As America became laced with railroads in the latter half of the 19th century, it soon became apparent that safety warning signs and signals should be set up to protect people who wanted to cross the tracks.  Initially, a variety of signs were posted at crossings, and in time, watchmen were stationed at the busier crossings to warn of approaching trains.

The first U.S. patent given for a railroad crossing gate dates back to August 27, 1867, and was awarded to J. Nason and J. Wilson of Boston Massachusetts.  At that time, crossing gates were hand-operated by means of a crank mechanism. The gates were lowered and raised by means of cables or chains running through underground piping from the gatekeeper's crank base to each individual gate at the crossing. Generally, each crossing had four separate gates. Due to the extreme length and great weight of the wooden gates, they had to be counterbalanced by very heavy cast-iron weights at their bases. Snow or rain could cause the wooden gates to become even heavier than they normally would be. Additional weight could be added to the massive counterweights as needed by the gatekeeper, who would place cast-iron disks, each weighing approximately 20 – 30 pounds apiece. As a train approached, the gatekeeper would crank the gates, and these would remain down until the train passed safely.

By the early 20th century, the use of "crossbuck" signs (the boards forming an "X"), were very common. The design formed the basic warning sign still in use today, but vastly improved with automatic warning advances. In the mid-1920s, sign makers began using road reflectors called Cataphote reflectors or “cats eyes” on crossbuck signs to make them more visible to drivers at night. These were used through the mid-1940s, when reflective buttons became common. Eventually, reflective sheeting gained popularity. Today, the material is still used to make street and railroad crossing signs.

Since it wasn't practical to have employees stationed at all railroad crossings, a way was sought to automatically alert the public that a train was approaching.

The first automatic crossing signals were bells mounted atop poles. They were activated when a train entered a circuit where the rails were insulated to confine the electric current to a designated piece of track. The current flowed through the steel wheels and axles of the train, short-circuiting electricity to a relay which needed the power to hold the electrical connection apart that kept the bell off. When the electricity was diverted through the train...(which was a path of lower resistance)...instead of the relay connection, the contacts connected and the bell rang.

The electric bell idea was quickly expanded to include a swinging round sign with a red light hanging from an arm on the signal pole to simulate a flagman waving a red lantern. The "Automatic Flagman" signals were soon dubbed "Wig-Wags". Only a very few Wig-Wags remain in use today in the United States, much beloved by rail enthusiasts for their nostalgic warning. One historic Wig-Wag signal from the early-1930's (formerly in use on the Susquehanna Railroad just West of Butler, NJ) is currently being restored for operation at the Whippany Railway Museum.

Eventually the Wig-Wags gave way to the alternating flashing red lights mounted as part of a cross-buck sign, and often with the crossing gates as well. The first flashing red light signal was installed in New Jersey in 1913.
At the Museum site, a fully-functional 1940's-era Crossing Flasher from the Central Railroad of New Jersey warns visitors of approaching excursion trains. With it's twin flashing red lights, cast-iron crossbucks and warning bell, the signal is a classic example of mid-20th Century grade crossing protection.

Today the basic designs come in a wide variety of configurations, depending on the complexity of the street crossing and the railroad company. Each one is custom designed to fit a specific need.
Originally, wooden crossing gates protected the entire width of the roadway. But in the later-half of the 20th Century, most crossing gates were re-designed to protect against motor traffic only in the oncoming lanes...covering only half the street, allowing an "escape" from the tracks for motorists who happened to be on the crossing when the signal was activated. Crossing Gates - South Amboy NJ 1981

With a terrifying number of motorists increasingly ignoring the crossing gates and winding up being involved in a deadly accident, the use of "four quadrant gates" currently is being implemented around the country to prevent motorists from driving around lowered gates.

In addition to the signals and signs, operating rules require train crews to sound the locomotive horn or whistle a quarter of a mile in advance of each public crossing until they cross the roadway. Modern locomotives are equipped with a triangle of bright headlights, one mounted high and centered, and two on each lower side of the front of the engine. As soon as the horn begins to sound, the lower twin lights are illuminated and flash alternately.

Since physics makes it impossible to stop a moving train in time to avoid striking a motorist or pedestrian on the track by the time the train crew realizes the danger, the public must always take extreme care when approaching railroad tracks. It takes more than half a mile to stop a heavy freight train, even when emergency braking is used.  Signals, signs, lights, whistles and horns are important safety aids, but ultimately it is the motorist's responsibility to determine whether or not it is safe to cross the tracks.   Source: The Whippany Railway Museum, P.O. Box 16, Whippany, NJ 07981  (973) 887-8177

Atlanticville at Lewis Road  c. 1885

railroad crossing
look out for the cars

Flushing & North Side 58th St & 38th Ave. Woodside Station (photographer unidentified)
c. 1872  Archive: Dave Keller

Emery  PD Tower, Patchogue 5/1958
(SUNY Stony Brook-Emery)

PD Tower 5/29/1912 to protect Suffolk Traction/LIRR Grade Crossing
Derails & Signals controlled by PD 1912-10/1919
Grade Crossing Flags removed 10/1919
Flashing Lights & Bell installed 1922
Position Light Signals installed 3/07/1940

Patchogue Special LIRR #217 Ocean Ave. View W 10/15/1906 (Howard S. Conklin-LI collection, Queens Borough Public Library)

"Special"  train at Patchogue Station while Senator Charles Evans Hughes delivers a campaign speech for the US Presidency from the rear observation car. He lost and later became a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. LIRR #217 and the two car train view west from South Ocean Ave. crossing. 10/15/1906 

