2016-01-29

Last Surviving Wig Wag in Colorado Still Wags For Amtrak Twice a Day

As a young kid fascinated with trains, I would get my folks to take me often enough to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. Usually, it was my dad, but it could just as easily have been my mom and her mom as well out to stretch their legs and wander the small network of trails. Usually there was nothing running, not even the Gooses (sic) back then. But one time I remember stopping to view the strangest contraption I'd seen there or any on other right of way to my memory. When I got the courage to ask a volunteer, they said it was their wig wag signal. "Wig... wag? What's a wig wag?"

Long before the crossbucks and alternating red lights had become standard at railroad grade crossings, there were different means of attracting motorists' attention to the very real but too often unseen danger of a train approaching. A sensible solution by Albert Hunt, a Pacific Electric technician, decided that mimicking a crossing guards' lower half wave with a red lantern, then the railroad's universal indication to stop, would be the simplest and mechanically easier than a lot of other options. The gantry mounted wig wags were supplemented by other mounts, usually a pedestal in the median or off to the right of the lane approaching the crossing. The pedestal mounted a counter-weighted target with the box upside down, causing the target to wag like a person waving for attention.



The signals were deemed obsolete in 1949 when the now-common alternating red lights and crossbucks was standardized. Nevertheless, the ones in place since then have been wagging like the family dog for every train that crosses their stretch of rail.



While there doesn't appear to be a conspiracy afoot to remove these arcane contraptions, the number of active signals is dropping fast. The relative quiet of the original Atcheson Topeka & Santa Fe Railway route through Colorado's southeast and over Raton Pass allowed semaphore line signals to remain in place for years. That same quiet allowed the wig wags to survive as well, until the last decade. Wig wags at Manzanola and Rocky Ford have been retired, leaving a lone survivor in Delhi. A thoughtful aficionado with the know-how and resources has even placed a sign with it's unique status as "COLORADO'S LAST WIG WAG." Each day, Amtrak's Southwest Chief hustles by at track speed, one train in each direction, and precious little else. The rest of the day is reserved for quiet observation with cars and coyotes, along with the occasional antelope.

Surviving Wig Wags

The following map details a number of surviving wig-wags across the nation, mostly from Dan's Wig Wag Site. The red ones have been retired in the last 15 years or so. With less than 40 remaining, you might want to grab a photo of the survivors while you can.



ColorStatus
Active at last check
Retired or removed

Surviving anachronisms? Sure. Historic? Yes, and until BNSF or Amtrak decides differently, the signal at Delhi will keep wagging each way, twice a day.◊