The Mars Light

Recently, someone on the Monon ListServ posted a video of a Mars light.  The light had sold for $1800 on Ebay.  I thought “Oh Boy – I’m going to see a train coming across the landscape with that wonderful light sweeping the sky.”  I got more than a little excited because a Mars light in action is one of the most pleasant railroad memories that I have from my childhood.   The video turned out to be the actual Mars lamp sitting on the room floor and oscillating.  It was not very exciting.

The MARS light was developed by a Chicago firefighter named Jerry Kennelly who realized that an oscillating lamp would benefit railroad engines as well as fire trucks.  He performed tests on the C&NW railroad in 1936 and with success, MARS lights started appearing on locomotives in the 1940s. 

The MARS name originated because the Mars Candy Co took over design and production of the light.   For that reason, the new light carried the name MARS.  Contrary to what people said, the MARS light was not a reflection of light from the planet Mars.

I only remember one type of MARS light.  I loved to stand on the depot platform in Monon and watch the MARS light on train #15 sweep the western sky as it broke the horizon coming into town.   As I understand it sometimes the bulb and assembly were moved and other times a reflector behind the light was rotated.   The beam was usually rotated in a figure-8 pattern.   I didn’t know until Ron Marquart told me but the light pattern is actually a figur-8 on its side.  As a retired Monon engineer, Ron would know.  He told me that MARS lights were indeed a good safety feature, and they would sure get a motorist's attention when approaching a crossing

Several MRHTS members had similar recollections.   Mark Johnson had vivid memories of Monon Mars lights lighting up the woods around Leipsic.   Tom Kepshire grew up around Lowell, Indiana.   He talked about going camping with his brother and his father at Hall's Sand Pit, on W 205th Ave, near the Monon mainline.  The Mars lights on Monon engines cast an eerie glow in the sky.  Jim Smith said that he remembers going to the Crawfordsville station in the late 1950s.  At certain times of the year, either #5 or #6 would come thru Crawfordsville just about dark.  In the semi-dusk, that MARS Light was lots of fun for a kid to watch. Amazingly, these lights could be seen from many miles away. A couple of times our family had been in our car, coming back to Monon  from Monticello and we could follow the MARS light sweeping the sky from several miles away.

MARS lights were used by railroads on both steam and diesel locomotives.  Railroads have replaced MARS lights with “ditch lights” but they are still used on fire fighting apparatus and are available from Tri Lite/Mars, located in Chicago.




By Sharon Eberhard

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