Tongues of Fire: Railroad Lanterns
by Bill Knapke
article by Bill Knapke first appeared in the January, 1953 issue of Railroad
magazine. It is one of the very few reports on railroad lanterns by someone
who actually used them on the railroad, beginning in the late 1880's.
Bill uses a lot of railroad slang, so for those who might be unfamiliar
with some terms, a brief glossary is presented
at the end of the article.]
To our left a field of light began to appear, a field that grew brighter
and brighter until the outline of a rugged hill was silhouetted against
it. Around the curve at the base swung the source of the illumination,
the headlight of the night local freight. The bright rays painted the
farthest house in our block with silver, continuing down the line toward
us. As the engine paused at the yard switch to head in, the headlight
beam was directly on us, and as though it had found that for which it
was searching, it held us directly in its glare. A pinpoint of light
came out of the darkness, jogging to the switch. The green signal light
changed to red and the pinpoint swung swiftly up and down. The engine
snorted, then barked furiously as it got its train into motion. The rays
of the headlight released us from durance and went about the business
of lightin' the track before it.
My friend, Bob spoke softly, "They shall teach with tongues of
fire and greatly shall knowledge increase."
"Yeah," I said, "If you're talking about those lamps,
bugs or glims out there, you're all wet. There ain't a flame or fire
in a carload of 'em-worse luck!"
My friend chuckled, "Still the old diehard. I honestly believe,
if you could have your way about it, you'd go back to diamond stacks,
link'n pins, oil headlights and the other equipment of bygone days."
said, "Most of the changes are for the better. But take those electric
lanterns the boys are using over there," and I pointed to the little
railroad yard in front of us, "For my part, they are a pain in the
neck. Why? The field of light from those bulbs is too limited. A conductor
checking his train has the light shining right in his eyes unless he
sticks a piece of cardboard in the base as a shield. They're heavy and
you have to shut 'em off when not in use to save battery. In fact," I
continued, "there's only one thing I like about 'em and, boy, they're
grand for that. You can sure cuss the hoghead to a fare-you-well with
While I had been spouting, the skipper and hind man had been walking
toward the engine. The head man's light showed beside the train; he was
evidently waiting for instructions on what move to make.
The brain's lamp suddenly gave four little flickers, then was raised
and held momentarily above his head. Swiftly the head brakeman repeated
the signs and hustled back four carlengths. We heard the pop of a parted
air hose, the clatter of uncoupling; then the lamp was swung up and down
and the engine leaped ahead like cat shot with a bootjack. Again the
skipper's lamp gave two little upward flicks raised high, and a swift
pinwheel followed "Going to kick 'em with the air in 'em," I
The head man disappeared between the cars for an instant, then came
out an gave a hard kick sign. The engine bellowed and flung the two cars
into one the yard tracks. Another swing and the pig stopped, but the
two cars sped toward the skipper. As they passed him he ran in behind
them. A sharp, short blast of air and the wheels threw off sparks as
the air brakes clamped with a relentless grip. The local made a few more
moves, then coupled the train together and waited. Presently a string
of varnish stormed past, and the local pulled out and left us.
My friend Bob is one of those guys who never worked a day for a railroad
yet is avid for every detail he can learn about it. Me, I've put in the
greatest part of my life working for railroads and still love to spout
off about 'em any time anyone shows an interest, and sometime when they
don't. So Bob and I made a congenial pair. He'd listen attentively and
I'd rave on and on. He asked a couple of questions about lanterns and
signals. Finally I said, "All right, my eager beaver friend, you
want a lecture on railroad lanterns, by golly you're going to get an
earful. That is, if you go in the house an return with a couple of bottles
of that stuff that made a certain city famous." Bob obediently hastened
away and returned shortly with the tonsil lubricant and I began.
Just when the first railroad lanterns made their appearance I've never
learned, but the first of them undoubtedly burned whale oil. I say that
from the fact that the first American railroads were built along the
Atlantic seaboard, and whale oil was then universally used there for
illumination. Even cities used it for street lighting. I have heard that
Cincinnati, as far inland as it is, once used whale oil for street lamps.
