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Lighting the Way to Safety
by Bob Brooke


Over the years, the operations of railroads became more and more complex. One train traveling along a short route was one thing, but multiple trains began traveling on the same set of tracks presented potentially dangerous situations. Locomotive engineers and trainmen needed to communicate with each other. Before the automated technology and signals used today, they had to rely on visual signals. During the daylight hours,, this wasnít much of a problem, but communicating at night was impossible without light. And thus the railroad lantern was born.

In order to safely operate a train yard, railroad workers had to have a way of communicating with each other and train engineers. During the days of steam locomotives, the noise and distance involved with train operations ruled out speaking or yelling, especially since common radio devices weren't yet available. Any device they used would also have had to be portable, since those working on the line were constantly on the move. While flags and semaphores worked during the day, they werenít effective at night. In order to communicate after dark, railroad workers depended on kerosene lanterns.

Railroad workers used lanterns as a hand signaling device, swinging them in various ways to send a message such as to stop or slow the breaks. Kerosene lanterns became the most effective way to communicate in the dark.

Before the invention of electricity and computers that gave rise to advanced forms of railroad signaling technology, trains required a great deal of coordination and manpower to communicate with one another along the railroad line.

Additionally, lanterns could double as a heat source to stay warm on chilly nights.

During the Civil War, improvements to the rail transportation system made it practical to ship lanterns from state to state. It was also during the war that makers began using metal stamping machines to draw and press metal, making the lantern manufacturing process more efficient.

The first company to make kerosene lanterns was the R. E. Dietz Company. In 1856, kerosene began to be distilled in quantity from coal, giving Robert Dietz the opportunity to apply for and receive a patent for a kerosene burner.

During the 1860s, Civil War contracts, Dietzís hard work, the growth of railroads, and westward expansion made his lamp business a huge success.

Fire destroyed the 10-year-old factory in June 1897 and C T Ham offered to sell out to Dietz for $190,000. Instead, in February 1898, the board of directors secured controlling interest in the Steam Guage & Lantern Comapany of Syracuse, New York. The New York city factory was back in operation later that same year. In 1915 the R.E. Dietz Company purchased the equipment from the closed C. T. Ham Manufacturing Company.

On October 21, 1874, John Adams, a salesman from New York, and William Westlake, a tinsmith who invented the removable globe lantern, joined their two companies to create the Adams and Westlake Company, commonly known as Adlake, located in Chicago, Illinois. The new company became the most successful railroad lantern company ever. Even though it made standard railroad lanterns as early as 1857, it didnít begin to manufacture switching lanterns until the 1890s. Adlake Manufacturing moved from Chicago to Elkhart, Indiana, in 1927. It was the last of many companies to manufacture kerosene railroad lanterns and ended up absorbing its competition in the 1960s as lantern sales plummeted . Today, it makes lanterns for display and train show use.

Generally, the oldest version of Adlake lanterns on the antiques market today are those known as "The Adams." The company produced them from the 1890s through around 1913 when its replacement, the "Reliable" model, came on the market. All of Adlakes lanterns were extremely heavy duty and well made. Today, Adlake switching lanterns in excellent condition sell for $100-300 on eBay.

The Adlake "The Adams" models are the oldest version of the Adlake Railroad lanterns that can still be somewhat commonly found on the used market today. They were produced from approximately the 1890s through around 1913 when its replacement, the "Reliable" models, were introduced. Some sources indicate that they may have been produced as late as WW1, which would indicate around 1917. Like the Reliable, they were produced in numerous variations, including twist off bottom pots and lift out insert pots.

The cage varied as well, with some models have a standard wire cage and others having a steel slat cage. Bell Bottom and Wire Bottoms were also options. The lanterns were extremely heavy duty and well made and it solidified Adlake as a railroad lantern maker, allowing it to introduced much improved models later on that would make Adlake the largest and most produced railroad lanterns ever. The Adams lanterns take the standard No. 39 5-3/8" globes.

For those spellbound by the history of railroads, lanterns have become a collector item worth scavenging for. The classic image of a man hanging off the back of a train with a lantern swaying back and forth is regularly associated with bygone America. Most lanterns had a black metal cage with glass insets around the interior light source, but there are many different lantern styles that emerged from the old railroad times. The five general lantern categories collectors usually identify include inspector, fixed globe, tall globe, short globe, and presentation or conductor lanterns.

The railroad industry in North American no longer uses railroad kerosene lanterns except in rare cases, however lanterns like these were in common use through the 1960s and in sporadic use as late as the 1970s and 1980s. Adlake was the last manufacture of kerosene railroad lanterns and ended up absorbing the remaining lantern manufactures in the 1960s as lantern sales plummeted and overall demand did not justify multiple companies.

To learn more about railroad signal lanterns and see how trainmen used them to communicate various signals, go to JeffPo's Railroad Lantern Page.

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