American Gallery: Curiously Seeking Erie Semaphores

Erie semaphore near Addison, New York displays ‘Approach’ following the passage of Conrail’s eastward BUOI on October 16, 1988. K25 film Leica M2 w 50mm Summicron.

When I discover something that fascinates me I’m drawn to visit repeatedly and make photographs. Long before I ever saw the old Erie Railroad route, I found it oddly compelling. The Erie was built early; it was a pioneer, constructed to the exceptionally broad six-foot track gauge. Although a major railroad, it suffered in the shadow of New York Central and Pennsylvania systems and yet never really thrived. It spanned sublimely beautiful pastoral countryside, yet operated as a ‘big-time’ railroad, focusing on heavy freight operations in its later years.

I never saw the Erie since it was merged into Erie Lackawanna six years before I was born. For that matter, I never properly experienced Erie Lackawanna, as it vanished into Conrail in 1976 when I was in fourth grade.

Move forward ten years, in autumn 1986 I was living in western New York while attending college at the Rochester Institute of Technology majoring in photography. On October 24th of that year, I ventured south from Rochester with the sole objective of following the old Erie Railroad mainline from Corning to Hornell. After a visit to the yard at Gang Mills, I drove west to Addison, and then took the Canisteo River Road that ran parallel to the old Erie main. This is a lightly populated and supremely scenic valley characterized by exposed shale cliffs, the lazy sinuous green-tinted Canisteo, and rustic farms with fields of corn and classic red barns.

The Erie has occupied the valley since the 1850s and seemed to me as much a part of the landscape as the river. Not far west from Addison, I spotted a silent sentinel—an old upper quadrant semaphore with its pointed yellow chevron blade aimed skyward. This Erie relic was as much key to my fascination as the distinct Canisteo Valley. Continuing west, I spotted another semaphore, and another. Leaving the Canisteo River Road, I drove down to the railroad on Newcomb Road near the village of Rathbone. Here I found a semaphore to inspect up close, located near a closed truss bridge on Newcomb Road. As it turned out, the bridge wasn’t long for the world; thankfully I had the insight to make a series of black & white photos of the old span while waiting for a train to pass the semaphore.

Finally, after hours of patience, Conrail fielded its daily OIBU (Oak Island, New Jersey to Buffalo, New York), a westward manifest freight. This came roaring up the valley. I learned my next lesson: freights really roll on the old Erie! Soon I was in hot pursuit. Following that freight up the valley I discovered semaphore after semaphore, each guarding the old Erie, as most had done for the previous 70 years. Erie’s famed S-class 2-8-4 Berkshire and K-class Pacific steam locomotives had worked past these old signals as had its early diesels. These signals were the glue that tied the past to present; they were part of a greater infrastructure that shaped the look of the line including the time-worn ‘code line’ (often incorrectly called a ‘telegraph line’), and rock-slide fences to prevent crumbling shale from causing a derailment.

Sun and snow; Conrail BUOI (Buffalo to Oak Island) rolls by an Erie semaphore in the Canisteo Valley near Cameron Mills, New York. Photo made with a Leica M2 rangefinder with 90mm Elmar on Kodachrome 25 slide film.

I found that most of the signals between Addison and Hornell remained as Erie semaphores. Better yet, west of Hornell to Dalton, New York, was likewise populated, as was the railroad east between Elmira and Binghamton. While I didn’t have the opportunity to capture it all on film during my first fleeting experience, the spark of fascination was firmly seated in my eye. Something as antique as an old semaphore couldn’t go unnoticed, and situated in such a stunning setting made them even more interesting. And yet the clock was ticking—I knew these old signals were on borrowed time. Having seen what happens when a railroad is torn asunder by efforts to modernize infrastructure I knew I needed to act! I spent the next three years making photographs along the Erie; not just signals, but trains, stations, bridges, towns, and railroaders. In fact, in most of my images the signals are incidental; they add interest, but only occasionally are the prime subject.

My friend Doug Eisele aided my efforts. He shared my interest in signals and educated me about them, while helping locate specific signals not obvious from main roads. Doug generously shared his own photography dating to the Erie-Lackawanna period, and helped put my work in context while providing hints for locations and lighting in various seasons and at different times of day.

