How To Timeless Classics Lionel No. 151 Semaphore with unique feature

Lionel No. 151 Semaphore with unique feature

By Roger Carp | April 15, 2024

Scarce accessory just got away too fast

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Lionel No. 151 Semaphore signals made their debut in the cataloged lineup for 1947 and remained popular members right through 1969, the final year of the post-World War II era of production. During that two-decade span, Lionel must have produced tens of thousands of the out-of-proportion trackside accessories.

Collectors and operators of O-27 and O gauge trains from that period can easily tell you all about how the 151 Semaphore functions and what it looks like. To put it simply, the 9¾-inch-high model generally came with a black base, a silver post (initially, it was painted silver; later it was aluminum left unpainted), and a yellow-painted blade with either a raised or a recessed black “V” in it.

model semaphore next to orange box
Lionel No. 151 Semaphores, cataloged from 1947 to 1966 and again in 1968 and ’69, typically have a black base, a silver-painted pole, and a blade painted yellow.

There’s nothing special about these common variations of the 151. Yes, the first version, which came with a green base like the one used on No. 153 Block Signals, does elicit excitement from Lionel enthusiasts. (One in like-new condition recently sold at an online auction for $370.) Generally speaking, folks in the Lionel world are blasé about the 151 Semaphores at shows and auctions.

model semaphore next to orange box
One desirable variation of the 151 is the earliest model, with a green-painted base.

Everyone has a story

A bit of a digression. Every toy train enthusiast who has been involved in the hobby for more than 10 minutes will confess to having a story about the prize that got away. Like individuals who fish, collectors and dealers alike will admit to having let something amazing slip through their fingers. They let their mind do a little wandering or moved just a tad too slowly and thus missed out on a treasure.

Well, that unlucky guy turned out to be me about a month ago. With a red face and sense of shattered pride, let me share my embarrassment with you. And yes, my tale of woe and disappointment relates to the humble 151 Semaphore.

I had woken up early one weekend morning, right before dawn, and could not get back to sleep. But what could I do now? Rather than drive to the gym so early, I decided to walk upstairs and turn on my personal computer. Bored and still quite drowsy, I figured the most mindless activity I could engage in while waiting for my coffee to cool off was check Lionel postwar listings on eBay.

Nothing caught my eye — not a freight car or locomotive to interest me at all. Oh, there was a 151 with a battered box, but it meant nothing to me. Besides the photographs were blurry. I moved on until something deep in my brain said to me: “The blade on the 151 didn’t look yellow; maybe it’s the scarce red one!”

Mysterious signal

Sometime in the late 1940s, perhaps in 1948, Lionel released a very small number of 151 Semaphores with a red-painted blade instead of the usual yellow one. Enough of the scarce accessories have surfaced over the years for collectors to consider them legitimate variations worth much more than ordinary models.

catalog art of semaphores
Possibly, Lionel released 151 semaphores with red blades because the O gauge semaphores the firm cataloged right before World War II had entirely red blades.

The consensus among hobbyists is that semaphores with red blades were intended by Lionel for the market in Mexico, even though no documentation has surfaced to substantiate that claim. It’s also worth noting that full-size railroads in Mexico did not use semaphores with red blades. To be sure a few railroads in the northeastern region of the United States did have them, but only for a few years.

Before World War II, the O gauge semaphores manufactured by Lionel (Nos. 80N and 82N) did have blades entirely painted red. Maybe the company planned to follow suit after the war, or at least weighed doing so, only to abandon the plan very quickly. Having finished a small quantity, it decided to market them.

Got away from me!

Okay, you can probably guess the rest. My brain snapped to attention as I scrolled back to find the listing with the blurry pictures of the 151, which I did remember was offered as a “Buy It Now” item for $29.95 — an amount that I calculated was about 5 percent the current value of a Lionel 151 with a red blade.

model semaphore next to orange box
Then there is the scarce variation of the 151 with a blade painted red. Collectors believe Lionel changed the color in the late 1940s to satisfy the market in Mexico. Interesting idea, but the claim has never been documented or proved accurate.

There it was! I slammed down the key on my computer in hopes the scarce trackside accessory was still available, only to learn someone else had purchased it a minute or two earlier. A postwar treasure that might have been mine had I been slightly more awake, more aware of my surroundings, and quicker to strike.

But this is the nature of the toy train hobby and any leisure-time pursuit involving collectibles. I hope someday to have a second chance to acquire a 151 Semaphore with a red blade, even if I have to pay the current and ongoing value.

Before signing off, may I request that you cast aside your own wounded pride and share your tales of the toy train beauties and treasures that somehow got away. We can then reveal some of the best (or saddest) stories here at

One thought on “Lionel No. 151 Semaphore with unique feature

  1. A childhood friend had a Marx Western Town playset, which Santa never brought one to me in the early 60s. When I got back into trains in the late 80s, I found one in great condition at an antique mall — and passed on it because I didn’t know the value of them, didn’t have an Ebay account (if it was in business), and didn’t have a phone with internet capability to search for values. I had planned to set up the Western Town, along with wood Western buildings; for my Christmas train layout. Now being 75, it is too difficult to get on my hands and knees (even with knee pads) to set up the train layout on the floor. I realize that the price for the Marx Western Town (just the building) was appropriate considering what was selling on Ebay in the 90s and early 2000s. By-the-way, the train was an American Flyer steamer set (I think he got it at JC Penneys) which Santa presented to me for Christmas in 1957. My wife has convinced me to NEVER let something pass.

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