15 artifacts in this set
Before automated signals became common, the busiest railroad crossings were protected by railroad employees. A person was stationed at the crossing and, when necessary, manually activated a signal or a gate, or perhaps simply waved a flag, a sign or a lantern, to warn approaching road traffic. A small booth protected the signal person from inclement weather.
Apart from eliminating it altogether, the safest way to protect a railroad crossing is with moveable gates. The first gates, introduced around 1870, were hand-operated by an employee stationed at the crossing. Automated gates first appeared in the 1930s. Four-quadrant gates completely block off the road, while more common two-quadrant gates block each lane only in the direction of travel.
Wigwag railroad crossing signals -- named for the way they swung back and forth when activated -- first appeared about 1914. Their waving action simulated the motion of a lantern being swung back and forth -- long a signal for "stop" on American railroads. Typically, wigwags were driven by a pair of electromagnets that alternately pulled and released the pendulum.
The first automated, flashing red light railroad crossing signal appeared around 1913. The flashing lights mimicked the motion of a lantern being swung back and forth -- long a signal for "stop" on American railroads. The X-shaped crossbuck sign, in wide use by 1900, was inspired by the skull and crossbones -- a universal symbol for danger.
Automatic railroad crossing signals are controlled through an electrical relay in the railroad track. A low-voltage electric current is sent between the two rails via a series of relays like the ones in this photo. When a train approaches, the current runs through the train's metal wheels and axles instead of the relays. This "short circuit" activates the crossing signal.
Busy railroad crossings were protected by a signal person or -- later -- automated warning devices. Quieter crossings -- those on little-used branch lines or spurs, or on lightly-traveled rural roads -- might only be marked with a sign. Designs varied by railroad company, but most used an X-shaped sign with a message like "Stop, Look and Listen" or "Look Out for the Cars."
Railroad crossing warning signs weren't standardized in the United States until 1949. Before that designs varied by railroad company, though most tended to share some common features. X-shaped signs, eye-catching stripes, and supplementary messages like "Stop, Look and Listen" or "Look Out for the Cars" were all widely used.
Blind curves -- whether on the railroad, the road, or both -- added another element of danger to a railroad crossing. Crossings like this were some of the first to be protected with automated warning devices. The lights and bells on these signs were activated whenever an approaching train tripped an electrical relay wired to the track.
Multiple-track railroad crossings, where a roadway crosses more than one railroad track, are particularly dangerous. A train on or near the crossing on one track can block motorists' view of another train approaching the crossing on a different track. Crossings like this were some of the first to be protected with automated warning devices and gates.
The automobile's growing popularity in the early 20th century brought an increase in railroad crossing accidents. A car-train collision put the auto's occupants at serious risk, but it could also be hazardous to railroad crews and passengers if the heavy car derailed the train. Railroads and highway departments sponsored public safety campaigns warning motorists of the danger.
For as long as trains and automobiles have coexisted, some motorists have felt the need to "race" a train to the crossing. Some early magazine advertisements actually encouraged the practice, showing daring drivers outrunning speeding express trains. Few habits are so dangerous. A speeding train can take more than a mile to stop. Even in a tie, the automobile loses.
Grade crossings between railroads and public roadways in the United States are generally marked in two locations. The crossing itself is marked by the X-shaped "Railroad Crossing" sign, sometimes supplemented by flashing lights or gates. An advance warning sign, like this one, is placed anywhere from 225 to 1,350 feet ahead of the crossing, depending on the road's speed limit.
In the United States, locomotive engineers are required to sound a specific sequence of horn or whistle blasts when approaching most road crossings: two long blasts, one short, and one more long. Railroads frequently place a whistle post, like this one, along the track about a quarter-mile before the crossing to notify the engineer when to use the horn.
Automobile Crossing Tracks Behind a Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railway Freight Car, April 1927
The driver of a Ford Model T waits for a loaded hopper car to clear a railroad crossing in this 1927 photograph. The brakeman, riding on the hopper, is blowing a whistle to warn the motorist. Lightly-used spur tracks like this often lacked railroad crossing signs, lights or gates. Railroad crews and drivers both had to be cautious.
One way to make a railroad crossing safer was to eliminate it altogether. Overpasses separated trains from automobiles, but they were expensive to build and required extensive regrading of either the railroad or the roadway, and sometimes both. As a result, overpasses tended to be built only at the busiest crossings.