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:
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.
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.
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.