Monday, July 16, 2012

Lighting the Way to Safety

QUESTION: I got this old lantern about 25 years ago. Supposedly it was in the railroad terminal in Atlanta when the Yankees came through and wrecked it in 1865 and was taken home by a young boy who put it in the family barn. It stayed there until I got it from a guy who owed me some money. He says it belonged to his great grandfather, the young boy who originally found it. I have no idea of its value or even its age and have been looking at it for 25 years. Is there any way you can tell me about how old this lantern is and even if it is possible that the story he told me is true?

ANSWER: Your lantern would have been used by railroad workers to indicate to railroad engineers whether a switch was open (green) or closed (red). However, Adlake, the manufacturer of your lantern, didn’t start making switching lanterns until the late 19th century, so it seems unlikely that the Civil War tale is true. Your lantern looks like Adlake Model #1204 which the company produced at the turn of the 20th century.

In order to safely operate a train yard, railroad workers had to have a way of communicating with each other and train engineers. During the days of steam locomotives, the noise and distance involved with train operations ruled out speaking or yelling, especially since common radio devices weren't yet available. Any device they used would also have had to be portable, since those working on the line were constantly on the move. While flags and semaphores worked during the day, they weren’t effective at night. In order to communicate after dark, railroad workers depended on kerosene lanterns.

During the Civil War, improvements to the rail transportation system made it practical to ship lanterns from state to state. It was also during the war that makers began using metal stamping machines to draw and press metal, making the lantern manufacturing process more efficient..

The first company to make kerosene lanterns was the R. E. Dietz Company. In 1856, kerosene began to be distilled in quantity from coal, giving Robert Dietz the opportunity to apply for and receive a patent for a kerosene burner.

During the 1860s, Civil War contracts, Dietz’s hard work, the growth of railroads, and westward expansion made his lamp business a huge success.

On October 21, 1874, John Adams, a salesman from New York, and William Westlake, a tinsmith who invented the removable globe lantern, joined their two companies to create the Adams and Westlake Company, commonly known as Adlake, located in Chicago, Illinois. The new company became the most successful railroad lantern company ever. Even though it made standard railroad lanterns as early as 1857, it didn’t begin to manufacture switching lanterns until the 1890s. Adlake Manufacturing moved from Chicago to Elkhart, Indiana, in 1927. It was the last of many companies to manufacture kerosene railroad lanterns and ended up absorbing its competition in the 1960s as lantern sales plummeted . Today, it makes lanterns for display and train show use.

Generally, the oldest version of Adlake lanterns on the antiques market today are those known as "The Adams." The company produced them from the 1890s through around 1913 when its replacement, the "Reliable" model, came on the market. All of Adlakes lanterns were extremely heavy duty and well made. Today, Adlake switching lanterns in excellent condition sell for $100-300 on eBay.

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