On a snowy day in April 1988, Conrail’s BUOI (Buffalo to Oak Island) works its way east in a snow squall near West Cameron, New York. This freight had made a pickup at Hornell where it collected some rebuilt New York City subway cars, seen behind the locomotive on flat cars. Photo was made with a Rollei model T (featuring an f3.5 75mm Zeiss Tessar) with a super slide insert to provide a 645 size image.

The semaphores are now gone but I’ve continued my photography along the Erie route. My work now spans 25 years. I began working with Leicas, a Rollei model T, and a Canon A1, and Hasselblad 503c both borrowed occasionly from my college roommate. My original color work was largely exposed on Kodachrome, mostly K25, but other flavors as well. Later work was on Fuji and Ektachrome. My black & white photography was in its most experimental phase so I worked with a variety of films: Kodak Plus-X, Tri-X, my old staple Verichrome Pan, as well as Ilford emulsions. Most of the B&W work was executed in 120 format, but I played with 35mm and some 4×5 as well.

History and Context

I believe in learning as much as possible about my subject. My interest in railroad signaling dates back to my early childhood. As I matured I gradually researched this topic and this led to my book Railroad Signaling, published by MBI in 2003.

See link: Railroad Signaling by Brian Solomon

In the U.S. automatic block signals followed William Robinson’s 1870s development and perfection of the closed track circuit. Early automatic block signals were designed to automatically protect following movements, thereby providing a greater level of safety at relatively low cost. Electrical equipment was then in its infancy, and while the manually operated mechanical semaphore was well established in Britain, the lack of sufficiently compact and powerful motors made it impractical for this type of hardware to serve automatic block service. Instead, the earliest American block signals were enclosed banner style signals typified by the Hall disc, commonly known as the ‘Banjo’ signal because of their distinctive shape. The Hall Signal used a simple vain relay to display a light-weight colored disc within a window in the wooden frame. Hall promoted its disc signal standard until the early 20th century. It was most popular with eastern railroads; Boston & Albany, Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley and New Haven system all made widespread use of disc signals. Reading Company was probably the last railroad to employ Hall discs with a few signals surviving until after World War II. Although the disc was an early standard, within a couple of decades it was superceded by the semaphore as a block signal.

The Pennsylvania Railroad adopted the mechanical semaphore for interlocking signal service in the 1870s. In 1882, PRR installed pneumatic lower-quadrant signals for automatic block service. By the early 1890s advances in electric motor technology made electrically operated two-position lower quadrant semaphores commercially viable. Over the next few decades many American railroads installed lower-quadrant semaphores in automatic block service to improve safety and line capacity. Among the most popular types of automatic semaphore was Union Switch & Signal’s Style-B lower-quadrant. (‘Style-B’ refers to the control mechanism, which on this variety was located at the base of the mast.) Southern Pacific was one of the largest proponents of this style of signal. US&S lower quadrants survived in active service on several SP lines into the 1990s. These signals were featured in my post: “Southern Pacific Siskiyou Memories.”

Among the difficulties with lower quadrant semaphore was that each blade displayed two only aspects;: if three aspects were necessary, two blades were required.  In 1903, the electric upper-quadrant semaphore was patented; it was widely adopted after 1908 and for many years reigned as one of the most common styles of American signaling. Each signal blade could display three aspects with a single blade. Coincident with development of three-position semaphore mechanisms was research by New York’s Corning Glass that produced standardized colored glass for signal lenses. This resulted in the universal adoption of red, yellow, and green as standard colors for railroad signals (later similar colors became highway signal standards). Prior to this, railroads employed a variety of different lens colors, which specific tints varying from line to line.

Union Switch & Signal’s Style-S mechanism was designed for three-position operation. Erie Railroad was an early user of the three-position semaphore, with its earliest installation dating to about 1906. After 1910, Erie installed large numbers of Style-S semaphores along its lines. By 1924, Erie had switched to US&S color light signals for new installations, yet continued to maintain semaphores where they were already in operation.

