Teach PA History
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Background Information for Teachers

Pennsylvania of the 19th and early 20th centuries was home to numerous major locomotive builders. Among them were Philadelphia's Norris Locomotive Works, the largest American locomotive builder by the 1850s; the giant Baldwin Locomotive Works at Eddystone, turning out 76,000 locomotives in its 125-year history; Climax at Erie and Heisler at Corry, makers of narrow-gauge logging locomotives; and Wilkes-Barre's Vulcan Iron Works and Pittsburgh's H.K. Porter Company, manufacturers of industrial and specialty locomotives. In addition, such railroads as the Reading, Lackawanna, and Lehigh Valley built many of their own locomotives–as did the Pennsylvania Railroad at its massive Altoona Works, the world's largest railway shop complex during its time. In other words, thousands of locomotives with their whistles and bells were made in Pennsylvania, becoming the sounds of Pennsylvania heard throughout the land!

By the late 1880s railroads in Pennsylvania and throughout North America had evolved systems of coded safety warnings executed with uniformly agreed whistle blasts and track-side signals. In fact, many of the nation's railroad signals were made in Swissvale, Pennsylvania by Union Switch and Signal with lenses from nearby Kopp Glass Company. The Pennsylvania Railroad pioneered the standardization of safety signals, whistle and bell codes, and conductor and yard personnel hand and lantern signals.

The basic railroad whistle and horn signals to be mastered in this lesson will help students understand that trains are potentially dangerous. They will appreciate through their knowledge and use of these signals that railway personnel must communicate effectively and take no chances.

While trains are among the most fascinating features of life in many parts of the Commonwealth, be certain students understand that they should never trespass on railroad property, must obey all railroad warning signs, and should never be near a train unless accompanied by a railroad employee authorized to guide them. In addition, explain to your students the importance of vehicle drivers stopping for lowered crossing gates at railroad intersections. An early respect for these basic safety rules will help prevent accidents and allow children the ability to explore other fascinating aspects of the railroad in the future.


Sly Fox and Birdie at Operation Lifesaver website These short videos use the animated animals Sly Fox and Birdie to instill in young children basic safety concepts around railroads. Concepts covered include Throwing Objects at Trains, Playing in Boxcars, and Driving Across the Tracks. Classroom suggestions of how to present these clips are also present at the website.

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