Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography
Bibliography Railroads


Railroads using steam locomotives made their appearance in the United States in 1829 and became widely used until after the Second World War when they were replaced by diesel-electric and electric locomotives.  Steam locomotives used large amounts of fuel (wood and coal) and water.  By 1921 American railroads consumed over 900 billion gallons of water annually, or about 2.5 billion gallons daily, more than any single water system delivered.  Railroad companies could either develop their own water systems or buy water from local water works where they existed (if the price was right).  Water systems developed by railroads would often serve nearby railroad properties, including stations, maintenance shops and hotels, but in many cases would supply water to communities.

1850 Observations on the consumption of fuel and the evaporation of water in locomotive and other steam engines, by Edward Woods.

1851 The Locomotive Engine: Including a Description of Its Structure, Rules for Estimating Its Capabilities, and Practical Observations on Its Construction and Management, by Zerah Colburn

1870 Union Pacific Railroad: Report of G.M. Dodge, Chief Engineer, with Accompanying Reports of Chiefs of Parties, for 1868-'69

1870 The Central Pacific railroad: a trip across the North American continent from Ogden to San Francisco.

1870 How We Built the Union Pacific Railway: And Other Railway Papers and Addresses, by Grenville M. Dodge

1871 Garnered Sheaves from the Writings of Albert D. Richardson, by Albert Deane Richardson
Page 285:  Sherman, like other desert stations, has a windmill some twenty feet in diameter, which pumps water up from a spring into a high tank beside the track. The tank holds fifty thousand gallons; the pump will fill it in ten hours. When it is full, the water lifts a little float: that pulls a wire, the wire shuts up the sails of the windmill, a dozen yards away, and it instantly stops. When the tank gets nearly empty, the action of another float opens the sails, and the windmill starts again. The cost of the ingenious apparatus all set up is about six thousand dollars. It might be used to great advantage for irrigating. It is one of a thousand instances in which modern machinery, not content with merely utilizing the forces of Nature, disciplines them into doing their appointed work, without any eye to overlook them or any hand to regulate.
Page 289:  Another day upon the desert. It seems to stretch out to the crack of doom. Nobody can realize how great a work this has been until he takes the long ride of four or five days and nights through dreary wastes and unbroken solitudes. On this immediate portion of the road the alkali water would corrode boilers and soon destroy them. For a hundred miles, therefore, water is carried in tanks, upon platform cars, for the locomotives. A supply will ultimately be brought from the Truckee River, thirty-three miles, through bored tamarack logs. Several stations are already furnished in that way, from springs six or eight miles distant. On the Union Pacific, also, through the Bitter Creek country, water is carried thirty or forty miles upon trains, to overcome the same difficulty.

1872 A First Person Account by Walter Scott Fitz of his Remarkable 36-Day Transcontinental Rail Journey from Boston to San Francisco including a Three Week, Snowbound Passage Between Cheyenne & Bitter Creek in Wyoming via the UPRR.  Jan. 14 to Feb. 19, 1872. 

1873 Report of the Government Directors of the Union Pacific Railroad, December 1, 1873.
Pages 75-76:  Location of 75 water-stations, dimensions of tank, power used, and source of supply.

1883 1880 Census: Volume 4. Report on the Agencies of Transportation in the United States, including the Statistics of Railroads, Steam Navigation, Canals, Telegraphs, and Telephones

1883 Profiles, maps and alignment of main tracks, yards, switches and side tracks of New York, Pennsylvania & Ohio rail road and its branch lines : together with information referring to Bridges, Water supply, Railroad and Road crossings, culverts, grades and curves

1889 The American Railway: Their Construction, Development, Management, and Appliances, by Thomas McIntyre Cooley

1890 "Union Pacific Water Tanks," Railroad Gazette 22:614 (September 5, 1890)
Includes illustration.

1890 The Railways of America: Their Construction, Development, Management, and Appliances, by Thomas McIntyre Cooley

1893 Report of the Commissioner of Railroads
Pages 103-128: Report of Railroad Engineer.  Description of railroad properties including water supply

1893 Buildings and Structures of American Railroads: A Reference Book for Railroad Managers, Superintendents, Master Mechanics, Engineers, Architects, and Students, by Walter Gilman Berg
Pages 113-129:  Chapter XIV.  Water Stations.