Naturally it was expensive, and I believe it was due to that fact in
conjunction with the added fact that Cincinnati was then the largest
pork packing town in the country that led to the discovery, invention,
adoption or what have you, of the horrible compound that was used in
railroad lanterns at the time I began railroading. It was called 'lard
oil.' That stuff, judging from information given me by Mr. H. A. DeLong,
Standard Oil Co. of California, was nothing more or less than the leavings
from the lard rendering kettles. To quote Mr. DeLong, 'Lard oil was commonly
used in lanterns until a good petroleum oil was introduced. It was a
product of slaughterhouse backyard rendering plants, in which the hog
fat was cooked down to obtain lard. The lard oil used in railroad lanterns,
as nearly as we could learn, was a product left over after this rendering.
The dirty appearance you describe was probably due to kettle residue,
and because in many cases the rendering was done outdoors, dirt could
easily find its way into the material.'" Mr. DeLong adds,"The
softening point of lard oil is between 91' and 100- F."
With this latter statement I don't agree for I know from personal experience
that the stuff would stay liquid until a degree or two below freezing.
To overcome its solidifying qualities a copper wire, shaped much like
a hairpin, was run through the lantern burner. The closed end of this
hairpin was in oil and the open ends were bent towards each other in
such a fashion that the flame heated the wires, and they conveyed enough
heat into the fount to prevent the oil from congealing, except in extremely
frigid weather. I have an idea there was whale oil or something of that
sort mixed with it.
I remember being called one night to switch in the old Dyke yard. It
was colder'n a pawnbroker's heart and getting colder by the minute. Pretty
soon I saw a car whacker coming along the lead with a bucket of oily
waste. He dropped a good-sized gob of the dope at intervals just off
the tow path. I wondered what it was for, but even that early in the
game I had learned not to ask too damn many questions. However, I wasn't
long left in doubt. The switch foreman said, "Billy, let's get some
coal off these cars and start us some fires along the lead, so we can
thaw out our toes and lamps when we have to. " We all got busy piling
coal around the gobs of greasy waste and lighting 'em.
I soon found out about thawing the lamps. My lantern flame would get
smaller and weaker, threatening to expire with each move I made. Finally,
out she'd go. Then I'd run to the nearest fire, stick my tootsies almost
into it and set the lantern right on top of the coals. In a minute or
two the oil was almost boiling and that, plus the copper hairpin, would
keep the lamp going for another hour or so. Twelve hours was a shift
then, and needless to say I was darn glad when that one was over.
The lantern burner we had in those days was also a nuisance. The first
burner I ever used was like a pair of twin tubes fastened together on
one side. If you looked down on top of one it would look just like a
figure 8, each circle in the being a tube. The wick was a strand of torch
wicking, the same the hogger used in his torch, except that where he
used many strands to make it thick enough to fit the neck of his torch,
we used but one strand. We'd cut off a length of wicking and insert one
end in each of the tubes, which of course left the middle to go in the
There was no ratchet to turn the wick up or down; instead there was
a slot in each tube. Through this slot you'd stick a pin, toothpick,
shingle nail or any other sharp pointed object and pry the wick up or
down as needed. Most of us carried a couple of big brass pins stuck in
the lapel of our coats to use for that purpose.
came the advent of the flat wick instead of the tubular. The first of
these was of felt, much the same material as in a felt hat but much coarser.
That stuff was really a bust -- no capillary action at all. They lasted,
but quick. Then came the woven wick, pretty much the same as those still
in use today. This wick, and the burner used with it, had been invented
quite awhile before, for on July 7th 1880 (eight years before I began
railroading), one Winfield S. Rogers of Columbus, Ohio was granted patent
number 233,024 covering the following claim, "Separate flanged oil
cup and wick tube and the bifurcated heater, the curved ends of which
stand askew with reference to said tube." And by golly there was
a picture of the old familiar flat wick burner with the inverted hairpin
and the slots for raising or lowering the wick. The only difference I
could see was this -- Mr. Rogers had the open points of his hairpin alongside
of the flame instead of directly in it. What advantage there was in that,
I don't know, as I never used it.
Suddenly there broke a new and glorious era -- that of "Signal
Oil" -- which was to endure for many years and which to my probably
cockeyed notion furnished the best railroad lantern fuel and light that
has yet been found. I wouldn't trade my old "copper top, Fort Scott,
signal oil lantern with No. 1 burner" [note 2]
for an even dozen of these new juice bugs, if you included a perpetual
supply of batteries. Anyhow, with the advent of signal oil, lamps began
to improve in every way. Ratchet burners came into use, though with the
first of them you had to open your lantern to turn the ratchet. If it
was windy, out went your light.
