Red light district

Is it true that the origin of the term came from the railroad men who put down red lanterns on train stops near houses of prostitution?

For the record, here’s the Snopes page on this:

They don’t have an authoritative source for it though.

My wife tells me that years ago when she was first married (to her now ex-husband), they lived in a multistory apartment building. The emergency fire exit for their floor was the fire escape outside their window; so in accordance with fire regulations, a big red light was in the hall directly outside their door. She says that they were constantly harrassed by drunken men banging on the door in the early A.M. looking for prostitutes.

I don’t know the origin of “red light district” – but here’s something I heard on the pubic tv program “American Experience”. On a program about the building of the US transcontinental RR, they revealed the origin of the term “hell on wheels”: a RR car containing a bar/brothel that parked at RR worksites on payday!

Dodge City, Kansas, takes credit for the “Red Light District” with the lanterns and all. They still have a mock up of “Front Street” where the bawdy houses used to be with lanterns hanging on the front.

The term red light district is easy to figure out if you live in one (or used to, as I did- the infamous 14th street corridor in downtown DC). Down the main street of such a “district” there will be the various ladies of the evening walking along both sides, often walking in the right lane so as to be as close as possible to passing potential customers.

This results in a constant wave of jerky stop-and-go action with the traffic coming to a halt every 20 feet or so as yet another car stops to look over the goods. As viewed from behind, and in the darkness of the evening hours, you can see a virtual sea of red tail lights on cars as they do their stop-and-go dance down the street.

As to who actually coined the phrase, be it the police or the johns I am not sure.

Just a mild wake up call here, Attrayant, people used the term “red-light district” long before cars had tail lights and long before there were cars. (There was such a time, you know)

Check your history, “Wild Bill” Hickock was hired to clean up the “red-light” districts in both Dodge City and Hays in the 1800s. Both these towns were major railheads for the cattle drives coming up from Texas. (This may come as a surprise to you. This was before your beloved tail lights.)

A good reference is “The Encyclopedia of Crime” and another one is the Time-Life series “The Old West.” Also “Iron Wheels and Broken Men,” mentions it. “Hell Holes and Hangings” also puts the origination of the term in Dodge City.


This may not be the actual origins, but it’s what
I found on google.

Helen The term *Hell-on(upon)-Wheels first appears in US in print in 1843. So the railroad origin doesn’t wash.

Well I am glad it was only a mild one.


Um, okay, not the transcontinental RR. I think that was build in the 1870s. But surely various other RRs were being built in the 1840s?


Sorry, long night last night. I was a little petulant. I am sorry.


Hazel I definitely apologize for calling you Helen.

You said

Just another example of a TV program promulgating an origin for something which they can’t prove.

Using Mathews , because Lighter has not yet released Vol. III of Dictionary of American Slang , we find that the 1843 usage was in reference to a steamboat. You are correct that there may be some railroad connotations, but not the whore-in-a-box(car) that was offered on tv.

Mathews probably correctly, ascribes the later use of the name to the end towns from the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. And this is probably how most people came to understand the phrase. There are cites referring to these border towns as Hell-on-wheels.

That’s the best kind of tv program for that kind of information! :smiley: