The Handlan Buck Company's Final Days
(Revised April, 2016)
The Handlan-Buck Company of St. Louis was one of the premier suppliers of railroad lamps, lanterns, and other hardware. Tracing a corporate history back to 1856, the company was both highly respected and patronized by railroad companies, with its strongest markets being the Midwest and West. The company was particularly known for lighting devices that used combustible fuels like kerosene.
By the 1980's, the company had experienced a succession of owners and a diminishing market for their traditional line of railroad products. Likely as a means of generating new business, Handlan began marketing railroad lighting devices to hobbyists and collectors under the title "Railfinders". The exact legal relationship of the "Railfinders" name to the "Handlan" name is unclear. An advertisement in a 1987 issue of "Trains" magazine contains the phrase "New from Handlan Buck Co., original makers of railroad equipment since 1856" and gives the Railfinders address. The ads offered various types of traditional railroad lighting devices such as steel switch lamps as well as various home-decor items based on such devices.
The traditional-style, steel railroad lamps (as opposed to home decor items) sold under the Railfinders service were in fact identical to those sold to the railroads. In other words, the hobbyist/collector versions of steel lamps were not cheaply produced items for a specialty market but rather the same quality as "professional grade" products. Therefore, a steel Handlan lamp from this period could be one sold to a railroad for use in railroad sevice or to a hobbyist or organization for use as a commemorative/gift item. However, railroads did not tyically use solid brass or copper lamps, so such a lamp found today could be assumed to be from the Railfinders line. One source notes that "in the 1960s and 1970s it was quite popular to take old railroad lamps from any manufacturer and have them plated in nickel, brass or copper, so a plated lamp could be either an old lamp that someone had plated or one that came plated directly from Railfinders."
For a while the hobbyist market was a good source of income for Handlan, but It appears that sometime in the early 1990's the company went out of business. Not much is known about this final outcome, but all evidence suggests that the name ceased to exist as a corporate entity around this time. Some accounts say that the remaining tooling and inventory was acquired by a long-time Handlan employee who continued to sell lamps at collectors' shows for a few more years. In any event, Handlan's demise brought to an end over 130 years of tradition and service to the railroad industry.
Today, railroadiana collectors routinely encounter Handlan products as they search for artifacts that were used on the railroads. They also encounter these latter-day hobbyist items, and therein lies a problem. As discussed, it's not possible to tell if a given Handlan item from this period actually saw railroad service or if it was manufactured for the hobbyist market. Further, most Handlan lamps did not change much over decades, so actually pinning down the manufacturing date of a given Handlan lamp is very difficult, if not impossible. No doubt some of the Handlan lamps showing up in today's market with the claim that they were used on the railroad are in fact commemorative items.
Thanks to Paul Stevens for the following catalog pages showing the kinds of items that were then being manufactured by Handlan/Railfinders. Also, thanks to "Red Beard the Railroad Raider" for information and corrections, including recollections of a meeting with the last Handlan owners. Incidentally, Red Beard notes that the pictures below of Handlan employees were actually historical photos and not current photos taken during the Railfinders era.
First, the text and pictures from a single advertisement page from the 1970s. The text is shown verbatim:
Railroad lamps handmade the old Handlan way by craftsmen like Lou Wanner and Mrs. Nancy Torp.
1856 to 1976....one hundred twenty years of uninterrupted railroad lamp manufacturing. Over the years, little has changed in the way Handlan-Buck produces kerosene, electric, and reflex switch lamps. Essentially, it's still a hand assembled, hand-crafted operation.
We invite you to examine our current lamps....they're produced from the original plans to railroad specifications, with the personal touch of veteran craftsmen like Lou Wanner and Nancy Torp.
Look for Handlan-Buck lamps in railroad museum gift shops....or wherever railroad memorabilia is sold.
Handlan-Buck Company Manufacturers of Kerosene, Electric and Reflex Switch Lamps. Lighting the way since 1856. 4519 Ridgewood Avenue - St. Louis, Mo. 63116 [Address obsolete]
Below are thumbnails of some advertisements showing various lamps and decor items produced by the Handlan Company under the Railfinders name. Click on the thumbnail for an image that is large enough to read.