Then some guy brought one out with the little wheel on the end of the
ratchet shaft that had teeth around the edge. These teeth engaged in
holes in a circular plate fastened to the base compartment of the frame.
Rotating this movable base would rotate the ratchet shaft and thus lower
or raise the wick. It worked fine as long as everything was normal, but
if the shaft became bent or the plate was out of kilter, something that
occurred very easily, the whole shebang went haywire and the wick became
inoperative. The final and lasting improvement was simply to make the
ratchet shaft long enough to project through a slot in the base, and
you moved the wick just as on an old-style kerosene lamp in the home.
During this period of lantern trials there was a bewildering variety
of types and forms. Some oil founts were removable through the bottom
of the frame; some of them were integral with the lower part of the lantern;
some had to be taken out through the top of the lamp; some founts simply
sat in a socket in the bottom of the frame; and others were screwed into
The earlier types of lanterns were poorly drafted and a swift movement
such as occurs in giving a fast, hard signal, would set up a current
of air that would extinguish the flame. One of the lanterns that was
an exception to this was that used by the old Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis
(now Frisco). This lamp was of an unusually light construction and had
a copper top. It was very popular with the boomers and was universally
known as the "Fort Scott copper top." Who the manufacturers
were I don't know, though I have an idea it was Dietz. In common with
many another boomer, when I left that pike one of these lamps was hanging
on my grip. I carried and used it for a long time, but finally some guy "borrowed" it
when I wasn't looking. I hope it served him as faithfully as it did me.
Brother, one could sure give a wicked sign with that baby and she'd stay
The signal oil era lasted so long that many lanterns made history during
it. Probably the most famous lantern of all time was and is the one used
by Kate Shelley on the night of July 6th, 1881 when, as a girl of fifteen,
she used it to light her way across a storm-wrecked bridge to save a
passenger train from destruction. That lantern can be seen in the Iowa
Department of History and Archives Building in Des Moines, Iowa. And
many another lantern has played its part in averting catastrophe on the
in the years before the "Hours of Service" law came into being,
there was nothing uncommon in an engineer, fatigued by forty or fifty
hours of continuous duty, falling asleep at the throttle and failing
to act when some flagman swung his lantern across the track with a stop
signal. I wonder how many flagmen there are, who, as some engine came
storming past, ignoring his earnest, go-to-hell washout stop signs, has
stepped back from the rails and as the front of the engine cab came almost
even with him, heaved his red light smack into the window of that cab?
The startled hogger, aroused by the shower of window glass and the sudden
rush of cold air, came out of it in a hurry and usually, though not always,
in time to keep his pilot from disarranging the housekeeping in the crummy
ahead, That, thank God, is one of the conditions that no longer exists,
but honestly old-timer, have you any idea of the number of times you've
done just that? I haven't, but it is several.
A trainman's lamp was not only necessary in his work, but many times
became a weapon of defense or offense as the occasion required. A railroad
lantern with its heavy wire frame and globe was a wicked club when swung
at arm's length and with intent to damage. I saw a man come very close
to getting his head caved in by a swung lantern. He was a guard from
the California Reform School at Whittier. At that time the junction point
of the Whittier Branch and the Santa Ana Branch was a siding named Studebaker.
My partner, Charley Henry, was walking alongside of a cut of cars and
toward me. I was walking on the same side. We were each at about the
middle of two cars and would have met just about at their ends. When
Charley was just about six or eight feet from the end of the cars, out
jumped a guy and threw the powerful beam of a flashlight right into his
eyes. Charley's lamp swung over like a flash. The guy jerked his head
back, but the lantern whizzed close enough to tear his hat-brim and skin
the end of his nose. I didn't understand what it was all about, but the
fact that my partner had taken a swing at the fellow was enough for me,
so I grabbed the gent and slammed him against a car. The guard must've
begun to think he was in for some rough treatment with both of us threatening
to crown him, with our bugs.
