One of the most recognizable aspects of historical railways was the many different lanterns, lamps and lighting employed by the railways. Lighting was used for every aspect of railways. One of the most common was lanterns. They were carried by railway employees to communicate with each other and direct trains. This was the only form of night time communication before the advent of radios.

Every switch stand had a lamp burning every night, every signal was powered by lamps, locomotoves had classification lamps to designate what type of train it was, every station and coach was lit by lamps. Oil lamps and lanterns were truly one of the most important things keeping the railways moving for nearly 2 centuries.

The GHRA has a large collection of lanterns and lighting, below are some from our collection.

Railway globes are the round glass inside a lantern. Globes came in 5 colours, clear, red, yellow, green and blue. Each colour had a distinct meaning to the railways.

Below is 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. Also worth noting, 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, and so on.

The railway this information is based 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 lantern 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 had 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.

Lanterns & Lighting In Our Collection

Pennsylvania Railroad Keystone Casey

This lantern was donated to our group. It’s a Keystone Casey lantern, made by the Keystone Lantern Co in the early 1900s. It was made for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Pennslyvania Railroad did not have any real connection to Canada, so this lantern is considered an outlier in our collection. That said it illustrates an important era for lantern developement, the ‘tall globe’ lantern. Tall globe lanterns were the earlier style of railway lanterns, with a globe measuring 5 3/4″ tall to 6″ tall.

This lantern was recently restored by group member Drew Goff. It is in fantastic condition. The bright spots on the lantern is original tin plating, a protective coating added to lanterns to prevent it from rusting. Nowadays, the plating is almost always worn off, so to have an example with some intact is quite special.

Canadian Pacific Railway Adlake Kero

The Adams & Westlake “Adlake” Kero was the most popular lantern for railways from the 1930s to the 1970s. This one was made for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

To get around Canadian Tariff laws, the Adlake formed a partnership with the Hiram L. Piper Railway Supply Co. (Piper) A company from Montreal. Adlake would build the parts for the lantern and ship the parts to Piper, who would assemble them. This way Adlake would not have to pay import duties. This relationship stayed intact from the 1920s to the 1970s. As a result, all Kero lanterns made for Canadian Railway have the Hiram L. Piper name on them, instead of the Adlake name.