Train Horns 101

Have you ever heard the sound of a train horn passing by late at night? It’s a sound unlike any other. Have you wondered where that horn is from and how it came to signify a passing train? Train horns have their own special place in people’s imagination. Many stories and songs have been written about train horns and the lonesome sound they make. Unlike their predecessors, train whistles, train horns are loved by most people.

There are many companies who have been engaged in the manufacture of train horns. To most notable are:

Gustin Bacon Manufacturing Company – This company was making air horns for trains until World War II.

The American Strombos Company – Based on a truck horn, the Strombos horn was in use on early locomotives.

Westinghouse Air Brake Company – Also known as WABCO, they were the first ones to actually make air horns that were designed for use on trains. This dates back to about 1910.

Other than the companies listed above, there were other companies making train horns. The companies who pulled ahead of the pack and are still in the business today both have their origins in the company once called AMCO.

The man credited with creating the earliest air horns for trains, both the five and six chime types is Robert Swanson. Tese horns started as a hobby while he was employed by the Victoria Lumber Manufacturing company in the 1920s. Working together with Ernie Canon, George Challenger and Bill Piercy, he founded the AMCO (Airchime Manufacturing Company) in 1949. The H5, one of Swanson’s invention was the first multiple chime air horn to be used on trains – and it was a big hit with the public!

The horns were licensed to two companies for production: Nathan of New York and Hyson, a New England company. It was the Nathan horns which really took off, the Nathan Airchime being the brand name most associated with train horns. Swanson’s last and greatest horn, the model K is still the train horn of choice to this day. The model K replaced the Prime and Leslie horns previously in heavy use by railroads.

The founder of the Leslie Corporation, John Leslie, which was formed in the 19th century, was a manufacturer of many steam parts, not only for trains but ships as well. In the 1930s, John Leslie started making air horns for the railroad. Buying the rights of the Tyfon series, from Sweden, the production of the Tyfon A-200 became one of the best sellers This was the horn used by most trains of every type until the Airchime became a hot item about 1950.

And of course, train horns have used beyond trains. Some people are even installing these horns on their own vehicles (or having them installed). Of course, there is the problem that these horns are far too loud to actually be used in traffic. These horns are for show or to be demonstrated at hobbyist’s meetings.

The next time you hear a train horn in the middle of the night, you’ll be able to reflect for a moment about the men who made that sound possible. This is a sound like any other and if you are like many people, you’ll stop a moment and thank them.

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