It developed that a couple of kids had made their getaway from the Reform
School, and this guard was looking for them. We asked him if a brakeman,
carrying a lantern and working around boxcars resembled a fifteen-year-old
boy? He didn't answer that one. I'll make a sizable wager that guy never
bounced out again in front of some shack armed with a lantern.
Even in these later days the good old glim comes in handy to slug some
guy when needed. It was just a couple of years ago that skipper J. J.
Gannon of the Southern Pacific slammed a purse snatcher on the bean with
his lamp at Stockton, California. Needless to say, said purse snatcher
was still there when the cops arrived.
The trainman's or snake's lantern was not only a tool of his trade,
but in many cases became a thing of value in other respects. In the days
of lard and signal oil lamps, switch crews had regularly assigned duties
in their yards, and if work was a little light or they were smooth enough
to get it done quicker than the ringmaster figured, the crew would go
on the "spot." I'll let Haywire Mac tell it. He says, "It
was usually my luck as a newcomer to draw the coldest corner -- the one
furthest from the stove. However, all boomers knew the trick of setting
two or three lighted lanterns under the bench for warmth, and if you
could dig up an old slicker to pull over your prone carcass, a comfortable
snooze was assured. The nickel-plated electric lantern of today may be
the finest hand lamp ever devised, but it won't keep you warm in a drafty
The signal oil we burned in those days was a peculiar article in some
respects. If a lamp was properly taken care of, that oil couldn't be
beat, but if a wick was submerged in it for too lengthy a period it would
lose a large part of its capillary action and would not keep the flame
supplied. Also the oil would thicken with age, change color, and you
could see thick, white specks of some matter floating in it. On the larger
railroads, the oil didn't have a chance to deteriorate. But on some smaller
roads that tried to save by buying in quantities it didn't do so well.
We always spoke of it as Galena Signal Oil." I once asked Mr. DeLong,
whom I have quoted before in this article, for the formula of signal
oil and append herewith his reply. "Signal oil could be described
as a high-test, long-burning kerosene. Its specific gravity is 35; its
flash point is 280' F. Fire point is 315' F, and pour point is 30' F." He
also adds that it is still being marketed under the name of Galena Perfection
Signal Oil. On train crews, satisfactory performance of lamps was largely
a matter of who you had for the parlor shack. The hind man usually took
care of all the lanterns belonging to the crew, and if you were lucky
enough to have one who knew how, you'd have little trouble with your
lamp going out.
My own system for caring for my lamp was to dump all the old oil from
the fount once a week, put in a new wick once a month, blow the top of
the lantern clean with compressed air frequently, and always scrape off
the crust of carbon that forms on the sides of the burner next to the
Most railroaders are very particular about their lamps, and criticism
derogatory to their appearance is not relished. I quote Mr. Edward H.
DeGroot, Jr., now an attorney in Washington, D.C. but formerly a railroader,
both in the ranks and as a brass hat. "I was very young passenger
brakeman on the CB&Q. Being 18 years of age, responsibility for that
railroad rested heavily on my shoulders. I was braking ahead for Conductor
Frank Reese and leaving Burlington on No. 4 one night, Frank had an argument
with a passenger in the smoker. It did not seem to me that enough had
been said, on the railroad's side, so when Frank went back into the train,
I walked up to the obstreperous patron and laid down the law. I was just
a skinny kid weighing possibly 140 pounds. The man looked at me in surprise,
then remarked without showing any feeling, 'Sonny, take your little greasy
tin can and run along.' No mature man of 18 relishes being called 'sonny'
and the slighting reference to the lantern on which I had spent so much
effort (wood ashes on the copper top and frame, and newspaper on the
globe) seemed gratuitous. I walked away with as much dignity as could
be mustered under the circumstances. "
Unquestionably, the fanciest lantern carried on a railroad is and always
has been the passenger conductor's. With a heavily nickel-plated frame
and handle (the frame much smaller than the regular trainman's lamp),
and "flint glass" globe, the upper half green and the lower
half white, and the bail or handle much larger than that on a standard
lamp for ease in looping on the upper arm with the base of the lamp resting
on the bent forearm, they surely showed up grand against the brass buttons
and blue cloth of the varnish skipper's uniform. That particular type
of lantern was called the "Pullman Lantern," but I haven't
the slightest idea why.
Back in those days most railroad lanterns were made with swing handles.