River Ave., Patchogue 10/1943 (Weber-Keller)

Diamond crossing sign -Wantagh Museum 12/04/2007 Photo/Archive: Al Castelli

 South Country Rd., Patchogue view W of crossbuck, diamond sign, warning bell, and  crossing shanty. 4/24/1946 (Fred Weber photo, Dave Keller archive)

South Country Rd., Patchogue view S of diamond sign, warning bell, and  crossing shanty. 4/24/1946
(Fred Weber photo, Dave Keller archive)

Cathedral Ave., Garden City diamond sign and
gates - View S  (Weber-Morrison)

Grove Ave., Patchogue - Diamond sign and
warning bell View W at MP54

Railroad Ave., Patchogue - Diamond sign and
crossing shanty - View N  5/1943
(Fred Weber photo, Dave Keller archive)

Exempt signs are intended to inform drivers of commercial motor vehicles transporting passengers or hazardous materials that a stop is not required at certain designated railroad crossings, except when rail traffic is approaching or occupying the crossing or the driver's view is blocked.

Charles Lindbergh Blvd - Mitchell Field, Garden City secondary - EXEMPT crossbuck crossing Photo/Archive: Hank Krumholz


Carleton Ave., Central Islip  Pole Gates c.1918
(George G. Ayling photo, Dave Keller archive)


Elevated Crossing Gate Tower - Autumn Ave., Brooklyn station  - View SE  7/27/1930 (Sperr-Keller)
Note: A pedestrian underpass below track grade.

Rider Ave., Patchogue - Gates and diamond signs
View N  5/1943
(Fred Weber photo, Dave Keller archive)

Rider Ave., Patchogue - Gates and crossbucks
View SE  1968 Archive: Ron Ziel

Watchman lowering crossing gates at Broadway St., Hicksville 1959 Archive: LIRR/MTA

Tulip Ave., Floral Park - John H. Spriggs 5/13/1962 Archive: Sal Bonagura

Rider Ave., Patchogue Crossing shanty and gates
View N 1968 Photo/Archive: Dave Keller

Greenpoint Ave., Blissville crossing shanty and
gates  12/1970 Photo/Archive: Dave Keller

Medford Road (later Rte. 112), Medford - Center island concrete stanchions for railroad crossing flashing lights. View NE  11/10/1932 (Hart photo for the Public service Commission, Courtesy of Art Huneke)

The signal mast and semaphore block signals have been removed (sometime after February 26, 1939) and replaced with “MD” block limit signals only. This view is a close-up. Archive: Dave Keller

Landing Ave., Smithtown - Wood relay case,
call box, crossing signal, and bell  - 8/1963


West Ave., Patchogue - Crossing lights and
replacement shanty view NW 1968
Photo/Archive: Dave Keller


Center Island concrete stanchions crossing signal Bayport Ave., Bayport view S 1971 
Photo/Archive: Dave Keller

Bayport Ave., Bayport view N prior to the removal of the crossing signals on 10/07/1974.   6/06/1972
Photo/Archive: Richard Eikov

NASSAU Tower pedestrian grade crossing signal
View S 4/08/2021 Photo/Archive: Ed Frye

Stewart Ave., Bethpage cantilever quadrant gated signal lights Train #8057 westbound 4/19/2015
Photo/Archive: Joe McMahon



Broadway, Bethpage - West side close-up
View NE 6/06/2018 Photo/Archive: Al Castelli

Willis Ave., Mineola grade crossing crash posts
5/15/2018 Newsday-Howard Schnapp

Termed delineators affixed to flexible "breakaway" mounts to allow quick and easy replacement and will not
physically prevent a vehicle from entering the
track area. They exist only to inform motorist that the lane continues over the grade crossing; it’s an effort to prevent drivers from turning onto the tracks.
Mike McEnaney

Islip Ave., Islip - Pre-Signal grade crossing with crash posts View N 10/2021 Google maps

Note: Pre-Signal with Displaced Stop Line
double-track crossing.  Used to manage parallel to the tracks side street traffic (in this case the Islip Station parking lot).

Nassau Ave., Islip grade crossing crash posts
View N - 2022 Google maps

Ocean Ave., Patchogue grade crossing crash posts View N 2019 Google maps

Broad Hollow Rd., Farmingdale - Diamond sign, Wig-wag, and bell -  View N 12/12/1928
Archive: Art Huneke

Unguarded rail crossing - Industrial Rd., Montauk wye 3/21/2008  Photo/Archive: Mike McDermet

Hicksville Rd., Massapequa - Street barrier, crossbuck - Ford Model A c.1931 View NE



LIRR 3rd Rail Trespassing Forbidden sign
DD1 #358 The freight Brakeman is flagging the Cathedral Avenue crossing on the West Hempstead  Branch 9/28/1947
Photo: Ed Hermanns Archive: Dave Keller

Central Branch crossing in West Babylon 1/29/2007
Photo/Archive: Al Castelli


W10-11 8B.24 Storage
Space Symbol
Should be used where there is inadequate
clear storage space between the crossing and
a downstream intersection, as determined by
engineering study


Low Ground Clearance Warning Sign
Oyster Bay  Photo/Archive: Steven Lynch

Unlawful to pass lowered rail road gate - LIRR police department.  Main St., Farmingdale 10/07/2017 
Photo: Bill Mangahas

Emergency Notification Sign (ENS) sign Cherry Ave., Sayville Photo/Archive: Steven Lynch

Note: Crossing indicates Cherry St. in error.

 Operation Lifesaver - LIRR/MTA 2014