Lantern Stories and First Hand Accounts II

Here is another page with a first-hand account of lantern uses on the railroad, courtesy of Doug Turner. Also see a first page of first hand accounts and an article "With Tongues of Fire: Railroad Lanterns" that first appeared in a 1953 issue of "Railroad" Magazine.

[Regarding the use of lanterns for flag stops]: The practice on Canadian (and I presume American railways} was a green lantern and a white lantern side-by-side.  If it was daylight there was a flag, -- half white, half green -- to use. Every intermediate station had these appliances.  As an operator at Canadian Pacific Railway stations I frequently had to do this,  since at country and small town stations most passengers trains had to be "flagged"  to avoid simply stopping without any passengers to pick up. I believe lanterns were used for flagging trains right up till the time there were no more trains to flag.  At flag stops where there was no agent or operator, the combined white and green flag plus a white lantern and a green one were provided together with printed instructions on the wall.  These "stations" usually consisted of a small shed or shelter sometimes with a stove where the passengers could wait.  They also served as shelters for small freight and express shipments. It was the passengers job to light and place the lanterns (or use the flag if it was daytime)   The hogger (engineer) would give a couple of short,sharp blasts on the whistle to acknowledge the signal and then the passenger had to replace the equipment. 

Presumably, the lamps were kept filled by the section foreman who was also responsible for keeping the switch lamps alight and filled with kerosene.  In Canada the trackmen, i.e. those who maintained the track were called sectionmen because a gang of three men and their foreman  were responsible for a definite section of track usually about 5 to 8 miles long and went to work via a pump handcar every morning. They lived in dwellings provided by the company.  Nowadays they live at a central point in a town or city and drive out to work. .

At a country station where I was relief night operator (6:00 PM to 2:00 AM ) I was quite busy at train time: selling tickets, checking baggage and booking last minute express shipments so even when it wasn't really dark I simply set the two lanterns side by side at the edge of the platform and went about my business.  That way, if I was busy I didn't have to worry about forgetting to flag the train!

It was the job of the afternoon (2nd trick) or the night operator to make sure the lamps were cleaned and filled with oil.  If this fell to me I always did this first thing so the lamps were ready at hand and put outside so the smell didn't fill the station. At isolated stations without electricity this included the train order signal and the station lamps which were pressurized Coleman lanterns or, more rarely Aladdin lamps.  The Canadian Pacific bought ones from Coleman that weren't commercially available. They  had nickel-plated oil tanks embossed "CPR" like the Adlake lanterns.  They also used these in the cabooses.

[Regarding a question about how long kerosene lanterns lasted on the railways]:  They were still in use when I finally quit railroading in 1965, but their use by trainmen and switchmen as signal lanterns had ended about 1962.  My understanding was that there had been a fatal explosion of a leaking propane tank car in New Mexico about that time caused by a lantern, and all Canadian and American railways banned their use for every day signaling by brakeman, conductors, and switchmen.  They were replaced by electric lanterns also manufactured by Adlake and supplied to us free of charge by the company. 

I caught hell from the Assistant Superintendent for using an oil lantern one night in Field B.C. yard because my electric lantern had burnt out and no battery was available so I grabbed a "Kero" from the yard office.  Before this time many brakemen and conductors had bought their own electric lanterns.  However, they [Kero's] continued in use for the purpose above and also for demarcating track over which trains had to proceed at less than normal speed --in railroad parlance, a "slow order".  This involved the use of lanterns with yellow, red and green globes.  In fact, that's the only place I ever saw yellow-globed lanterns used.  I should add the only kerosene lanterns I saw on the CPR and Canadian National were the Adlake "Kero".  They were made under licence by the Hiram L. Piper Co. of Montreal, Que. a company which also made switch lamps and marker lamps.

One other piece of information I could add:  What you call an inspector's lantern was not used by car inspectors on the CPR but rather by trackmen who patrolled dangerous sections of track at night using a small one-man hand car called a velocipede.  This was done in canyons, tunnels, or slide areas etc. in advance of freight and passenger trains. 

The lantern used by car inspectors was a unique acetylene fueled one. It worked on the same principle as a miner's lamp, I think, with water dripping on carbide to produce the acetylene and some sort of mantle which gave it an intense, dazzling white light, almost like an arc lamp.  Such a bright light was necessary to detect cracked wheels etc.  They looked very impressive and were nickel plated but were banned at the same time as lanterns for hand-signaling presumably for the same reason (open flame).  I always regret that I didn't ask a carman if he could get me one after their use was abandoned.

At my first job at Taft B.C. in 1957 the agent showed me a neat trick for cleaning lantern globes (particularly in winter  when the station coal stove was going full blast). Remove the globe, throw a bit of snow or water on the stove top, place the globe on the stove top positioned to capture the steam from the evaporating snow on its inside, then polish the now-fogged lens with a blank train order form.  Worked beautifully|  

The older conductors had a trick with a different purpose: put a mothball in the oil reservoir. They claimed it made the flame clearer and brighter.  Not something one should do in a building in view of the fact that mothballs are now believed to be carcinogenic!

-Doug Turner 02/06  

Special thanks to Doug Turner for these comments. This is the kind of first-hand history that needs to be preserved. If you have first-hand experiences with railroad lanterns or lamps, Email us via the Contact Us page.