Tag Archives: Union Switch & Signal

Semaphores at Polly—Tracking the Light Daily Post.

A Nearly Literal Interpretation of the Southern Pacific Logo.

Semaphores at Polly, New Mexico; exposed on Kodachrome 25 using a Nikormat FT3 fitted with a 28mm Nikkor lens. Exposure calculated manually using a handheld Sekonic Studio Deluxe photocell.
Semaphores at Polly, New Mexico; exposed on Kodachrome 25 using a Nikormat FT3 fitted with a 28mm Nikkor lens. Exposure calculated manually using a handheld Sekonic Studio Deluxe photocell.

In January 1994, I spent several days photographing along Southern Pacific’s Tucumcari Line in central New Mexico.

One morning I made this image of the sun on the horizon with classic Union Switch & Signal Style B lower quadrant semaphores at Polly.

For me it is nearly the literal translation of SP’s safety logo with semaphores and the sun. The only difference is SP’s sun was setting (thus the ‘Sunset Route’) while mine is rising.

I’ve published variations of this image many places, including my original signals book titled Railroad Signaling. Presently, I’m working on its sequel, classic signaling which will focus on steam-era hardware.

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South Shore Sunset, October 1994

Interurban Electric Near South Bend, Indiana. 

I was driving from Erie, Pennsylvania back to Waukesha, Wisconsin after a week of photography on the former Baltimore & Ohio in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

West of South Bend, the Chicago, South Shore & South Bend runs parallel to the former New York Central ‘Water Level Route’ (then operated by Conrail).

I’d found a lightly used grade crossing, where I photographed a few Conrail freights. I didn’t have a South Shore schedule, but hoped I might see something roll over the old interurban electric line.

Ten years earlier, I’d taken a memorable trip over the line from Chicago to South Bend. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, my father had made many images of the South Shore, and I was always fond of the line, despite having missed its operation of antique multiple units and Little Joe electrics that had made the line popular with photographers.

South Shore electric
Caption: Outbound South Shore train at sunset near South Bend, Indiana in October 1994. Signals on Conrail’s parallel former New York Central mainline are visible to the left of the train. Exposed on Fujichrome 100 with a Nikkormat FT3 with 28mm Nikkor lens

As daylight faded, I notice that the old Union Switch & Signal color signals facing me suddenly changed from displaying yellow to red. This indicated to me that something was about to happen. And, sure enough, a few minutes later I could hear a train clattering along.

I found a low angle to feature the richly colored sky and I made a single exposure on Fujichrome 100 using my Nikkormat FT3  with 28mm Nikkor lens. This remains one of my favorite railway photos: for me it captures the essence of South Shore’s interurban electric operation. I’ve used it in various places over the years.



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Main Line Position Lights on Borrowed Time

Anticipating change is key to documenting the railroad. In nearly three decades of photography along the former Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, I’ve tuned my images to clues of this route’s past. While the PRR vanished into Penn Central in 1968, key PRR infrastructure has allowed necessary visual cues that retain elements of the old railroad. Among these are PRR’s iconic Position Light style signals that date to the steam era, and have survive the decades of change. However, a wise photographer will have noted that this style of signal hardware is out of favor. While Norfolk Southern has been gradually replacing its PRR era signals with color lights, I’ve learned that a recent NS application with the Federal Railroad Administration includes elimination of most remaining wayside signals from its former PRR Main Line between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.


PRR signals at Lilly, PA
The morning of July 1, 2010, was clear and bright. I set up on the outside of a curve near Lilly, Pennsylvania, to get a good view of the automatic (intermediate) signals at 254.7. Here NS maintains three main tracks with the center track signaled in both directions. This arrangement stems from a Conrail-era modification in the 1980s, when it converted the line from PRR’s directional four-track system (the two south tracks were for eastward trains and two north tracks reserved for westward trains). In this view of NS freight 12G, I used a 100-400mm Canon zoom with my Canon 7D mounted on a Bogen tripod. The lens is set at 285mm; image exposed at ISO200 f/9.0 1/250th second (camera RAW adjusted in Photoshop). By using a long focal length aimed directly at the signals I’ve maximized the effect of the position light arrangement.
Lilly, Pennsylvania
Norfolk Southern 12G is crawling upgrade, which gives ample time to expose many images. This one offers a more dramatic angle on the leading General Electric DASH9-40CW while keeping the signals in view. I’ve adjusted the 100-400m lens to 180mm, and closed the aperture slightly to f/10.0. (Camera Jpg, unmodified).

The writing is on the wall for these signals. Among those to go are favorites on the ‘west slope’ (between Gallitzin and Johnstown, Pennsylvania). I worked this area intensively in summer 2010, making an effort to capture trains passing former PRR Position Lights. Be forewarned: the signals that protected trains hauled by PRR’s magnificent K4s and M1b steam locomotives and have survived these long decades will soon pass from the scene.

Former PRR main line.
In this June 30, 2010, view. I’m looking downgrade (west) from the ‘Railfan’s Overlook’ at Cassandra, Pennsylvania. I’ve set the 100-400mm at its maximum focal length to capture a set of light helpers drifting west toward the signal bridge near Portage. In the distance an eastward train is climbing. While the signals are incidental, they offer a touch of PRR heritage. A wink of sun improves the composition. The exposure was at ISO200 f/5.6 1/500th second with Canon 7D.

