Days of Steam – Report #8 – Use of Signals

Article by Chip Deyerle

Author’s Note: This is yet another item drawn from the N&W Rules and regulations for the Operating Department published in 1917.

Perhaps the greatest problem among railroaders in the early 1900s was how to communicate safely and effectively in an age when there were no electronic signals available during the days of steam.  This report looks at what the N&W Rule Book had to say.  By 1917, it was quite apparent that railroads must move toward some sort of standardized signal system in order for trains to run on the majority of tracks in the US.

 Use of Signals:

27. A signal imperfectly displayed, or the absence of a signal at a place where a signal is usually shown must be regarded as a stop signal, and the fact reported to the superintendent.

28. A green and white signal will be used to stop a train only at the flag station indicted on its schedule.  When it is necessary to stop a train at a point that is not a flag station on its schedule, a red signal must be used.

28 (a). In the absence of a green and white signal so displayed either in a fixed position or otherwise, stop signals given by hand, flag or lamp will have the same indication.

29.  When a signal, except a fixed signal, is given to stop a train, it must, unless otherwise provided, be acknowledged as prescribed by Rule 14 (g) or (h).

30.  The engine bell must be rung when an engine is about to move and while approaching and passing public crossings at grade.

30. (a).  The engine bell must be rung when running through tunnels and through or across the streets of towns or cities, and when passing trains on double track, and when shifting or passing through yards.

31. The whistle must be sounded at all places where required by rule or by law.

31. (a). The whistle must be sounded at all whistle posts, but must not be sounded while passing or being passed by a passenger train, except to prevent accident.

32. The unnecessary use of either the whistle or the bell is prohibited.

33. Watchmen stationed at highway crossings must use stop signals when necessary to stop trains.  They will use white signals to stop highway traffic.

34.  The engineer and fireman must when practicable communicate with each other by its name the indication of the signals affecting the movement of their train.

35. The following signals will be used by flagmen:

Day signals – A red flag

Torpedoes and


Night Signals – A red light

A white light

Torpedoes and


35. (a) Torpedoes must not be placed near stations or road crossings where persons are liable to be injured by them.


Days of Steam – What it’s about

Steam Operations in 1924

Comments By Chip Deyerle

It was very late in life that I learned what I had forgotten about the days of steam.  There in my past, in my father’s past, and his father’s past, lies a story that is only now coming forth in literature. But it is ironic that it has been there all along, just hidden under what we call now modern technology and it’s constantly changing it’s face.  Oh, days of steam, we never knew you, really. We took advantage of you and the tools you provided, but we moved on to diesel and nuclear power during the same century and watched as steam began to fall away from its most apparent look.

The start of the days of steam in the US was prior to the 1800s, but grew famously during the 18th and 19th century. Mills of all sorts were once powered by steam, and some still are. The railroads were likewise the product of the days of steam, continuing to operate on steam until the late 1950s, when steam engines were sent to the scrap yards across the country.

So what does a large company do with all that energy generated by a steam plant? Sure, it turns the wheels of industry, processing a significant part of US production even today and around the world, but it also sparked ingenuity of the engineers and the technocrats, who produced advancements for industry, including air brakes for moving vehicles safely along our nation’srailways and highways.That would only be part of the story.

In medicine, steam protects patients from infection by sterilizing surgical and medical items every day of the year, cheaply and reliably.

While yet to be proven as an automobile, engineers did design and manufacture small steam engines for automobilesaround 1900, but the auto industry and consumers demanded gasoline engines instead of steam.

On the rivers and oceans of the world, commerce moved by sail and then gravitated to steam for shipping until the 1950s.  Recall Mark Twain’s riverboat stories to get an idea of how steam affected shipping commerce and life on the rivers of this country.

Early in the last century, electric power was produced by numerous steam plants located near major US cities or as part of a major manufacturing center, giving way in some location to turbines turned by moving water.

While the world deals with nuclear power, the dangers of steam becoming a monster in no way compares to fission-generated energy. I believe that steam will never be our master in this modern world and will endure through the ages to come.

The objective of Days of Steam is to focus attention on the path that steam has taken in our society historically and why it remains vital to society.  Steam is  one historical factor that has made our country great and it is our story of the contributions steam has made to our history. It is how we will want to be known across the ages.

Watch for more information about railroading here with more focus on the rules from 1917.

Shaffers Crossing – from 1923

Digging through back copies of the N&W magazine from 1923, I found a picture of the Shaffers Crossing railyards and roundhouse in the back ground.  The Js are parked to the right side of the picture and were probably being released from maintenance whenthe picture was taken. This was perhaps one of the biggest yards on the N&W system and is still there today. My thanks to the wonderful guys at the N&W Historical Society who work hard to make items like this available for us to remember the past.