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Thread: Water supplies for steam engines

  1. #1
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    Default Water supplies for steam engines

    I've long been wondering, and never seen it addressed elsewhere: Steam engines needed frequent refilling of their tenders' water tanks. This was usually done from elevated tanks usually called 'water towers' where I live (southern California). Does anybody know how close these are in desert/mountain locales? And how does the water get into the water towers? When the railroad were built I mean. No interstate highways for huge water trucks and likely no electricity for water pumps. Any ideas?

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    Dealing with water in the desert was typically handled one of two ways. Contrary to popular belief, locomotives didn't have to stop as frequently as you might expect. On average, locomotives would stop about every 90 miles or so. Sooner if they were working hard grades and such. Larger locomotives could go longer, but the average would be 90. So I'll go with that.

    Basically, every 90 miles or so, there would be a water tower. What's more, railroads tended to put towers at stations, so it wasn't uncommon for a train that had to stop anyway to go ahead and top off their water. In the desert though, the companies had a handful of ways to deal with it. ATSF, SP, and UP would often set up large "tanks" which fed a particular tower. These worked off of very deep wells. Where that wasn't possible, they also used tanked in water carried in specially designated tank cars that would be dropped off every day or so by through freights. These tank cars were used to refill the water towers. Generally speaking, railroads didn't like to do this with a water tower that saw a great deal of use, so you'd often see this on outlying towers that didn't have a ready source of water handy. Since only the locomotives with the smallest tenders used those towers, it was something of a cost effective measure to deal with the situation.

    As tenders got larger and locomotives could go further with one tender of water, railroads started doing away with these outlying towers, and instead requiring stopping trains (such as locals) to fill up every station stop. This could be every 20 miles or so, but the general idea was that the tender didn't ever run dry.
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  3. #3
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    Earlier locos (1870's) had a typical range of (iirc) 20 miles, so you'd often see tanks spaced a bit less than that. Tanks could be filled via windmill-operated pumps, artesian wells, capturing water from a stream above the tank level and piping it in, or by hauling it in via tank car. In emergencies, crews would stop on a bridge and lower buckets

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    This is true. I've even heard of some locomotives being built with small steam operated pumps on the tenders to take water from nearby streams. Though the few times I've seen that, they tended to be logging railroads that didn't really bother with water towers.
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    Some locomotives have condensers fitted, for various reasons. One of those reasons is to recover water.
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  6. #6
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    Thank you all for your quick and thorough answers. I'd never have imagined so many ways could have existed, yet all of these ideas were practical even at the time. Lots of really cool ideas here and I'm going to put them to use next time I'm in my Trainz route. Again, thank you all.
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    Some could even take on water on the fly! There was a scoop that could be lowered between the rails. There was a trough there that was filled with water, no ties in the way. They would lower the scoop, and the speed of the loco would force water into the scoop and up into the tender. Don't know how many of these types of water facilities were out there. I could imagine that the trough would be pretty long though. I read about this when I was modeling railroads. A little fascinating!
    I do believe that this method was used with smaller tenders and loco's. A trough to fill a Big Boy would probably be many miles long!!!
    Jeff
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  8. #8
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    Another point to consider here: the equipment procurement, and equipment assignment of the railroads. For example, given the same size engine, the UP could purchase a larger tender to use with that engine across the Utah desert than the N&W might purchase to use with the same sized engine in WV and VA. And although I don't know whether the UP did or did not use the practice, a number of railroads, especially in later years made use of auxiliary tenders to increase the distance range of the locomotive.

    ns
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    Quote Originally Posted by jlp1551 View Post
    Some could even take on water on the fly! There was a scoop that could be lowered between the rails. ... <snippage> ...
    Track pans (UK: Water troughs) were used in the US, at least by the New York Central ("the water level route"), and in the UK by nearly all railways except the Southern. The pan might be between the rails, or outside them. To my knowledge the UP never installed any, so they were not likely used by a Big Boy. They also tended to be used by fast freights and passenger trains, in order to avoid the need for a stop and lengthy delay to fill a tender.

    Other US railroads may have used the practice, too, but I am not aware of them.

    ns
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  10. #10
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    Hi,

    In hilly country, e.g. the South of Germany, water reservoirs were frequently built into the sides of hills, at a height above the station to ensure sufficient water pressure. These reservoirs are cheaper to built and maintain as well as being absolutely frost-proof in winter.

    Sometimes smaller reservoirs were also built into, e.g. under the roof, of locomotive sheds or workskops.

    In the early years of railroading, up to the introduction of injectors, boilers for pre-heating water were occasionally fitted at water stations. They were fired with coal or coke particles too fine for use in locomotive boilers.
    At that time hand operated water pumps for lifting water from a well to the reservoir were not uncommon.

    In Germany average distances of 15 to 20 miles between water stations were the rule to the end of the age of steam. Of course locomotives would not stop at each of them. The relatively close distance did, however, make for more operational flexibility. Another reason was, that water quality, mainly with regard to dissolved lime and other minerals, varied considerably.

    Cheers,

    Konni

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