By that I mean the handles were so fastened that they would drop down
just as the handle on a paiI does. That was all right for trainmen, but
yardmen didn't like them. A stiff bail was much easier to give signals
with and was far easier on their hands. So switchmen would unfasten the
bail from its regular "eye," pass the ends down through the
wires of the frame, and securely fasten them to the upright ribs. This
made the handle much shorter and made it rigid. Then they'd wrap the
wire handle with many layers of friction tape, or slip a piece of rubber
hose on it to provide a better grip. A lamp doesn't weigh such a scandalous
amount, but lug it around all night, and it'll weigh plenty come morning.
Some guy, I was told, who was or had been a snake, brought out a lamp
with a stiff, thick rattan handle. It was the answer to a switchman's
dream. That lamp was called the "Tom Moore Lantern" and was,
I believe, named after its inventor and manufacturer [note
3]. At one time there were a lot of Tom Moores in use. While down
through the years there have been many, many manufacturers of railroad
lanterns, I think there is no question that the Adlake and Dietz-made
glims greatly out-number the products of all other manufacturers.
It did not make much difference when kerosene supplanted signal oil.
True, the first kerosene lamps were not satisfactory, due mainly to the
fact they were not drafted right. After a little experimentation they
became fairly dependable, though I never had one that I could give as
swift signals without the flame going out as I could with the signal
the Southern Pacific decided to test kerosene lanterns, ten conductors
were each given one and requested to use it thirty days and then report
on its performance and how they liked it. This was on the Los Angeles
Division and I presume other divisions made the same test. I was one
of the ten conductors. I tried to give an unbiased opinion, but that
baby could outsmoke a furnace, and you couldn't give it a good jiggle
without putting the light out. So my vote was "no." -- which
was probably one of the reasons the kerosene lamp was adopted soon after.
We soon found that one of the littler tricks with a kerosene lamp to
prevent smoky globes was to nip a bit from each corner of the wick and
to cut a "V" in the center of it. That kept the flame from
spreading too wide and concentrated the flame into a straight column
that worked fine.
I don't know whether it was a mere idea, but in my earliest days of
railroading I was taught never to wash a lantern globe with soap and
water. I was told to just polish it dry with old train orders or cotton
waste. On my first job I was braking behind, and it was my task to clean
the lamps for the whole crew; also the desk lamp and the markers. Wanting
to make a good impression on the crew, I got a bucket of hot water from
the engine, took all the globes out of the lamps and was just about to
submerge them in the hot water when into the crummy walked my skipper,
old "Neighbor Little." When he saw what I was about to do,
he let out a whoop like an Indian.
"Don't do that, Billy," he yelled.
"What's the matter?" I demanded indignantly. "All I'm
going to do is wash these globes nice and clean."
"Not with soapy water," said Neighbor. "Don't you know
that'll take the temper outta the glass and the first time the flame
touches it, the globe'll bust all to hell'n gone and the soap will leave
a film that makes the globe smoke up twice as quick."
Well I didn't know it then and I don't know it now, but old Neighbor
was a mighty wise skipper, and I believed him absolutely.
or wrong, that little piece of information has stuck in my mind ever
since, and though it was given 62 years ago, I've never washed a lantern
globe with soapy water since. The way I like to clean my lantern globe
is with a nice soft leather glove. Just stick the first two fingers down
inside the globe and revolve them round and round. Then rub the outside
briskly with the palm of the glove, and brother, that globe'll shine!
After a while some gent invented the electric hand lantern. I thought
it was the grandest thing I'd ever seen, and I bought one of them, for
six bucks, if I remember correctly. The battery was 65 cents extra and
supposed to burn brightly for sixteen hours continuously. Oh yeah? After
two or three hours the light began to dim like a drunk's dream. It didn't
take me long to get enough of buying a battery every few days. Besides,
I found that the field of light from that bulb was too limited. You couldn't
move around nearly as fast as with the old kerosene lamp. So my electric
bug was hung away. Yes, I still have it, out in my tool shed. Of course
the present day battery is much longer-lived than the first ones introduced.
Also the railroads now issue them without charge.