I researched the development of PRR’s Position Light signals for my book Railroad Signaling. Here’s an excerpt:

PRR’s first position lights were installed in 1915 along the Main Line between Overbrook and Paoli, Pennsylvania, in conjunction with its new 11,000-olt AC overhead electrification. Early position light signals featured large background shields to protect the view from effects of harsh backlighting. Aspects mimicked those of upper quadrant semaphores by using rows of four lamps. After a few years of service these position lights were deemed successful. However, before PRR adopted the signal for widespread application, the form of the position light signal head was refined: Each head used rows of three lights oriented around a common center lamp with the outer lamps forming a circle. Lamps were mounted on bars with a circular background panel affixed over the lamps and shades to prevent backlighting. Traditionally this panel was made of Armco iron, measuring 4 feet 4 inches in diameter, with 7-3/4 inch holes punched in it for the lamps. Each single head can display several basic aspects: ‘clear’, represented by three vertical lights; ‘approach’ by diagonal lights at a 45 degree angle running from the 1:30 clock position to the 7:30 clock position; ‘restricting’ by diagonal lights at a 45 degree angle running from the 10:30 clock position to the 4:30 clock position; and ‘stop’ (or ‘stop’ and proceed) by three lights running horizontally. An individual signal head is only provided with lamps for the aspects it is expected to display and unnecessary holes are covered over. The lower of two heads, tended to use a slightly different shape for the shield panel. By using two heads, a great variety of speed signal aspects mimicking those of two and three head semaphores are possible. Slow speed aspects are provided by dwarf position signals that use a slightly different light pattern.

Signals at Summer Hill, Pennsylvania
On June 30, 2010, an NS SD40E helper set (rebuilt from SD50s) drifts down at Summerhill, Pennsylvania. These signals are easily accessible from the village. By design, position light signals are meant to be viewed head on, which makes it difficult to capture their aspects in photographs in bright daylight. Canon 7D with 28-135mm lens set a 70mm, ISO200 f/5.0 1/800.

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.

American Gallery: Southern Pacific Siskiyou Memories

Between 1990 and 1992, I made a series of trips to Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in northern California and south-central Oregon. This fantastic stretch of railroad was characterized by exceptionally steep grades, sinuous alignments, stunning scenery and ancient lower-quadrant semaphore signaling. As a signal enthusiast, I was fascinated by the large numbers of active Union Switch & Signal two-position semaphores used in automatic block service. While these vintage signals could be found elsewhere on SP’s system, there was no greater concentration than on the Siskiyou in Oregon. Another attraction were SP’s collection of classic Electro-Motive diesels, including 1950s-era SD9s (technically SD9E after overhaul) and my favorite 1960s/1970s-era SD45/SD45T-2s famed for their powerful 20 cylinder 645 engine.

Afternoon sun backlights classic Union Switch & Signal lower quadrant semaphores on Southern Pacific’s Siskiyou Line in Oregon’s Rogue River Valley, in May 1990. Photo exposed with a Nikon F3, 35mm PC (‘shift’) lens on K25 slide film. Photo by Brian Solomon

At the time I was in a photographic transition: I had just discovered the virtues of the Nikon F3, while still working with my old staple tool, a classic Leica M2 range-finder. This moment of transition and discovery of Nikon’s single lens reflex (SLR) system made my early Siskiyou trips especially exciting. There’s nothing better than have a new tool in a new place! The flexibility, functionality, and ease of use of the F3 SLR was a revelation. Everywhere I turned I saw new photo possibilities! Among the lenses I played with was a Nikkor 35mm PC ‘shift’ lens that allowed adjustments with the front element to correct for linear distortion often associated with wide angle lenses—a tool valuable for keeping semaphore masts parallel to the film plane, and thus avoiding the effect of them visually ‘falling away’ when photographed relatively close. And fun for making skies more dramatic.

More than twenty years later, I still work with my F3T occasionally, as I find it’s strengths are not afforded in any other system. With more than 2,000 rolls through its body, and working on shutter number 3, this old work horse owes me nothing. Like SP’s SD9s, the F3 is tool that has its place, long after more modern and more powerful machines have been acquired to supplant it!

Southern Pacific SD9Es lead a local freight near Phoenix, Oregon in April, 1990. Photo exposed with a Nikon F3, 35mm PC (‘shift’) lens on K25 slide film Photo by Brian Solomon

My visits were well-timed too! SP’s operations of the Siskiyou route were about to wind down. I caught the last gasp of big-time railroading on what had once been SP’s primary route to Oregon, but which had been supplanted more than 60-years earlier by the Cascade route’s Natron Cutoff via Klamath Falls and Cascade Summit. All of my images were exposed with Kodachrome film, primarily K25 (ISO 25). I’ve scanned my images using a Epson V600 flatbed and scaled and optimized the scans for digital display using Adobe Photoshop.

Feel the ground shake! Southern Pacific’s ‘West Ashland’ (symbol MERV-M; Medford to Rosevile) led by SD45 7481 on the ascent of Siskiyou Summit in May 1990; Nikkor 105mm lens on K25 slide film. Photo by Brian Solomon