MY EXPERIENCES PURCHASING A SEMAPHORE by Paul Nelson

Thanks to the information provided by this site I was able to arrange and purchase a double-arm lower-quadrant US&S semaphore (Style B) from the Central Oregon & Pacific railroad (CORP). The entire process took about five months from initial contact to delivery to my property.

BACKGROUND

My home is a replica of an old railroad depot, has a 96 foot section of track constructed next ot it, and is located at the junction of the Northwestern Pacific main line and the four-mile Carlotta branch in Humboldt County, California. A railfan suggested a semaphore as an accent piece. I agreed. My search for a semaphore commenced.

PART I: The Inquiry

In June of 1998 I wrote letters of inquiry to both CORP and Montana Rail Link. Rich Gollen of CORP telephoned me within a few days to say he had received my post and would add my letter to the others he had received. We discussed what I was looking for and what I planned to do with the signal should I purchase it. Mr. Gollen indicated that signals would be available within a few months and I would be contacted.

(Note: I had perused a copy of Trains magazine in May of 1997 that contained an article about CORP. Shortly afterwards, I wrote two letters of inquiry, addressing them to no one in particular. Neither was ever acknowleded. This certainly supports the notion that finding the right person improves your chances of success.)

Semaphores.com Editorial Note: In the Fall of 1993 we wrote a number of letters to numerous SP signal supervisors in an effort to purchase a style B semaphore. At the time, SP semaphores were being legally sold out of Eugene (Oregon) but none of our official responses pointed us in this direction. Finding the right connection is often difficult yet critical!

I didn't hear from MRL for about three months. When I did, it was by voice mail. The message said only that some signals would be available soon and gave me a contact name and phone number. My arrangements with CORP were in progress by that time so I called and left a message indicating I should be removed from the interested-parties list.

PART II: Waiting

Although happy to hear from CORP, all I could do was to wait for a call. Three months went by...

PART III: The Call, and Negotiations

The call came in early October. Mr. Gollen said both a single and dual quadrant signal were still in service, but would be removed by the end of the month. Which one did I want? The price for the single was $1300; the dual, $1500. A decision was not necessary on my part. Since both signals were being removed at the same time I could take either one when I came to pick the signal up.

Of course, there wasn't much in the way of negotiations. The price was ok (not that I liked it, but I was ready for it). And as for shipping, I never considered asking CORP to ship it. Roseburg, Oregon is about 300 miles from Alton and I had a 3/4-ton pickup and a heavy-duty stakebed trailer at my disposal. Mr. Gollen did say CORP would load the unit on my trailer, once I was ready.

Payment was to be made by money order or cashiers check. No specific terms of when payment was to be made were discussed.

PART IV: An Opportunity

During the October call, I told Mr. Gollen I wanted to visit the still-in-service signals to inspect them and take some in-service photos. He gave me directions and on October 20 I drove to the site, made my inspection, took a few height measurements, and shot a bunch of photos.

PART V: The Purchase and Transport

Mr. Gollen and I scheduled a pick up date on a Monday in mid-November. As I was obligated to transport an eighteen-foot pole, I made minor modifications to the trailer I was using to support such a length. Of crucial concern was making sure the pole was fully supported so it would not bend during transport. There would be no way to straighten it. I was very concerned about this issue: I harped on it to anyone and everyone within earshot, probably to Mr. Gollen's irritation. But there was no room for error here--the pole had to be loaded and transported without bending. God help the poor CORP employee that dropped and bent my pole during loading. I was fully prepared to drive away empty in lieu of a bent pole.

I called Mr. Gollen the Friday before my scheduled Sunday departure. Purpose: to confirm that the signal was ready for pick up. I had no desire to drive to Oregon only to find no signal. Mr. Gollen returned the call on Saturday and said everything was ready.

Off I went on Sunday. Arriving at the CORP offices on Monday morning, my signal was easily visible and I drove right up to it. On inspection, I was dismayed to find that one of the blade ''heads'' was broken. Yow! A 300 mile drive for nothing, and I had been told a day before that everything was ok.

Mr. Gollen was out by this time. We introduced ourselves and he explained that a replacement head would be found and substituted.

After a short discussion about the payment, I began to dismantle the unit. My objective was to separate the blade heads, pole, and base. As the signal was still operational when removed, I paid attention to the internals to insure wiring was disconnected properly. It took about five hours. Once ready, Mr. Gollen loaded the various components onto the trailer without incident. Shortly before I left, he provided me with a complete maintenance manual for the signal. Winner! We said our goodbyes and I departed.

