Photographs & History

Photographs and History

An Essential Element for Steam

The pinnacle of 19th Century steam is depicted here in 1891, leading the Pennsylvania Railroad’s premier train, The Pennsylvania Limited. While many paid attention to the expansive systems, track, and stations, water and fuel were the essential elements to keep steam-powered locomotives running across the road. William H Rau Photograph, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.

The pinnacle of 19th Century steam is depicted here in 1891, leading the Pennsylvania Railroad’s premier train, The Pennsylvania Limited. While many paid attention to the expansive systems, track, and stations, water and fuel were the essential elements to keep steam-powered locomotives running across the road. William H Rau Photograph, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.

The steam engine may be viewed as the prime transformational technology that drove the Industrial Revolution. In their early stationary forms, their reciprocating plant's powered pumps, before the conversion of reciprocating motion into rotary motion widened their application to driving factory machinery and powering turbines to generate electricity. Making the steam engine mobile, however, was the critical advance enabling the development of the powered railroad. Developed in the United Kingdom, then adapted and introduced in the US, early locomotives and railroads were simple affairs, toting little more than carts and carriages. But the rise of the railroad's importance in the vast and expanding American landscape opened a revolution of railroad building throughout the second half of the 19th Century. Larger, faster, and more sophisticated steam engines were needed to span such great distances, and American industry responded, eventually making the giant steam locomotive an iconic symbol of the American experience. On the line, however, engineers faced the challenge of providing enough water to slake the thirst of this new breed of iron horse – no small challenge, given that the average steam locomotive could consume eight times more water than fuel by volume. Early water stops along the railroad were dependent on the naturally-occurring bodies of water that crisscrossed the route and were often susceptible to seasonal issues, like freezing and drought. As a result, by the late 19th Century, railroads like the Pennsylvania began to invest considerable capital into developing extensive water networks that fed strategic water stops. One such example of this modernization came with the construction of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch.

A 1938 facilities map depicting the Octotraro Water Company’s distribution system that served the PRR Mainline and Atglen & Susquehanna Branch, which included seven water stations. Collection of Pennsylvania American Water Company, Hershey, PA. 

The Octoraro Water Company

1928 advertisement in the Saturday Evening post boasting of the PRR’s $50 million investment in water infrastructure for the good of the Iron Horse.

When work commenced on the building of the A&S, an essential detail in completing the road started quietly in the local townships. The rights of seven small water companies were purchased to create the Octoraro Water Company; their sole customer was the Pennsylvania Railroad. Drawing from the 200+ square mile Octoraro Watershed the company would build a supply network to feed the busy PRR Main Line and A&S branch in Southern Lancaster and Chester Counties. Fed by the Mc Crea and Pine Grove pumping stations water was piped north to Mars Hill, the highest point on the A&S and home to a 10 million gallon distribution reservoir and water stop. From Mars Hill, the pipeline split with a 10” main heading west to Martic and a 24” supply line east to Thorndale feeding an additional six distribution facilities in between. The Octoraro network was just one of many under the PRR's portfolio of water resources system-wide, many of which constructed during the same era. As a result, the trackside facilities were often of a standard design and appearance. Despite being out of view and a relatively obscure part of railroad infrastructure, these remote facilities often featured a stately stone gatehouse accented with a conical slate roof, granite steps leading to the top edge of the impounding basin and ornamental iron fencing around the perimeter. 

Though the employment of modern water distribution systems was a great benefit to the railroad, the logistics of water stops still resulted in lost time and operational bottlenecks. Railroads abroad were looking for ways to mitigate the inefficiency of the water stop as early as the 1850's. Cheif Engineer, John Ramsbottom of the London & North Western Company of Brittain was called upon for such a solution when the road sought to shorten express train schedules. Ramsbottom's answer was a system of water troughs positioned in the gauge of the track, allowing specially equipped locomotive tenders to take water without stopping. The water is transferred from the trough at speed into the tender's cistern via a mechanical scoop that could be lowered by the operating crew. Though it took some time to perfect the concept, by the turn of the century rail lines all over the Great Western system were employing these troughs, but only a hand full of American roads adopted similar technology, the Pennsylvania was one of them.

Detail views of surviving distribution reservoirs that served the seven water facilities on the Octoraro Water network. L) Staircase leading to the top of the impound basin, note granite steps and wrought iron fencing. R) Masonry gatehouse at the former Thorndale facility. 

While most track pans on the PRR were installed concurrently with the expansion of water networks several installations predate the turn of the century, with the very first one constructed in 1870. At its peak the Pennsy employed roughly 20 of these facilities spread across the system to expedite traffic, keeping the timely stops to a minimum out on the main.  On the Octoraro system, Atglen was the only water stop to utilize track pans, demanding roughly 40%  or 750,000 gallons, of the 2 million gallons the local network consumed daily. The reservoir and gatehouse sat above grade on the top of Zion Hill; water was piped down to a combination pump house and steam plant situated between the mainline and the A&S branch. A total of six troughs, four on the mainline and two on the A&S were part of an elaborate system supplemented by steam pipes that kept the pans from freezing in winter and a cobblestone drain system to draw overspray away from the trackbed. 

"Up ahead the trough appears, a long slender slot between the tracks, growing swiftly larger. In the cab, an alert hand tightens on a lever. The trough draws near more swiftly, rushes under the locomotive as though stung into a final burst of speed. The hand jerks sharply. Below, beneath the tender, the scoop darts down - plows a swishing furrow along the shallow trough. A rush of water funneled upward... a final speed driven spray as the tank in the tender overflows and the scoop springs back into place. The Iron Horse has had his drink...The Limited roars on its way unchecked."  - Saturday Evening Post, 1928. 

The  PRR touted their investment in the 1926 report, The Growth, and Development of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, stating, "the Pennsylvania constructed a water supply system that embraced 36 reservoirs and intakes supplying a total capacity of 3 billion gallons, fed into 441 miles of pipe for distribution. Its network furnished over 14 billion gallons in 1926 drawn from over 27,300 acres of mountain land owned by the railroad, all the benefit of a $30 million investment."  By 1928 editorial ads placed in the Saturday Evening Post, boasted a $50 million investment that supplied over a million gallons a day to the iron horse. A subsequent ad from the same year featured the headline,"The Iron Horse scoops a drink at nearly a mile a minute!" Focused on the analytics of track pans, it boasted, "such track tanks, save an amazing lot of time in a day or month.  6700 trains make up the Pennsylvania's vast daily fleet. Suppose each train saved 10 minutes during a day's run. Then 1117 hours a day are saved - over a month and a half every day!" 

Like the trains themselves that benefitted the American public, the railroad's contributions to the development of water distribution systems were a great benefit to the general public, laying the framework for public systems countrywide. Today many of these same resources serve a public role, having been sold off after the railroads moved to electric and diesel propulsion.