Water Tank Drop-Spouts and Water Columns -- “Fill ‘er up, mister?” “Yes, and please check the oil!”

By John B. Corns

With the water tank tub securely sitting on top of its elevated tower, it was time to have some sort of mechanism to deliver that water into thirsty locomotive tenders below. While the tank and tower designs were very similar, the water delivery systems underwent frequent design modifications that continually improved on earlier types.

Initially, in the days when little locomotives tugged tiny tenders, a long leather water “apron” (that resembled a giant hollow leg from a pair of 1960s rock star leather pants) was attached to a pipe at the bottom of a water tank’s wooden tub to guide the flow of water down into teeny tender hatches. This imperfect system caused excess water to spill onto the tender tops, wasting both water and time to fill the tender, and creating a safety hazard with wet or icy tender tops. Also, the leather aprons soon rotted away and needed constant replacing.

A few years later, the flexible leather apron was replaced with a rigid, sheet metal drop-spout that was hinged at one end and lowered into position when needed. It was kept out of the way in a near-vertical position through a system of counterweights that kept it upright until the locomotive fireman added his muscle power to leverage the spout and pull it down. The spout’s hinged end was about twice the diameter of the bottom-of-tub delivery pipe to facilitate the funneling of the water into the spout. The wide, 60- to 75-degree vertical swing of a spout’s movement accommodated tenders of varying height, but, more importantly, this loose connection also permitted some lateral leeway in the lowered spout. It was then possible for the business end of the spout to still reach the tender’s standard, 18-inch diameter water hatch, even if that hatch did not exactly align with the water tank’s bottom-of-tub delivery pipe. That was a small target to hit with a spout that had little or no lateral movement, especially at night with trains that were difficult to stop on a dime. (Can you imagine using only hand brakes to stop a fast passenger train or heavy freight to spot a tender underneath a spout prior to invention of air brakes!)

This, plus the fact that tank-mounted water spouts could be used easily only on single-track rail lines, led to the development of the water “column” (sometimes called a penstock, water crane or standpipe). Fed by a nearby water tank through underground piping, water columns consisted generally of a vertical steel pipe from 8- to 12-inches in diameter and equipped with a horizontal, swinging “arm” (spout). One water column could be placed between two parallel tracks and be swung in either direction to serve both tracks. Or, several water columns could be placed around the property, with all being fed by just one water tank. The columns were designed to provide a maximum of water in a minimum of time through a low frictional resistance to the flow of the water. Valves controlling the opening and closing were kept simple to prevent failure due to the accumulation of ice, sand or sediment, and all columns were equipped with slow-closing valves to reduce water “hammer,” the potentially damaging shockwave that passes through water whenever its flow is started or stopped too quickly. Valve movements were controlled by the locomotive fireman with levers, wheels, rods and counterweights, and a few columns could be lowered, operated and raised from either the top of the tender or down on ground level.

The spout could be swung out across the track to deliver water into a waiting tender, but a locking device on the water column spout held it parallel to the railroad track when not in use and out of the path of passing trains.
Unlike the great flexibility with tank-mounted drop-spouts, there was no method of lowering one end of a water column’s rigid, horizontal spout into 18-inch diameter tender hatches to control the flow. Additionally, unlike water squirting out of a garden hose in a steady, controlled stream, a torrent of wild water from a water column gushed out everywhere. The leather aprons re-appeared and were fastened to the business ends of the water column spouts. So, it was back to the drawing boards to design a better water column with a horizontal, flexible or telescoping spout that moved both radially and vertically in order to reach down into tender hatches.

Beginning after the Civil War, improved water columns were designed and manufactured by companies such as Sheffield, Fairbanks-Morse, Poage, Otto, T.W. Snow and a few others. These various water column designs all used flexible, horizontal spouts that were attached to vertical pipes with an “elbow” and a flexible, water-tight joint that allowed a wide range of both horizontal and vertical flexibility. Spouts remained in their normal “up” position through a system of counterweights or by a heavy spring located at the back of the column. Most water columns were made of heavy cast iron pipes and parts, but from the need for ease and mobility, the flexible and telescoping spouts were manufactured from light-weight sheet steel. When the end of a spout was firmly spotted into the tender hatch, locomotive firemen often stood directly on the spout to add their weight and help control that bucking bronco of a spout once the valve was opened and water began to gush. The deeper the depth of the water in the tank, the higher the water pressure at the bottom the wooden tub, and the greater the gusher at the delivery end of the spout. Depending on the water pressure in the piping, an 8-inch diameter water column had a maximum desirable flow rate of 3,000 gallons per minute, a 10-inch column had a 4,000-gallon flow rate, and a 12-inch column had a 6,000-gallon flow rate.

Originally supplying water to America’s small locomotive tenders, water columns measured a scant 8 feet tall, had a 9-foot long swinging horizontal arm, and were located 7’-8” from the centerline of the track (this distance was later lengthened to a standard 8’-6”). Combined with the standard 18-inch tender water hatch, the resulting leeway for positioning the locomotive was increased to about 7 feet, a vast improvement over the nominal two-foot leeway afforded by the tank-mounted drop spout. In about 1895 tender water hatches were increased in size to 18”x36” and were aligned perpendicular to the track, thus increasing the horizontal leeway to about 9 feet when spotting a locomotive tender beside a water column. By simply rotating 90-degrees and constructing that same 18”x36” hatch parallel to the track, this leeway was increased to nearly 10-1/2 feet. Eventually, water spouts were increased to more than 10 feet in length, tender water hatches became nearly as wide as the tenders themselves (10 feet), and the locomotive placement leeway increased to more than 15 feet.

As locomotives and tenders grew taller, the water column spouts did not have to drop as far down to reach the tender hatches, thus reducing the water’s flow from its flatter trajectory. Therefore, water columns had to also grow taller to be able to maintain their steep, downward angle to quickly feed water into the open tender hatch. To handle modern, larger steam locos and tenders, Poage columns grew to a height of 18’-6” exclusive of their bell-shaped counterweight at the very top of the column, and with a 15-inch diameter end-of-spout opening. To prevent having to replace an entire, slightly too short water column with a slightly taller one, a shorter column’s vertical pipe would be cut and a “breaking joint” of the same pipe diameter installed, and then bolted into place to add the necessary extra height, usually only a foot or two.

The Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum has two, 10-inch diameter Poage water columns that were installed beside the roundhouse’s two ready tracks, adjacent to the locomotive back shop. Both are of Chesapeake & Ohio lineage, one from Raleigh Yard near Beckley, West Virginia, and the other from Russell Yard in the Kentucky town of the same name. These two columns have been completely reconditioned by AoSRM shop forces, and are connected by underground piping to our 50,000-gallen wood water tank. Additionally, the Age of Steam Roundhouse Museum’s wood water tank is equipped with a drop-spout whose large cast iron parts are from the Colorado Railroad Museum, but a local sheet metal fabricator re-used this original hardware and some other parts when they restored the spout.