Cincinnati Yellow Lamps – Cincinnati, Ohio - Atlas Obscura

Cincinnati Yellow Lamps

An obsolete, vanishing traffic device warns Cincinnati drivers away from middle-of-the-road obstructions. 


Found only (as the name would suggest) in the City of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Yellow Lamps are a distinctive but easily overlooked feature of the city’s streetscape. Known officially as “Island Lights” and often colloquially referred to as “Turtle Lamps,” the devices were installed to alert drivers to the presence of raised islands within the roadway.

The lamps are known for their distinctive shape and color; the yellow glass globe resembles a bell, fanciful helmet, or turtle shell (hence the nickname), and is adorned with a spun aluminum canopy that resembles a slightly-squished chocolate kiss.

Some residents and local authorities trace the lamps’ origin to markers for streetcar platforms that were situated in the middle of roadways. This claim is bolstered by the fact that the yellow color matches the color branding of the last of Cincinnati’s early 20th-century streetcar lines. However, photos of streetcar platforms show a different type of lamp, casting doubt on this assertion.

The current lamps can indicate any elevated median in a roadway within the city limits, including either a center island or a corner “pork chop” island associated with a channelized right turn lane.

The fragility, high replacement cost, and non-critical function of the Cincinnati Yellow Lamps leave them slated for obsolescence, with reports claiming that the city will no longer replace them when they fall or get damaged. However, after a lamp fell in August of 2014 and was salvaged by a local lamp enthusiast (thinking it was destined for the scrap heap) and turned into a floor lamp, the enthusiast community was surprised to find the fallen lamp replaced a few weeks later.

A “Cincinnati Yellow Lamps” Facebook group receives photos and other reports of existing and former lamp locations and has close to 300 followers. The group has also compiled a Google map of over 50 existing lamps and 15 former lamp locations found throughout the city.

Know Before You Go

Drive around the major thoroughfares of Cincinnati and look in any raised median. At night, keep your eyes open for the distinctive amber glow. Or consult the Google map included in the sources below for precise locations.

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