Signals of the 1860's to 1880's?

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Signals of the 1860's to 1880's?
Posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, February 03, 2004 10:22 AM
I'm trying to construct a historically accurate United States layout of trains, signals, buildings, tunnels, bridges, etc., cerca 1869-75. With emphasis on the old west plains through California.

I can't seem to find anything on U.S. "signaling" of that era on the web.

What signals were used? How did they let other trains know that there was another train up ahead... or... to slow down or stop when needed?

What signals were used on the open road and in towns after the first trans continental rail line was established?

Can anyone refer me to a web site with this info? Does anyone know if model railroad signals of this era are available for HO gage?

If I have to build my own, I would like to know what they looked like, or how they did it?


John C.
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Posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, February 03, 2004 11:23 AM
I am going to offer a little (Very little) of what I know...

I recall that Telegraph was the "Internet" of the day and trains were probably sent out when it was sure that track is clear. If there was no orders, it is possible trains were on their own with these provisions as signals:

- Torpedoes... They are explosive charges placed on the rails by a crew of a stalled train or a depot master to signal an emergency stop. A scenario would be a fallen trestle and the oncoming train will hear the "BOOM" from under the locomotive. At that point the crew should throw the train to a stop as fast as possible or slow enough to jump clear.

- Fire... They take two forms the 1st is a man standing on the track with two torches (One in each hand) he then assumes a attention position, raises both torches above the head to form a "X" and does this until the train has stopped.

The second form is a simple fire (Bonfire) built next to the track. In case of hostile actions such as wartime, they would be built on the rails themselves. And the heated rails twisted around a nearby tree.

The third method of singaling would be the whistle. A stalled train in heavy fog would blow a whistle continuiously hoping to alert any other train to stop in time.

Lights on locomotives were used, however in the old west they would be shot at by cowboys as entertainment and little used. In the east, the B and O had a small flat (about 8 foot long) and a reflector placed behind the fire. The entire "cart" is pushed ahead of the engine.

I believe oil lanterns were used by crew men to signal and also hung on cabooses to denote end of train.

That is all I know of. Hope this helped.

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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Tuesday, February 03, 2004 2:13 PM
Timetable and train order was the standard method of operation with manual block signals located only at stations. Semaphores were the usual signals with possibly ball signals in some locations.
The daily commute is part of everyday life but I get two rides a day out of it. Paul
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Posted by ironhorseman on Tuesday, February 03, 2004 2:40 PM

This link will take you to Union Signal and Switch's industry history. There's a brief paragraph on how signaling was handled up to 1870 until the development of the electric circuit in rails to detect train movement, broken rails, etc. It should be relevant to what you are looking for. I can't remeber what U.S.S.'s competitor is but they'll have info on signals and switches too.

yad sdrawkcab s'ti

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Posted by randybc2003 on Wednesday, February 04, 2004 6:58 PM
Go to the Magazine Search Index on this website. I know Model Railroader has run articles in the late '50s and '60s on signals. Some 2-position semaphore, 3-position, and "ball" signals. Check recent "Classic Trains" on ball signals in Vermont. Also, G. B. Abdill's book on Civil War railroads doesn't show much in the way of signals. I expect timetable and train-order was rather absolute. Good luck.
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Posted by Anonymous on Thursday, February 05, 2004 10:43 AM
Thanks all!

One of the many reasons I ask about signals (being a history buff) is that the "Union Pacific 119," which met the Central Pacific's Jupiter at Promitory Point in Utah was not supposed to be there!

The original train failed to notice a "red flag" signal and crashed into another train not far up ahead. The 119 was the "replacement" assigned to haul the Union Pacific President's car to Utah after the original was badly damaged.

The key here is: "Red Flag" signal!

Was this a guy waiving a flag out in the middle of nowhere? Was it a trip signal of some sort? A flag stuck in the ground? Raised on a pole?

How would they know when the track was clear to, otherwise, take down or remove the signal flag?

There must have been some mechanical or other method of signaling back in those days. When available, telegraph alerted towns and cities to activate manual signals
but the mountains and deserts of that era, had no towns, let alone telegraph.

Perhaps, too, it was someone at a "Way Station" that raised, then lowered a "red flag" after a sufficiant length of time passed!

John C.


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