In 2005 I bought and had a brief infatuation with a type of antique railroad signal called a ‘wig-wag’. With some help from my dad, I restored it to working condition, and then foolishly sold it, thinking it was an unjustifiable indulgence.

The fun started the day I bought it. The seller had advertised on Craigslist, and had a crazy warehouse near Martinez packed with pinball machines and oddball antiques. The place was full of eye candy, he was a good salesman, and I ended up impulsively paying $2,600 for the wig-wag, a pinball machine back glass, and a Southern Pacific Dude Ranch poster.


I’d been learning about wig-wags, and wanted one. These loud, mechanical flashing light signals used to dominate every railroad crossing, but had disappeared by 2005 from all but a couple dozen obscure locations (one of which was still visible from Amtrak’s ‘Coast Daylight’ run from LA to San Jose). Some made it into museums, but most “walked off the railroad” to some guy’s backyard and were never seen again.

Because the wig-wag had a bit of wooly mammoth “you may never get another chance to buy one” feel to it, I took the seller’s word that it would work, if given a little TLC.  But I was so nervous I’d been duped that while backing into my garage to unload, I misjudged the gap and sheared off my drivers side mirror (cost: $400).

Of course, when we finally got a look inside the wig-wag, it seemed too rusted out to possibly work. But somehow, my dad and I tinkered with it and got it running. I don’t remember the details, except it involved a car battery and some alligator clips and scraping nasty residue off of various connections.

Did I mention that these things weigh a gazillion pounds? The casing is cast iron.
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Of course, as part of this project I researched the history of the wig-wag, even locating an original wig wag manufacturer’s catalog that was scanned by another wig wan fan. The best site on wig-wags at the time, and presently (if it still exists as you read this) is Dan’s Wig-Wag Site.


After we got it working, I decided (foolishly, in hindsight) that I didn’t have the basement space for the wig wag, and that I couldn’t justify $2,500 sunk into an otherwise useless, loud, rusty piece of metal.  So I sold it to a guy in Southern California for $2,750. He drove for eight hours in a truck to get it and was thrilled.

I still have the SP Dude Ranch Poster, worth about $400, and I sold the pinball back glass for $150. So if you count the $400 car repair I basically came out even on the deal. But of all my antiques transactions, this is the one I’d most like to have back – the one that got away.

Or, said another way – my most impressive catch-and-release!

Luckily there are still some wig-wags preserved in their natural habitat in nearby Richmond, CA that I see frequently when I swim at the Richmond Plunge.

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I’m also still enjoying the The Southern Pacific Dude Ranch poster I bought with the wig-wag:

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