Wigwag is the nickname given to a type of early 20th century railroad grade crossing signal, so named due to the pendulum-like motion it used to signal the approach of a train. It is generally credited to Albert Hunt, a mechanical engineer at Southern California's Pacific Electric (PE) interurban streetcar railroad, who invented it in 1909 out of the necessity for a safer railroad grade crossing.
RationaleSoon after the advent of the automobile, speeds were increasing and the popularity of closed cars made the concept of "stop, look, and listen" at railroad crossings a difficult one.
Fatalities at crossings were increasing. Though the idea of automatic grade crossing protection was not a new one, no one had invented a fail-safe, universally-recognized system. In those days, many crossings were protected by a watchman who warned of an oncoming train by swinging a red lantern in a side-to-side arc, used universally in the United States to signify "stop". It was presumed that a mechanical device that mimicked that movement would catch the eyes of approaching motorists and give an unmistakable warning.
The third and least common version was a pole mounted lower-quadrant signal suspended above an octagonal steel frame that surrounded the target, presumably to protect both banner and motor box from damage from passing vehicles. Dubbed the "peach basket" because of the protective framework, the apparatus was crowned by another visual warning, the traditional X-shaped "RAILROAD CROSSING" sign, or crossbucks. The majority of peach baskets were used by the Union Pacific Railroad.
Any version could be ordered to operate on the customer's choice of the railroad signal standard of 10 V DC or the 600 V DC used to power streetcars and electric locomotives with not much more than a change in the electromagnets. Not surprisingly, most if not all of the 600 V units were used by PE. As the conversion to diesel power progressed after PE sold its passenger operations in 1953, those 600 V wigwags were gradually converted to 10 V units. Other options included a round, counterbalancing "sail" for use in windy areas and which were sometimes painted in the same scheme as the main target, a warning light with adjustable housing, a rare, adjustable turret-style mount for properly aiming the signal if space considerations did not allow for the cantilever to fully extend over the roadway and an "OUT OF ORDER" warning sign that dropped into view if power to the signal was interrupted. The last known example of the turret-mounted wigwag was removed from service in Gardena, California in 2000, while the versions with the warning signs were mostly shipped to Australia. One surviving example is on display at a railway museum in Victoria, in addition to one which has been restored and now operates on the Puffing Billy Railway.
After these distinctive signals were installed train-versus-car collisions began dropping at PE grade crossings. They were so common throughout the area that they became near-icons of Southern California motoring. They became popular and Magnetic Signal wigwags began appearing at railroad crossings across the United States (including Alaska on the Copper River & Northwestern Railroad and several Hawaiian railroads), Canada, Mexico, and as far away as Australia.
A ruling by the United States' Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) mandated a change in the target in the early 1930s, necessitating a change in the paint scheme from solid red to a black cross and border on a white background, but remained otherwise unchanged until another FRA ruling that changed the standard to the alternating red light system still in use today. The black cross/white background symbol was adopted for use in the US as the traffic sign warning drivers of an upcoming grade crossing and, in modified form with a yellow background and the cross rotated 45 degrees into an "X," remains in use today. It was also incorporated into the corporate logo of the Santa Fe Railroad. Some railroads, among them the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, instead used a concentric black circle on a white background, resembling a bullseye. This scheme was rare, partly because the L&N was not a major user of wigwags.
This, along with other rules pertaining to signaling at grade crossings that the wigwag was unable to comply with due to its power requirements rendered it obsolete for new installations by the late 1940s, but grandfathering laws allowed them to remain until upgrades to the crossings they still protected were necessary. Magnetic Signal was sold to the Griswold Signal Company of Minneapolis shortly after the Second World War, with production of new signals continuing to 1949 and replacement parts to 1960.
Wigwags in modern America and elsewhereToday, a surprisingly large number of these simple, rugged signals remain in place more than six decades after their use in new installations was outlawed, though that number is rapidly dwindling as crossings are upgraded and spare parts become ever more scarce. Once broken down and sold (or given away) as scrap as modern flashers took their place, they are now railroad collectibles, commanding a hefty price and winding up not in scrap heaps when removed from service, but often in the personal collections of railroad officials. Magnetic Flagman made in Minneapolis after production was moved from Los Angeles are especially rare and desirable.
According to FRA data from 2004, there were 215,224 railroad crossings in the United States, of which 1,098 were listed as having 1 or more wigwags as their warning device. This is a reduction from 1983 information from the Federal Highway Administration that showed 2,618 crossings equipped with wigwags. Of these 1,098 crossings having wigwags, 398 are in California, 117 in Wisconsin, 97 in Illinois, 66 are in Texas and 45 are in Kansas. A total of 44 states have at least one railroad crossing having a wigwag as its warning device. These numbers are probably grossly inflated due to poor record keeping at the FRA. According to Dan's Wigwag Website, there are approximately 80 wigwags in active use in the United States and most states have no wigwags left anymore.
As of 2004, two Magnetic Flagman wigwags in the United States remain at main rail lines. One is a lower-quadrant signal at a private crossing in Casmalia, California along Union Pacific Railroad's coastal route [Update: This signal was reportedly removed in SEP, 2007] and the second is an upper-quadrant at a rural crossing in Delhi, Colorado on the BNSF Railway. Until knocked over by a truck in April 2004, a lower-quadrant Magnetic Flagman wigwag protected a private crossing of a BNSF main mostly hidden from public view by a sound barrier in Pittsburg, California. The wigwag, the last "Model 10" in active use, was replaced by standard highway flashers per the aforementioned grandfathering laws. The Model 10 was distinguished by its short, low-hanging cantilever and use of crossbucks. They were almost exclusively used by the Santa Fe.
A single lower-quadrant wigwag in the industrial city of Vernon, California protects a crossing with nine separate tracks on the BNSF Harbor Subdivision. A once-busy link between downtown Los Angeles and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, this line sees less traffic than it once did since the completion of the more direct Alameda Corridor project between downtown and the harbor. This same project eliminated many at-grade crossings along the length of Alameda Street and a number of Southern Pacific wigwags from PE days. Those remaining protect crossings of lightly used spur lines primarily in California and Wisconsin, the latter state featuring a slightly different signal produced by Bryant-Zinc which was purchased by the Railroad Supply Company which later became the Western Railroad Supply Company.
- Orange Empire Railway Museum. A link to the Orange Empire Railway Museum of Perris, California whose impressive collection includes a number of working wigwags on display.
- City of Vernon. Article about the Vernon wigwag on the City of Vernon's own website.
- Link to information about the Richmond wigwags.
- San Francisco Bay Crossings.com article.