Saturday, December 10, 2005

Question: Wanting BOX HEADLIGHT info

From: "Jon Williams"

... I am most interested in learning about the box-type headlights on the locomotives of the Golden Spike era. I assume that the reflector was of polished tin and that the burner was oil-fueled with a wick. Is this correct? Were any of them kerosene-fueled in the 1860-70s? Please clarify if you can. How well did the headlight illuminate the way at night? Was it effective enough so that the engineer could see the the track ahead and perhaps some countryside to the left and right? Was it considered more risky to operate a locomotive at night in these times? How vigilant was the engineer during long stretches, particularly at night? Would he be on constant lookout? Would the train stop if it hit a large animal (say a bison or elk)? Would it even 'sense' the impact? ...

—J. Williams


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...


Headlights in the oil burning era (whether kerosene, coal oil, whale oil, or whatever) seem primarily to have served to make the locomotive visible to anyone ahead of it (such as, say, and oncoming train). Anyone who has driven rural mountain roads at night will appreciate this ability to see something in advance. As to what the engineer could see – probably not much. And yes, the headlights had cloth wicks, generally tubular in shape. the burner was designed to create a draft to increase the illumination, but it still wasn't much.

There is an 1870's account of a Central Pacific train coming downgrade from the Summit at night. The crew heard a big thump and the headlight went out, so they figured they had hit something. The engineer stopped the train and the fireman went forward to check things out. He came back very sorrowful saying he had found a dead man on the pilot deck all covered with blood and gore.

They slowly went on to Truckee, stopped the train, and went forward for the grim duty of removing the body – but the man was gone. They wondered about it until the next day when the section crew found a dead cow by the line. Apparently a hobo had been riding on the pilot deck when the train hit the cow, covering him in cow guts. After the fireman saw him (and believed him to be dead), he got off and walked away.

Anyway, a long way to say that the engine crew at night with the headlight lit could not see a cow before they hit it. They stopped because the headlight went out.

Kyle K. Wyatt
Curator of History & Technology
California State Railroad Museum
111 "I" Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

12/14/2005 7:25 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Wendell Huffman"

I'm not the one to tell you anything you don't already know about 19th century oil-burning lights – except that they were not just used for locomotives (you can see them on riverboats or illuminating places where people may work or gather after nightfall), that they did not come as standard equipment on all locomotives, and that not all were "square." The Sacramento Valley RR did not have them on any of their locomotives into the early 1860s. They few night excursions they ran always coincided with a full moon.

However, I can tell you that running into a large animal (bison, horse, cow) with a locomotive would indeed be felt by the locomotive crew. From reading the old newspapers I am certain that such an encounter often enough caused the derailment of the locomotive and death of a crew member. The trainman's life literally depended upon vigilance in watching where the train was going. One could not just take for granted that some prankster or disgruntled former employee, customer, or neighbor hadn't loosened spikes or placed obstructions on the tracks. Too, the iron rails used in those days often broke, and a broken rail could upset the locomotive or train. These things happened often enough to keep the crewmen always on the lookout. Fortunately, trains in those days did not run particularly fast.

12/15/2005 1:06 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

You might want to see the headlight details in some of the 19th century locomotive diagrams in the appendices to Roy E. Appleman's National Park Service report, 1966.

12/24/2005 8:02 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Also see information about 19th century locomotive engineer biographies where such details as are being asked about perhaps might be found.

12/30/2005 6:53 PM  

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