Railway Lanterns

Railway lanterns were actually how I got started in collecting. I was volunteering with a tourist railway and came across a caboose lantern. I was immediately intrigued and not long after got my first railway lantern. It was an Adlake Kero No.250 for the Canadian National Railway. Shortly after I found a Grand Trunk Lantern made by E.T. Wright & Co. That lantern was the start of my fascination with tall globe lanterns, and E.T. Wright & Co. lanterns.

What is a Railway Lantern?

In simplest terms, railway lanterns were used as tools by railway workers to communicate with each other. Before the world of radios railway workers relied on hand signals, whistle signals and at night, lanterns to communicate and give directions. By night, the lantern became the most important tool on the railway, and were revered as such. Railway lanterns also had multiple different coloured globes or lenses, each with a different meaning. The lantern and lamp was an invaluable tool for the railways since the first railway.

Railway Globe Colours

One of the most intriguing part of railway lanterns for collectors and observers is the different coloured globes. Each colour has a different purpose, and different lamps also had different purposes for those colours. Below I’ve listed what railways generally accepted as the purpose of specific colours. It should be noted, different companies had different purposes for some colours, so it can vary for each railway. Worth noting as well, colours of these globes often varied. For instance green globes often show more blue, as blue and the yellow of the fame give off green light. Yellow is often times more amber in colour, etc.

The railway I’m basing this info on is the Grand Trunk Railway, from their Operating Rules and General Procedures, circa 1911.

Clear Globe

A clear lantern was used as a direct signal, the grand trunk as well as most other railways had a system of hand signals to denote what the conductor was asking the engineer to do. For instance, a lantern raised and lowered vertically meant to proceed forward.

Red Globe

A red signal, or red globed lantern meant stop. A red signal displayed on the back of the train, such as from a marker lamp meant train was occupying the mainline track and any approaching train needs to stop.

Yellow Globe

A yellow globe or signal meant proceed with caution. If a train was too slow to keep up with their timetable, it would move into a siding and display a yellow signal, either a fusee (flare) or a lantern. A yellow lantern was also used to signify to an approaching train that the tracks “3000 feet distant” are not suitable for speeds above 6 Miles Per Hour.

Green Globe

A green lantern was used for a few uses. One was used to signify the end of a slow order, or section marked with a yellow lantern, and that full speed could be resumed. The other was at a  flag stop station (a station only stopped at if passengers are waiting), a green signal displayed beside a clear signal meant passengers are waiting to board and the train needs to stop. The other use for a green lantern, at least on the Grand Trunk was for watchmen stationed at public crossings. A green signal was used to tell the public to stop. Green was used as red meant the train had to stop.


Blue Globe

A Blue lantern displayed at one or either end of a locomotive, car or train meant that men were working on said equipment and the equipment could not be moved or coupled too until the blue lantern was removed. Only the person who put the lantern in place was allowed to remove it. This rule has remained unchanged even to this day.

Railway Lantern Types

There are a numerous types of Railway lanterns out there, so many this page would be miles long if I tired to list everything. From lamps to hand lanterns there are all kinds of lanterns and lamps. So I’ll just stick with the most common and what I have in my collection.

Tall Globe Lanterns

Tall globe lanterns came around in the late 1870s or so. A tall globe is any lantern globe 5 3/8″ to 6 1/2 ” tall. This style was the first style in the ‘removable globe’ era. Tall globes often varied in height between manufacturers, it was kinda the ‘wild west’ of manufacturing. Becuase of the differences lanterns often had adjustable parts, so globes of different sizes could be fitted. In the 1890s, tall globes were pretty well standardized to 5 3/8″ tall. In the 1920s, the tall globe fell out of favour with the advent of the new ‘short globe’ lantern.

Hiram Piper Kero Lantern

Short Globe Lanterns

The short globe is 3 1/2″ tall. They first came out in the 1920s and quickly became the favourite. Soon tall globes were entirely phased out in favour of this new style. The short globe was easier to clean and manage and the shorter height helped prevent cracking.This style was used from the 1920s until the 1970s, when electric battery lanterns took over.

Bellbottom Lantern

Bellbottom lanterns  are the name given to lanterns with a solid, bell shaped bottom. Bellbottom lanterns are the earliest design of lanterns, but followed soon after by the ‘wire bottom’ which is the more common style, that use wires as the base.

All of my railway lanterns are available to see down below. If you’d like to see more pictures and information click on the button below the images.

E.T. Wright & Co.

While E.T. Wright got their start in tubular lanterns, and remained the biggest Canadian manufacturer in that area, railway lanterns played an important part of their business. Wright was one of the few Canadian railway lantern makers. E.T. Wright got into the railway lantern business in the 1890s, modelling their earliest lanterns off the C.T. Ham design. They made brass topped lanterns to begin with, but moved to making steel domed tops sometime in the late 1890s. That steel domed top would remain unchanged in appearance until E.T.W stopped making railway lanterns when the business closed in 1933. Easily recognizable, every E.T. Wright top has the name “E.T. Wright & Co. Mfrs – Hamilton, Ont” stamped around the edge.

The biggest change to their railway lantern line came in 1905, when they released the No.11 Steel Frame railway lantern. This new lantern had flat vertical guards and twist off fount. This model was also available with a glass fount. The No.11 is the first indication of a wire bottom lantern made by E.T.W, before that they made all bell bottom lanterns.

The flat vertical guards became standard on all Wright railway lanterns until the late teens when they switched to round wires again.

E.T. Wright briefly made short globe lanterns, between 1926 and at latest 1928, however The Adams & Westlake Company, along with the Hiram L. Piper Co. sued E.T. Wright over patent infringement, making wright stop production of the short globe and switch back to making tall globe lanterns until 1933. The short globe lantern was essentially a carbon copy of the short globe lantern produced by Adams & Westlake Mfg. Co. (Adlake) in Chicago.  Adlake, and Piper were understandably upset by this blatant patent infringement and subsequently sued E.T. Wright. The case bounced back and forth between courts because of appeals and in 1928, the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada. E.T. Wright argued to the court because Adlake manufactured the parts, and not manufactured here in Canada, they were allowed to infringe on their patent. Obviously, E.T. Wright lost the case. This resulted in the company modifying their lantern to use the older tall globes (5 1/2″) over the newer short globes (3 1/4″) from 1928 until 1933.

E.T. Wright & Co. lanterns make up the majority of my railway lanterns. Below are all my E.T. Wright & Co. Railway lanterns.

The Piper's

The Piper names, Hiram L. Piper & Co. and N.L. Piper Railway Supply Co. are one of the most important names to Canadian railways, having supplied much of the hardware, lighting, signalling and more to railways in Canada for easily over 150 years. I have spent much time working on the history of the Piper businesses and families. Since I have a lot about the Piper Companies, I felt it would be fitting to have it’s own page. To see my Piper lanterns, and history about the companies, click the button below.

American Made Railway Lanterns

American Manufacturers also made lanterns for Canadian Railway Companies. Manufacturers such as The Adams & Weslake Co. (Adlake), R.E. Dietz, The keystone Lantern Co. and many more are found with Canadian Railways. Below are all of my American made lanterns, along with a few made for American Railroads.