West of Binghamton, New York, these signals survived into the Conrail era. By the late 1980s, the old Erie Style-S signals that dated to the early 20th century were nearing the end of their service lives, and were being replaced as they failed. In the early 1990s, Conrail converted sections of its former Erie ‘Southern Tier line’ from directional double-track operation to a single track with passing sidings under a centralized traffic control style system (described in Conrail literature as ‘Traffic Control System’). As part of this program, traditional signals were removed and replaced with modern color-light hardware featuring signal heads with the triangular light pattern favored by Conrail. (This style was not new, as having been introduced by US&S in 1924.) A handful of Style-S semaphores survived for a few more years on a section that remained as directional double track between Waverly and Binghamton. In 2005, Norfolk Southern finally replaced the last Erie semaphore which had protected the eastward track near Endicott, New York.

Conrail BUOI passing an unusually tall semaphore near between Rathbone and Addison, New York. This signal once had a subsidiary arm that was dispatcher controlled and could be use to instruct a train to stop and ‘line in’ to the center siding at this location. In the steam era, Erie had center sidings at strategic locations to allow slower trains to get out of the way of faster ones, thus making more efficient use of its directional double track mainline. Lighting for this photo was unusual; the sun was just peaking out from heavy clouds and was slightly back lit, which helps accentuate the lens in the semaphore blade and illuminate the locomotive exhaust. It was 2 pm on April 16, 1988, and BUOI was beginning to accelerate after clearing a slow order. Photo made on Kodachrome 25 with a Leica M2 rangefinder fitted to a Visoflex with f4.0 200mm Telyt lens.

This text is based upon research for my book “Railroad Signaling,” originally published in 2003 by MBI Publishing. To order click here.

Fallen soldier; on May 2, 1987 this former Erie semaphore was lying on the ground along the right of way at Rathbone, New York following replacement with a color light. Most surviving Style S semaphores in the Canisteo Valley were replaced in 1993-1994, when Conrail installed a single track centralized traffic control system in place of Erie’s traditional directional double track. This work resulted in signal re-spacing with longer blocks and also involved removal of the above ground code line and related infrastructure. The photo was made with a Canon A1 and 50mm lens on Professional Kodachrome 25.
East of Adrian, New York, Eastward Delaware & Hudson symbol freight ‘Jet 1’ passes semaphores at milepost 320 (measured from Jersey City) on May 14, 1988. Photo made on Professional Kodachrome 25 with a Leica M2 rangefinder fitted to a Visoflex with f4.0 200mm Telyt lens. The scan was modified using Adobe Photoshop to correct for a slight tilt, and adjust for both color and contrast. Among the difficulties with using Kodak’s professional Kodachrome was the tendency of the film to experience undesirable color shifts. The film required refrigeration until shortly before exposure and prompt processing afterwards; but even following this regiment, its color balance was often less than ideal.

7 comments on “American Gallery: Curiously Seeking Erie Semaphores

  1. William Sheppard on said:

    Would sure like an 8″ x 10″ photo of signal
    338/1B if you can so arrange. Just let me
    know the costs involved, etc.

  2. I have several photographs of 337/1B which was one of a pair of signals on Conrail’s former Erie main near Arkport, NY. I’ll need to peruse the collection, I believe the 338 signal on the westward (no 1) track was located near Burns, New York, and was a bit more difficult to photograph. If it was in service between 1986 and 1990, I probably have at least a static photograph of it.

  3. William Sheppard on said:

    Years ago, I purchased semaphore signal 338/1B from Conrail
    and have the signal blade on display here at home. By any
    chance, do you have a photograph of that signal in service?

  4. Indeed, it was. In general, I found the the Visoflex a difficult piece of equipment, but it allowed me the opportunity to work with some long lenses when had no other cost effective options. Interestingly, I find that the Visoflex-Telyt combination afforded a certain visual quality that is distinctly different than simply using a modern 200mm telephoto or zoom lens. Also, I was using a non-mirror equipped viewfinder for many of my images, which means I was composing in reverse. Furthermore, while I tended to use the Visoflex on a tripod, I was still making most photos ‘on the fly’ with only a few seconds of set up time, while trying to focus and fine tune exposure manually. Try that and chew gum all at the same time!

  5. Mark Healy on said:

    I’m intrigued re the M2/Visoflex/200mm Telyt combination. That must have been a challenge to focus?

  6. Sean Solomon on said:

    Too bad you couldnt get that semaphore that was tossed to the ground for your wall.

  7. Thanks Brian. I like the part about finding everything you can about whatever fascinates.

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