“The Child of the Railroad Engineer (The Two Lanterns)”


"A little child on a sick-bed lay, And to death seemed very near." The child's father is a railroad engineer, and must go to work. He bids the mother show a red light if the child dies and a green if the news was good. As he drives by, she shows the green


It's hard to believe that every version I've seen of this song has a happy ending; it sounds like a nineteenth century tearjerker. But I can't find evidence to prove it.

I once heard Bob Bovee and Gail Heil joke that they had two versions of this, with happy and sad endings. But they sang the happy ending.

Norm Cohen raises an interesting possibility in this regard: When the song was written, in 1896, a red light meant danger -- but green meant caution. Not until 1898 was the green-for-good standard first adopted. So the song suddenly became more optimistic two years after its composition. Could this explain the complex endings? - RBW


  • Chuck Wagon Gang, "The Engineer's Child" (Vocalion 04105, 1938)
  • [G. B.] Grayson & [Henry] Whitter, "The Red and Green Signal Lights" (Victor V-40063, 1929); "Red or Green" (Gennett 6418/Champion 15465/Challenge 397 [as by David Foley], 1928)


  1. Cohen-LSRail, pp. , "The Red and Green Signal Light/The Engineer's Child" (2 texts plus a copy of the sheet music cover, 1 tune)
  2. Randolph 685, "The Two Lanterns" (1 text)
  3. Spaeth-WeepMore, pp. 140-141, "The Child of the Railroad Engineer" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Roud #5066
  6. BI, R685


Alternate titles: “Just Set a Light”
Author: Words: Harry V. Neal / Music: Gussie L. Davis
Earliest date: 1898 (sheet music)
Found in: US(So)