Interstate 5 is a smooth drive, but anywhere I felt would be bumpy was taken at a slow speed. It was that fear of bending again. Anyway, I arrived in Alton with my exotic cargo intact.

PART VI: Next...

I have no funds to erect the signal right now. In preparation for the day when it is, I've quite carefully lathered the base with grease where necessary to avoid further rust. The pole is fully supported and protected from the weather. The spindle, blades, heads, lanterns, lenses and ladders are securely stored, ready for eventual installation. Thanks to Rich Gollen and the maintenance manual, a local electrician can restore the unit to a fully operational state when I erect it.

NOW, FOR TIPS OF ACQUISITION

  • As indicated earlier, a post to the right person is clearly the right way to go. Find out the name of the signal supervisor of whatever line you want to contact. He or she will know how to accommodate you.
  • Find out if the signal is still in operation. If so, visiting the site and taking pictures of the in-service signal will be useful if there are difficulties down the road. In my case, if there had been legal difficulties, having photos of the signal in-service would have proved many claims about operational readiness, position and physical condition of the components.
  • When I arrived and saw the broken blade head my confidence in the railroad declined dramatically. Mr. Gollen knew I intended to restore the unit to operational status. I had also mentioned in two separate telephone calls that I wanted the unit treated with kid gloves. He assured me that the crews pulling the unit out knew I was waiting to get it. Given the lack of concern for my wishes I didn't really want to fork over the $1500 cashiers check to CORP until the unit was disassembled and loaded without further damage. Mr. Gollen insisted that payment be made prior to dissassembly.
  • If I were to do this again, the next time I would have discussed the payment terms more thoroughly. In particular, I would have asked CORP to at least hold onto the check until I drove off the property, presumably happy. (Which, incidentally, did occur, but not because I arranged it. No one went to the bank before I left.)
  • The point is to try and nail down as many particulars of the transaction as possible. I wouldn't insist on a written contract, because you get into that ''it's more work that it's worth. Let's find someone else.'' syndrome. But if I had been a bit more thorough I wouldn't have been standing in Oregon with a broken signal, having to pay in advance for something that CORP might damage after payment was made.
  • I would try and nail these items down:

    1. Specific type of signal. Number of blades, operational status, and any extras that might be included or available for purchase. For example, that maintenance manual. Other, hard-to-find spare parts might be useful.
    2. Price and instrument to be used as payment. I was prepared to pay cash currency but Mr. Gollen wanted a cashiers check or money order.
    3. When payment is to be made. Again, you probably don't have room for negotiation but I would at least try to make the seller keep the check around until you leave the premises. They get the money in hand but you know it can be returned if the seller causes some catastrophe beyond your control. Make sure, by the way, that the money will be refunded if the seller causes any damage after you've handed over the check.
    4. Will the seller load the unit (or components) onto your conveyance? Saves mucho effort on your part and frankly, the seller should be willing to do it. Not many people have cranes or forklifts at their disposal hundreds of miles from home. And this should be a freebie. In fairness to CORP, Mr. Gollen quite early on indicated a willingness to load my trailer. (he even did it himself.)
    5. Will a bill-of-sale be provided? Probably standard-issue but make sure anyway.
  • Keep a complete record of your dealings with the seller. Take notes of the telephone conversations, keep any written correspondence. And tell a lot of people you know about the deal and the particulars. Why? Because the entire deal will probably be oral. If there are legal entanglements you'll need every scrap of information you can get to support your case. It's a your-word versus theirs thing. Although I had no problems with CORP only after the fact did I realize how weak my position would have been had there been a problem.
  • With hindsight, I could have done a better job. But the acquisition concluded to my satisfaction and I know the signal will make a great conversation piece and be a head-turner for the drivers passing by on highway 36. CORP, MRL and other lines like them, who are allowing the public to acquire these ancient symbols of railroad communication are to be lauded for doing so.

    Semaphores.com Editorial Note: Semaphore signal masts are not easily bent. The entire weight of a U.S. & S. Co. double 'B' case (plus the mechanism) can be supported when it is picked up with fork of a pallet truck insterted into the mast (a full 20 feet away from the bell casting and 'B' case). However, testing the tensile strength of antique RR signals is not recommended, as any of the cast iron parts are liable to crack upon sudden impact with other solid objects.

    In dealing with the RRs please remember you are not purchasing a microwave oven at Walmart. These signals are often removed from service because the head bearing is cracked or their is some other major aliment/problem. Often your only choice will be to buy and restore the signal that is available or go home empty handed. Yes, you can wait for another opportunity......but there is no promise that another opportunity is going to come along. One signal supervisor may be willing to humor the railfan community, the next one to get the same job might just as soon send everything to the scrapper.