressel Company, is reproduced below. Lovell-Dressel was a major manufacturer of all types of railroad signal lamps, and at one time their products could be found on just about every major railroad. The original booklet is small -- about 4" by 2" and was probably designed as a kind of "owners manual" to be included with each lamp. From the text, it seems that this booklet was intended to be applicable to a variety of different lamp types.

Instructions Covering the Proper Care of Switch and Signal Lamps

by the Lovell-Dressel Company

We give herewith some simple rules which, if followed, will insure maximum burning qualities in lamps and burners, eliminate lamp failures, and reduce oil consumption.


(a) Lamp bodies and lenses should be kept clean. Soot and dirt should be immediately removed and all ventilators or parts of the ventilating system should be kept clean so that a perfect balanced draft will be maintained. Where dirt or soot is allowed to accumulate over the ventilator holes, either inside or outside, the lamp will smoke, give a poor signal and finally go out.

(b) Lamps should be kept on lamp brackets on signals or on top of switch stands. They should not be permitted to hang on the side of switch stands, ladders, signal poles, or other places. This will prevent damage to the lamp body and lenses.

(c) Lamps should be lighted two minutes before giving the flame final adjustment. This will allow the burner to heat and produce proper combustion. When the end of the wick has been trimmed, a longer time must be allowed so the flame will not build up too high, thus smoking the chimney and lenses. The final adjustment of the flame should not be made until the lamp has been placed on the lamp bracket or switch stand.

(d) All lamps should be suitably marked to insure that when they are removed from lamp brackets or switch stands for cleaning that they will be returned to their location on same, with the proper colored lenses in correct direction.

(e) When an old lamp is replaced with a new lamp, care should be taken to see that the new lamp is in proper focus and alignment.

(f) The center of the lens should be at all times in the center opening in semaphore casting.

(g) Care should be taken to see that lamp doors, and tops, are closed tight, and lamps should be examined to see that no wind can enter same. A defective lamp should always be replaced. Lens bands and gaskets should be checked periodically for tight fit.

(h) In placing the fount in the lamp, care should be taken to see that only the standard size fount, i.e., the one meant for the lamp, is used so that the flame of the burner will be at the proper height to focus with the lens.


(a) Burners are made in two classifications, one commonly known as the One-day Burner, necessitating daily filling of oil. This burner has a flat cotton wick, on which when trimmed, care should be taken to see that the sides of same are slightly rounded to insure a perfect flame and to eliminate forked sides, which create the hazard of smoking the lens.

(b) The other type is known as the Long Time Burner, which burns for from 5 to 10 days and uses a round felt wick. In either case a burner with proper combustion when furnished for use in a particular lamp is most necessary. Some lamps in certain cases require a burner which can only be used for that particular lamp. In the case of the Long Time Burner, not only proper combustion controls the size and steadiness of the flame, but another factor -- a proper flame spreader to govern the size of flame -- adds to the efficiency of the burners and can be a considerable factor in oil consumption. The burner should be kept clean, and the gas vents should be kept open. If necessary to remove excessive grease and soot, burners can be boiled in a washing soda solution but, when found defective, should be immediately removed and replaced with new ones.

(c) Burners are provided with a collar of either the screw or slip type. Care should be taken to see, first, that the burner is screwed firmly in the fount, or, where a slip type, to see that the collar on the burner and in the fount has not been jammed or worn too thin to make a good, snug, and tight fit. Loose burners in either case create the hazard of becoming entirely disengaged through vibration and thereby putting out the light.

(d) Where possible, the burner in block or other signal lamps having one or two lenses should be turned so that the flat side of the flame is toward the lens. In switch and train marker lamps having four lenses, the burner should be turned so that the flat side of the flame is turned at an angle of 45 degrees to each lens. Care should be taken to see that the burners are securely fastened in position so that this focus will be retained.


As in the case of burners, so with wicks. There are two types -- the flat cotton wick mentioned and the long burning wick. On the long burning wick, for maximum efficiency, the following details should be followed:

(a) This wick should be made of only the very best grade of felt. Wicks made of a soft or inferior grade of felt are a false economy. Not only will they burn poorly and char easily, creating an ever prevalent hazard of lamp failure, but will also consume considerably more oil.

(b) Wicks with a center core are preferable and their use is recommended as this core eliminates the tendency for charring in a solid mass and aids in the suction of the oil in the wick itself. Wicks that have been used with dirty oil or oil which has been in containers with water should be discarded and replaced with new ones.


(a) A space of 1/4" should be left unfilled in the oil fount for expansion and ventilation.

(b) All oil should be emptied out of the oil founts on the first regular lamp day of each month, because water, from condensation, and sediment will have accumulated. Therefore, the fount should be rinsed out with clean oil, and it is recommended that the old oil be poured into a special can and turned over to the supply train for use as wiping oil, etc.

(c) Lamps equipped with one-day burners should be cleaned, filled, and the wicks trimmed daily. Lamps equipped with long time burners should be given attention as a general thing twice a week, the hard crust removed from the wick, and the flame properly adjusted to a height of not less than 1/2".


(a) Where chimneys are used in lamps, they should be thoroughly cleaned and polished on each lamp day.

(b) After soot and dirt has been removed from the chimneys, the final operation should be given with a soft, thin paper, pushing the paper straight through the chimney, and then hold the bottom of the chimney between the thumb and forefinger while cleaning outside. The fingers should not come in contact with the glass in center of the chimney after the final cleaning. It is interesting to note that any circular motion used in cleaning chimneys causes the lamp to smoke.


Only good clean oil free from water or lubricating oil should be used, as inferior oil creates the hazard of lamp failure through excessive soot.

One suggestion to verify the grade of oil is to clean the lamp properly, and before filling, do not shake the oil in the container before drawing off the sample. Fill the oil fount, using a new wick, and prepare the lamp in the usual manner and place the lamp on the bracket out of doors. The lamp should burn clearly and steadily without smoking with a minimum of charring of the wick for a period of at least 100 hours. Any oil failing to meet this test may have been in a container in which water or dirt has accumulated or which container might have been used for heavy oil.

Faulty lamps should be immediately removed and replaced to eliminate all hazards.