The quotation near the beginning of this article, "They shall teach
with tongues of fire" is to the point, for train crews and particularly
switching crews would be in a sad plight if they couldn't communicate
with their tongues of fire. If they had to gather together while the
foreman explained each move in advance, well I hate to think how long
it would take to make up or break up a train. As it is, they work by
a code, entirely unofficial but understood by practically every railroad
yardman in the United States and Canada, Mexico too, for that matter.
The official lantern signals as given in the Book of Rules are extremely
limited. "Apply air brakes," "Release air brakes," --
when testing brakes on a standing train. A lantern moved up and down
means go ahead; swung pendulum fashion across the line of vision means
stop; swung in a medium-size circle, back up.
A signal that is no longer necessary but is still carried in code: lantern
swung in a circle at arm's length indicates broke-in-two. Back in the
days of non-airbrake trains, when the pig jockey looked back and saw
that signal it was a case of full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes.
Yeah, he left there as rapidly as possible, earnestly seeking the lofty
brow of some hill where the hind end couldn't overtake and ram the bejazus
out of him.
There he'd wait long enough to be sure that the rear end had been stopped,
then he'd cautiously crawl back to where it stood.
And that, so far as I can remember, just about covers all the lantern
signals given in the rulebook. But the unofficial -- there's a raft of
'em. Let me quote Haywire Mac again: "This lantern code is simple
enough -- a flick of the wrist causes the lantern to blink, rather like
the dot in the Morse code. That means one. Snap it toward the pin-puller,
follow it with a kick sign and he'll let one car go. Hand the same token
to the field man and he'll line the switch for track one. Describe a
small circle with the lamp -- that spells five. A small circle followed
by one dot means six; by two dots, seven; by three, eight; and four,
nine. Ten is indicated by a big circle, not quite as large as the arm-length
'broke-in-two' of the rule book. A big circle plus one dot is eleven.
A big circle and a small circle described in the opposite direction,
means fifteen. Add a dot for sixteen, etc. Describe a big circle, reverse
direction and make another, that means twenty. If you again reverse direction
and make a small circle in addition, you have signaled twenty-five. There
seems to be but one general rule in giving these signals -- give the
largest number first and follow with the smaller ones. For example, first,
a big circle for ten, next a small circle (reversed direction) for five,
and lastly a dot. Ten plus five plus one equals 16."
There are a few other unofficial lamp signals, mostly used by trainmen.
To pull or put cars on a track that has no number, a lantern moved with
a sweeping movement between the rails of that track is indication which
track to make a move on. A figure 8 swung with a lamp close to and parallel
with the ground means that a car chain is needed. When shoving to a coupling
with quite a few cars, the brakeman will in many cases, give the hogger
the distance to the coupling by throwing him car-length signs. Three
sweeps overhead (reverse of stop) means "three car lengths to coupling," etc.
Knowing the condition of his driver brakes and having the feel of the
weight of his cut, the hogger can do a much better job of driving to
a joint. The well-known highball is, of course, merely a go-ahead signal
swung at full arm's length."
Now friend Robert, you asked for it, and by golly, you got it. And if
you'll now proceed to the refrigerator and return with a couple of bottles,
we'll drink to the health of all lantern carriers, in the yards or on
1. Railroad magazine was eventually taken
over by Carstens Publications before merging into "Railfan and Railroad" magazine
which continues to this day. Hal Carstens of Carstens Publications informed
us that the copyright to this article reverted to Bill Knapke, who passed
on some time ago. Current copyright ownership is unknown. We are reprinting
this article anyway -- somewhat abridged for the web -- because we feel
that Bill would have wanted current collectors to read his very interesting
2. The phrase "Fort Scott copper top" is
puzzling, since lanterns with actual copper tops are almost unheard of.
This may refer to a brass top lantern.
3. This is the well-known T.L Moore switchman lantern,
shown on the switchman lantern page.
Glossary of Railroad Slang
- boomer: brakeman, often one who worked for a
short time, then moved on.
- brain: conductor
- brass hat: railroad official
- bug: lantern
- car whacker: car inspector
- crummy: caboose
- glim: lantern
- head man: head brakeman
- hind man: rear brakeman
- hoghead: engineer
- joint: a coupling of railroad cars
- parlor shack: caboose
- pig: locomotive
- pig jockey: locomotive engineer
- pin puller: brakeman who is uncoupling cars
- snake: brakeman
- skipper: conductor
- varnish: passenger train