Railroad lanterns

Railroad lanterns were made with various globe styles and colors. This one, of red,

signaled danger ahead.


Doug: My father picked this old Rock Island railroad lantern up somewhere in his travels. I am curious if you can tell me anything about it and what it’s worth.


John P.

Dear John: Your dusty lantern compelled me to envision a stoic switchman who, dressed in care-worn bibs and a tired wool coat, walks a lonely railyard on a brisk winter’s night while the fading whistle of a distant train rents the chilly air above the groan of a steam locomotive negotiating its freight up the encumbrance of a disagreeable terrain.

Maybe it has stirred the image of a childhood memory or perhaps my mind relives the scene of a fading movie from the past, but I really must get back to work.

This kerosene-fueled beacon was made by the Adams & Westlake Co. (Adlake), of Chicago. Founded in 1857, it was, and still is, a major manufacturer of equipment for the railroad and transportation industry. Their lights, door hinges, locks and other accessories have supplied virtually every American rail line that’s ever existed.

Referred to as a kero lantern, its basic design dates to the mid-19th century, and, like the mousetrap, its simplicity and functionality have been difficult to improve on. Therefore, though it may appear to be a primitive antique, it could, in fact, be of recent origin.

Yours was made specifically for the Rock Island Lines, the logo of which was stamped in its top before it left the factory. The bottom is marked 1-65, indicating that it was manufactured in the first quarter of 1965. I’m afraid it isn’t very old as railroadiana goes, but it still will attract a lot of attention from the many collectors of genuine Rock Island Lines memorabilia.

With its ruby red globe, a switchman would have used it to signal an engineer to stop the train due to an impending danger ahead. Other globe colors were available as well, including amber (slow down and continue with caution to the next signal), blue (men working in the area, proceed slowly) and green (all clear). Lanterns also were made with clear glass, believe it or not, for those who wanted to see in the dark.

Known as a “short glass” model, this style was manufactured after World War I. Serious train enthusiasts would have little interest in it, however, much preferring the older, scarcer examples with either permanently fixed or larger globes, especially those that have the railroad name etched into the glass itself. One collector I know has a circa-1890s lantern with a two-colored globe. The lower half is clear and the upper is blue. It was used by the conductor on a passenger train. He carried it near the floor where the lamp lit the aisle path for his safety while the subdued lighting of the tinted upper half allowed weary passengers to sleep with minimal disturbance.

Adlake has remained in business supplying commuter and commercial lines, but they are also committed to historical preservation, helping people restore old passenger cars to their original glory. Many of the OEM parts were Adlake and can be produced even today using the same manufacturing forms they used a century ago.

The company also sells general items such as lanterns and switch lights, made by hand, exactly as they were decades ago. The newly made lanterns are nearly identical to yours, and the various globes, lenses, fonts and burners are also available to make the old like new again.

The value of your 50-year-old lantern is $75 to $100, or about the cost to have it replaced with a brand-new one.

Contact Doug Smith with your collectibles questions by emailing him at DougsQCCollecting@hotmail.com or visiting his website, DougsQCCollectibles.com.