The Unique All Black Old Railway Semaphore Signals in Alton Bay, NH. What A Sight.

Anura Guruge, laughing, picture November 16, 2011.

by Anura Guruge

Related posts:
Δ The Old Railway Semaphore Signals in Alton Bay, NH — In Desperate Need Of Attention — Aug. 9, 2012.
Δ Lakes Region (NH) Economy Booming Per Local Builders — Oct. 18, 2012.
Δ Alton, NH Property Tax Rate: Highest It Has Been In Last 5 Years — Nov. 19, 2012.

The now painted all black railway semaphore signals above the 'Old Railway Station' in Alton, NH by Anura Guruge

The now painted all black railway semaphore signals above the ‘Old Railway Station’ in Alton, NH. It is possible that they got it 50% right, which is not too bad, considering. Click to ENLARGE.

A bit of background: The desperately sorry state of these semaphore signals were brought to my attention in early August of this year. I contacted the lady who runs Alton Parks and Recreation, this building being a part of their domain. I kind of knew her given that our kids went to the same school. She indicated that they hoped to get to it ‘this fall‘. Given that I don’t like to ask people to do things without offering to help, I did offer to do any research required to determine the correct colors and marking (this not being too much of a chore given that I do love all things trains).

Come October I found out that the chief maintenance person at ‘Parks & Recs.’ had taken a 3 week vacation. I was getting concerned. From the little I know, it gets difficult to paint outside when the temperature is below 40°F, and I had heard that NH had had its first frost. In mid-October I happened to meet the ‘lady in charge’ at a school function. A major impediment according to her was that the maintenance folks wanted a ‘Cherry Picker’ [i.e., hydraulic bucket lift] to do the painting! The irony that the builders that build that station or much of the railways in the NE did not have ‘Cherry Pickers’ escaped her. Those semaphores, which actually have a ladder attached to them (as can be clearly seen in the picture) probably have never had any work done to them via a ‘Cherry Picker’. Since she was reluctant to ask the Alton Fire Dept. for help, she said that she would consider hiring an outside contractor. I contacted, unsuccessfully, three local builders to get a quote.

A few days later I called the Alton Town Administrator, E. Russell Bailey, and left him a voice mail. He never called me back. A couple of weeks later, actually on Election Day, November 6, the local newspaper reporter stopped by after the polls closed for some pizza. I started telling him about the poor semaphores since he is local and grew up in Alton. He stopped me mid-sentence and said it had been brought up at the last Selectman’s Meeting and permission had been given to use a town ‘Cherry Picker’ (which I assume was from the fire department). I even read about it, albeit just one sentence, in the paper the following week.

Then towards the end of last week, I think it might have been Thursday, I got an e-mail from ‘Parks and Recs’ asking whether I had seen the freshly painted signals. I had not. The next day I went looking armed with my ‘point-and-click’ camera. I was mortified. Both arms were black. It was like an omen. ‘Black‘ is so symbolic. As it happens, Alton which I think prides itself of preserving some historic railway artifacts actually has another semaphore signal — basically at the back of the Town Hall. We drove around to have a look at that. That is not in great shape either, but you could clearly see the Red Arm. So that is where we are. They never asked me to research the colors and obviously they couldn’t be bothered to do it themselves. Now it is possible that this could be color blindness problem. But, I think I finally found a plausible explanation. Please refer to the last picture.

So today, after Thanksgiving and doing a post on a cardinal that turned 80, I did some quick research on the Web.

Quickly found this picture of the Alton Bay Station taken on 14 October 2008. You can clearly see that one arm is red.

Extracted from a picture on ‘flickr’ by a ‘kla4067’, Ron Reiring. Click image to access his original. My thanks to him. This was a great help.

Then I also found this, though this is NOT of the Alton semaphore, though you can immediately see that it is a similar set of signals.

Extracted from another ‘flickr’ image, this one from t55z T (again with thanks). Click image to access his original. This time you can’t mistake the red arm and you can clearly see that the hardware is more or less identical to what we have in Alton.

Then I found this. Bingo. A ‘Boston and Maine‘. Looks very similar to the application in Alton. I think it is what might be characterized as a ‘yard signal‘. The red arm acts as a stop signal for the main line. The other arm has to do with local operations. I really haven’t researched it. I am more familiar with the British style, two quadrant, signals which act in tandem like a two digit binary number giving you 4 possible modes of operation.

This looks like a great example of how these ‘yard signals’ were used by ‘Boston & Maine’

More contemporary. The Downeaster in Durmham, NH

In a museum.

If Alton did do any research this was probably the picture they used. Enough said.

6 thoughts on “The Unique All Black Old Railway Semaphore Signals in Alton Bay, NH. What A Sight.

  1. Bill Fauver

    We are involved in a law suit regarding the former railroad way in west Alton and if you have any historical information we would like to speak with you. Either way please let me know via my email.
    Best Wishes,
    Bill Fauver

    1. aguruge Post author

      Alas I don’t have any historical information. But, as I love railroads I will glad to help you if I can. Stay in touch. Let me know. If you have stuff that I can post here about your efforts. All the best. Anura

  2. Eddystone Civic Assoc. Glen Wilson


    You may have gotten many responses to this story and know more than I do at this point. I have just begun researching railroad semaphores for a model, and there is some indication that the two “flags” may have been used differently in different situations. I found one image online that showed that one side of the flag was colored but the BACK side was painted black with a white chevron or other marking. The second flag was painted in a similar manner but faced the opposite direction. The railroad engineer always knew that the colored flag applied to him whereas the black and white flag was only the back of the flag that applied to trains coming from the other direction.

    I believe that “standardized” semaphore train order signaling (especially as used in the UK) used one flag to denote conditions at the point of the signal and the second flag to denote conditions farther down the line.

    The difference, from the railroad accountant’s point of view, was that the British system required twice as many semaphores even if it could potentially convey more information.

    I may be wrong, but I believe that each Alton flag would have been black and white on one side and either red or yellow on the other.


  3. Keith Rayeski

    I found this article only today. I am curious what the current status is. I may drag the wife for a ride today to see what, if any, changes have or have not been made. I too love trains. I am a NH native with generational roots dating back to about c.1637. Alton has long been a part of our travels and in fact, when I tried to get my kids into hiking, Mt.Major was the first hike an one I still do, though my daughters never grabbed the passion, my son has a bit of it and we’ve even done Washington winter hikes as a father/so get away, ANY way, my wife and I are looking at a house we expect to try and purchase so, Alton could well be our home soon…..and I am a stickler for historical accuracy!! Great story….I do wish more Americans and, more native NHrites, would take as much interest.

    1. aguruge Post author

      It is in more disrepair than ever. I haven’t seen it in maybe a month. Don’t go that way much this time of the year. Paint is peeling. Very sad. It is clouding up here. I just got on my PC. All the best. Stay in touch. Anura


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