"With Tongues of Fire: Railroad Lanterns
by Bill Knapke

[This 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."

"No," I 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 'em."

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 told Bob.

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 oil fount.

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.

Then 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 place.

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 lit.

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 steel trails.

Back 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 switch shanty."

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 wick.

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 oil lamps.

When 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.

Right 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 the trains.


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 memoirs.

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