Railroad Switch Lamp, ca 1900 - 1940s

This large, kerosene-fueled switch lamp, ca. 1900s-1940s, was placed immediately adjacent to the manual operating lever that controlled the position of a switch in a railroad track. The lever, operated by a brakeman or switchman, changed the position of the movable rails of the switch, aligning the switch for a train's movement from one route to another, or from a main track to a siding track.
This lamp has fresnel lenses - two blue and two red. The crenelated top allows heat to escape from the burner. The body is embossed with the initials, "M.C.R.R.", showing that it was made for and used on the Michigan Central Railroad, a major part of the New York Central System.
A switch lamp's position was mechanically interlinked with the position of the switch, so that the lamp automatically indicated which way the switch was aligned. When aligned for a main route or normal path ("normal" as specified in the railroad's employee timetable and/or standing instructions for that particular switch's milepost location), the lamp's green (or blue) lenses showed fore and aft; when the switch was changed to a diverging route or siding, the lamp rotated 90 degrees so that the red lenses showed fore and aft.
Clearly, the safety of passing trains was dependent on the accurate indication of the lamp, if a derailment due to a misaligned switch was to be prevented.
This large-size lamp is of a type typically used on principal tracks in railroad yards or on main routes in the vicinity of junctions or stations. The kerosene fuel for the lamp had to be replenished regularly by nearby employees. Electric lighting for such lamps became common in the 1890s-1900s along heavily used routes. But kerosene lamps were common into the 1950s along lightly used routes and in many rail yards.
Currently not on view
Object Name
lamp, railroad switch
Michigan Central Railroad
Peter Gray & Sons
Physical Description
steel (overall material)
glass (overall material)
average spatial: 17 in x 9 in x 9 in; 43.18 cm x 22.86 cm x 22.86 cm
place made
United States: Massachusetts, Boston
associated place
United States: New Jersey, Demarest
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
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Work and Industry: Transportation, Railroad
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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