Rail & Locomotive Bells

From around 1840 onward, a bell was standard issue on steam locomotives traversing the American countryside. The bell was meant to alert people and animals (like the much-maligned bison) of an approaching train. On the open plains, where clearance wasn’t an issue, the bell would be mounted to the top of the boiler or smokebox. If the train were outfitted for tighter quarters and rails, the bell could be repositioned to the front of the locomotive, tucked alongside the cab, or stashed beneath the running board. 

Railroads govern the use of bells on locomotives and mandate when they should be rung, as at crossings, quiet zones, or meeting points. Locomotive bells’ chief function is to warn pedestrians, crew, or others nearby with a bright ding that a train is moving or will be soon.

Locomotive bell mounted on front of train

Image: A locomotive bell mounted to the the front of the train.

The train’s horn is tasked similarly, though it is louder and carries farther distances than the bell – and is most often sounded when the train is at speed. Bells continue to be used on virtually all trains, including steam and diesel locomotives, though most have converted to automatically ring, rather than relying on an individual to manually toll. 

Locomotive bells remain a potent symbol of Americana and westward expansion. They have been present at some of our nation’s most harrowing moments: When President Abraham Lincoln’s body was transported by rail to Springfield, Illinois, following his assassination, the engine’s bell was muffled and mournfully tolled the entire distance. The plangent toll of a locomotive bell announced the loss of the savior of the Union.

Parts of a locomotive bell

Bells on trains are not unlike bells atop school houses, or within church steeples, or at firehouses. Locomotive bells share some common characteristics with these other types of bells, but maintain a few distinct characteristics. Typically, locomotive bells measure between 11 and 17 inches in diameter (measured from lip to lip) and can weigh hundreds of pounds. 

When we refer to a locomotive bell, we most often refer to the entire bell assembly, which includes a:

  • Bell | The cast bronze or brass bell that is rung to announce a moving train.
  • Yoke | The cross piece from which a bell is hung and swung.
  • Pull-Arm | The lever that rotates the yoke, causing the clapper to connect with the bell.
  • Clapper | A metal shaft terminating in a solid sphere that swings back and forth inside to strike the bell and make it ring.
  • Rope | Connects to the pull-arm, allowing the engineer to ring the bell from farther away.
  • Cradle | The iron or steel framework that securely fastens the bell to the train or engine.

Bells on large freight or passenger trains were almost always cast in bronze or brass, but a few examples exist of iron or steel bells cast for smaller diesel locomotives.

Image: A 600-class steam locomotive manufactured by Brooks Locomotive Works with a bell mounted atop the smokebox idles in storage near Dump No. 6 after construction of the Panama Canal, photographed May 22, 1915. Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration.

Identifying locomotive bells 

Connecting a locomotive bell to its train of origin can be an irresistible challenge for bell collectors. Who wouldn’t want to know more about a bell’s provenance or history? Unfortunately, the manufacturers of locomotive bells did little to make this an easy process for contemporary researchers and amateur historians. Unlike ship’s bells, which often feature prominent inscriptions of the ship’s name, very rarely were identifying markers, like a railway company name, serial number, or year of production, engraved on a train’s bell.

A few bell manufactures included casting numbers on the yoke or cradle, but these records were only meaningful to the foundries that cast them – and were lost when those same foundries shuttered. As part numbers, they might connect a bell to its manufacturer, but couldn’t identify a corresponding engine or a specific class of locomotive. Fleets of bells bear the same casting numbers.

The shape and profile of locomotive bell parts were all very similar, making it even harder to differentiate between different bell makers. An overlooked benefit of all this ambiguity? Train bells were easier to repurpose or reuse as new engines were added to the tracks. 

Collectors looking to learn more about their bell are best served by speaking with the bell’s seller to track down the chain of custody through the years. Locomotive bells were often salvaged for use in churches, factories, and farms, so the process of identification can become a never-ending hunt. One consolation? The sweet ding-ding-ding of a briskly-tolled bell.

Image: A salvaged locomotive bell is mounted to a post and repurposed as a farm bell.

Train station bells

Another type of bell is often found on boarding platforms of train stations around the world. Smaller than their locomotive counterparts, these train station bells are typically cast in brass and announce the imminent arrival of a train to the station. As a train approaches, the station master will give a few vigorous tolls on the signal bell. This gives passengers advanced notice to gather their belongings and prepare to board. The train waits for no one!

Image: A train station bell hangs over the platform at Bangkok (Hua Lamphong) Railway Station in Bangkok, Thailand.