1900 The Resistance of Locomotives and Trains: And the Water- and Coal-consumption and Power of Locomotives, by Albert Frank

1904 Official Proceedings of the New York Railroad Club 14:283 (October 1904)
Water consumption for 10 miles, flat-bearing trains 33,198 lbs. [3,978 gallons or 39.8 gallons per mile]
Water consumption for 10 miles, ball-bearing trains 33,300 lbs. [3,990 gallons or 39.9 gallons per mile]

1916 In the Matter of the Complaint of J. E. Mills, et. al. vs Green River Water Company, September 20, 1916, Public Service Commission of the State of Wyoming | also here |

1917 "Railway Water Supply," Railway and Locomotive Engineering 30(6):182-184 (June, 1917)
Consumption and cost - lakes and ponds furnish the best water
The estimated annual consumption of water by locomotives alone on the railroads of the United States is 450,000,000,000 gallons.
Water used per engine mile:
Consolidation Locomotives - 219.6 gallons
Mallet Locomotives - 257.6 gallons
Mikado Locomotive - 202.5 gallons

1919 History of the Union Pacific railroad: issued by the Union Pacific railroad on the occasion of the celebration at Ogden, Utah, May 10th, 1919, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike.

1921 "Keeping the Railroads Afloat," by Charles Frederick Carter, Scientific American 125:218 (September 24, 1921) | pdf |
The Water That Our Steam Lines Use in a Year and What They Do With it.
According to C. R. Knowles, Superintendent of Water Service of the Illinois Central Railroad, recognized as the foremost authority on the subject, the estimated annual consumption of water by the railroads is 900,000,000,000 gallons.  As a considerable proportion of the water used by railroads, amounting to 23 percent in some instances, is purchased from municipal or private water corporations, and hence is metered, and as a number of the larger companies have water service departments which keep careful records, this estimate is more than a mere guess.

1921 "Construction of the Pacific Railroad," American Railway Engineering Society 23(237):7-47 (July 1921)

1921 "Railway Uses of Concrete," American Railway Engineering Society 23(238) (August1921)
Pages 84-: Water Tanks

1923 "Guaranty Status of Union Pacific Water Company," January 18, 1923, Interstate Commerce Commission Reports

1924 Epic of the Overland, by Robert Lardin Fulton

1926 The overland mail 1849-1869: promoter of settlement, precursor of railroads, by Le Roy Reuben Hefan

1950 The First Transcontinental Railroad:  Central Pacific, Union Pacific by John Debo Galloway, C. E.

1979 A History of the American Locomotive: Its Development, 1830-1880, by John H. White
Page 223:  Tenders.  Owing to the disproportionate demand of the locomotive for water as compared to fuel, tenders were essentially a water tank.  The ratio of water to coal consumption was roughtly 7 to 1.  Tenders were generally designed so that the fuel and water supply were equivalent.  In 1851 Colburn notes that an engine on the Boston and Lowell Railroad consumed 925.6 gallons of water during a 26-mile run.  A locomotive during this period could expect 25 miles per cord of wood.  A good average capacity for a tender of this period would be 1,000 gallons of water and one cord of wood; it can be seen that both commodities were adequate for about a 25-mile run.

1980 The Architecture and Engineering of Elevated Water Storage Structures: 1870-1940, by Carol Ann Dubie, M. A. Thesis, George Washington University.  Thanks to the author for allowing this valuable resource to be scanned and included in this history.

1991 "Railroads and Water in the Arid Far West: The Southern Pacific Company as a Pioneer Water Developer," by Richard J. Orsi, California History, 70(1):46-61 (Spring, 1991) | Notes pages 135-138 |

1997 American Locomotives: An Engineering History, 1830-1880, by John H. White.

2000 "The Standardization of Track Gauge on North American Railways, 1830-1890," by Douglas J. Puffert, The Journal of Economic History 60(4):933-960 (December 2000)

2001 Perfecting the American Steam Locomotive, by J. Parker Lamb | table of contents |

2022 Reservoirs of the Horseshoe Curve, by Mark Glenn | Altoona Reservoir System The Making of an American Water Landmark (video) |

2020 Morris A. Pierce