Jerkwater Towns

How the early railroaders fueled steam engines in the Old West.
How the early railroaders fueled steam engines in the Old West.

One of our readers, Raymond Hill, asked me how railroaders got water up the water towers for trains traveling in the Old West, especially in the desert?

Good question. I’ve watched a lot of movies showing the old steam engines stop to fill ’er up. But who filled up the water tower? Frankly, I didn’t know, so I called the Train Man, Jim Clark of Tombstone, Arizona. His answer? Windmills.

The towers had a windmill that pumped the water up into the tank.  By the mid-1890s, “steam mules,” or little engines, pumped water up into the towers.

Some towns, though, lacked a water tower. When trains stopped in those places, the crew had to find a nearby stream or well and “jerk the water,” bucket brigade style, to the train. These little backwater towns became known as “Jerkwater Towns.”

Even today, some ranchers, especially in West Texas and Wyoming, still use windmills to pump water for their livestock.

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