Before walkie-talkies and wi-fi, railroad operators had to rely on good old-fashioned light signals to communicate everything. Antique railroad lanterns might not be as vital to rail operations as they once were, but they've gained their own passionate following. Found in museums and auctions around the world, old railroad lanterns are a valuable piece of the past that still connects with people today.
What's a Railroad Lantern?
Railroad lanterns are exactly what they sound like. They were pieces of equipment that emitted light that railroad operators used to communicate different messages while trains traveled on the rails. Before long-distance communication was possible, people working at railroad stations and in the trains still had to send important messages to prevent disasters and delays. Thus, lanterns came in.
Antique Railroad Lanterns Through the Ages
Over time, lantern styles changed and improved. But each one is just as collectible as the last. According to the Heritage Place Museum, there are five major railroad lantern styles that developed during rail travel's hey-day.
Fixed Globe Lanterns
The first railroad lantern to be invented was the fixed globe lantern, which thrived during the 1860s. They're easily identifiable because their glass globes are literally affixed in the frame and can't be removed. Because they were replaced by removable globe lanterns in the reconstruction era, antique fixed globe lanterns are particularly rare and valuable.
Tall Globe Lanterns
The tall globe lantern replaced the fixed-globe style, and is characterized by a 5-6" tall removable glass globe. Although they were first created in 1865, they didn't become massively popular until the 1870s.
Short Globe Lanterns
Short globe lanterns are the youngest railroad lantern style in the bunch. They came about in the 1920s and were used well through the 1960s. They're very similar to tall globe lanterns except the glass globe is about half the size of the older model's thanks to a kerosene fuel switch, making them lighter and easier to lug around. Because of their younger age, there are far more of these around than there are of the older lantern styles.
The most decorative and visually pleasing lantern style was the conductor's lantern. Also called a presentation lantern, conductor lanterns weren't made for outdoor, weather-hardened use. Rather, they were often emblematic as a status symbol for the most powerful person onboard the train - the conductor.
The most valuable conductor's lanterns are two-color globes which feature bands of two colors on the globe's glass. Interestingly, the bi-color didn't only serve an aesthetic purpose but was also functional in helping conductors not blast their cue beams into passengers' eyes when looking at tickets.
Inspector's lanterns are less decorative than conductor's lanterns and come in a variety of sizes. They're typically single-directing lamps encased in sheet metal and focus on function over fashion in their designs.
Popular Manufacturers to Look For
Because railway travel and transportation were a massive element of mid- to late-19th century life in the United States, there were tons of railroad tracks. This led to a huge market for railroad equipment that a multitude of manufacturers supplied. Some of the more prominent antique railroad lantern manufacturers are:
- R.E. Dietz
- C.T. Ham
- Adams & Westlake
- Star Headlight & Lantern
- Parmalee & Nonnell
How Much are Antique Railroad Lanterns Worth?
For something as mundane as a lantern, these historic railroad artifacts sure come with a high price tag. Granted, there's a massive subculture that's fascinated by railroads, trains, train sets, and more. This means that the buyer interest is quite high when good quality antique lanterns come to auction.
Typically, antique railroad lanterns are worth anywhere between $100-$1,000, depending on a variety of factors.
- The older the lantern, the more it might be worth.
- Lanterns that were issued by defunct railroad companies will sell well at market.
- Lanterns that have globes and frames in immaculate condition can fetch high prices.
For example, this 1870s railroad lantern has substantial rusting. So, despite its age, it only sold for $125. In contrast, an Adlake globe lantern made for the New York, Ontario, and Western Railway that's in great condition sold for $925 online.
Similarly, an immaculate early 20th century Dietz small globe lantern with three original wicks recently sold for $685 on eBay.
Ultimately, antique railroad lantern values are just as at the mercy of collector's interest as other collectibles are. Currently, they're a pretty valuable antique, though that could be subject to change in the future.
There's No Nostalgia Stronger Than Train Nostalgia
Although we have things like sports cars, monorails, and space travel to wow us, trains used to be the modern marvels we admired. And for some, they still are. From collecting model trains with the most minute details replicated in the small scale, to bidding on antique railroad lanterns, people will do anything to get in on the railway action. Who knows? Maybe you've got an antique railroad lantern tucked away and you can get in on the action, too.