Water Towers
Gravity Fed Water Supplies

Water towers were, and still are, vital to the operation of a any steam powered railroad. A dry water tower could result in, at best, a dead locomotive or, at worst a damaged or even destroyed locomotive. Obviously it was very important to have a reliable water supply for every tank and yet it was very unusual for a water tower to have a pump house associated with it. So how did they keep them full? Well, if the tank was located in town, municipal water was used and because it was under pressure no pumping was necessary. When the tank wasn't in town, the Rio Grande Southern piped in water from a natural source that was at a higher elevation than the tower and thus used gravity to keep the towers full. This was much easier to do than one might think. Virtually all of the railroad's trackage was located in valleys and a natural water source, whether a spring, well (normally artesian) or creek, was usually near by. Sometimes very near. The creek coming down the cliff behind the Ames Tank made possible a supply pipe of only 50 yards or so.

Usually 3 inch cast iron pipe, buried deep enough to prevent freezing, was used for the supply. If a source wasn't close by, the location of the tower was moved, as there was always some latitude in their exact location. All of the RGS's water towers held 50,000 gallons when full. That's enough to fill 6 or 7 K-27s at one time. Even a completely dry snow fighting train wouldn't need that much. Plus, after a train left a tank it was usually hours or even days before the next one came along, so it wasn't necessary for the tank to be refilled quickly. If a water source could provide as little as 10,000 gallons a day, it would still be possible to keep the tank operational for any conceivable demand.

Water towers were so important to the daily operation of the railroad that one or more employees were always assigned full time to their maintenance. The towers and their associated water source were checked regularly to ensure proper function and maintenance was performed whenever needed. The RGS, like most railroads, had one of its work cars, loaded with all of the necessary tools and supplies, assigned specifically for water service.

The Rio Grande Southern's water towers may have looked terrible, but I can assure you they all worked and worked well.


The first example shows the ICC Valuation Map of the area around Brown. True to form, Brown is located at the bottom of a river valley. The river isn't the water source for the tank, however. The real source is across the river and up on the side of the valley, 2,406 feet away. A well, probably artesian in nature, which means it flows with out pumping, provides the necessary water. The map shows the location of the well, high on the side of an adjoining valley, and the path the pipe takes as it comes down the valley side, across an open meadow, and across the river to enter the tank from the rear. As long as the pipe didn't leak and the well didn't run dry, neither of which was a common occurrence, the water tank was kept full with out any additional effort from the railroad.

Coke Ovens

The second example shows the water source for the tower at Coke Ovens. Like Brown, Coke Ovens is located at the bottom of a river valley. Once again like Brown the river, despite being only a few yards away, is not the water source for the tank. The Coke Ovens tank got its water from the small tributary creek shown on the map. An inlet was constructed, probably using a steel box with a trash screen, sunk below the freeze line 940 feet up the tank, at a site that was much higher in elevation. From there, buried 3 inch cast iron pipe traveled down the side of the valley to enter the tank from the rear. Again, unless the creek ran dry or the pipe leaked, the tank was kept full with-out the RGS having to provide any pumping action at all. This creek runs year round and its presence undoubtedly is the reason the RGS chose this spot for a water tower.

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If you wish to contact me for any reason my e-mail address is: bdwhite@orci.com