Steam Locomotive Bells

Bell of Torch Lake 3 at Greenfield Village
Bell on SP 2355, Mesa AZ

Bells were standard equipment on steam locomotives in North America from around 1840 onward. Their purpose was to make noise, alerting people and animals of an oncoming train. Steam locomotive bells were usually made of cast bronze or brass. They were typically between 11 and 17 inches in diameter (measured at the widest part). They could weigh hundreds of pounds. When a steam locomotive was scrapped, the locomotive bell was often one of the few items saved from the torch.

The bell assembly included several parts:
  • The Bell: The bell itself is one solid piece.
  • The Cradle: The cradle is the framework portion that attaches to the locomotive.
  • The Yoke: The yoke holds the bell and allows it to swing in the cradle.
  • The Clapper: The clapper is the metal piece hanging inside the bell. When the bell swings the clapper hits the bell causing it to ring.
  • The Pull-Arm: The pull-arm is attached to the yoke. A rope is attached to the pull-arm so that the engineer or fireman can cause the bell to swing.

On early locomotives and others that did not have clearance issues, bells were mounted on top of the boiler. On larger locomotives where height clearances became an issue, bells were mounted on the front of the smokebox. There were also cases where steam locomotive bells were mounted in odd places like under the smokebox or under the running board.

I am often contacted by people who have acquired a locomotive bell and would like help in identifying it. Unfortunately, it was not standard practice to have marks that easily identified the locomotive (like a serial or engine number) engraved on a bell. Instead, bell manufacturers had their own identifying marks on the yoke and the cradle. Most of the casting numbers were only meaningful to the foundries that cast them and all the information for those casting numbers were lost when the foundries closed. Baldwin bell identification numbers do exist but are only known by a few people. Some steam locomotive bells that were made by a railroad (like CPR or PRR) were only used on their locomotives and were all very similar. For these reasons, it is difficult to determine what locomotive a bell comes from. However, Robin Stuber is an expert at identifying steam locomotive bells and, for a fee, can help you identify one. Contact him if you are interested.

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Wes Barris