There used to be hundreds of these octagonal water towers across the vast CPR system, used to feed the company’s fleet of steam locomotives. In addition to coal or oil, the engines had an insatiable appetite for water, which was heated to make the steam that drove the wheels. Only a few of these historic structures remain like this one in Cranbrook BC. It’s the property of a museum and sits across the tracks from its original location. Sharing its space is the former Elko BC train station.
In the days of the steam locomotive these water towers could be found at various towns and junctions across the railway. The would be installed every so often (on average every 80km I am told) so that the locomotive could replenish their water supply. Huge quantities were needed and so a reliable source had to be available at regular intervals.
Built to fairly standard plan, these unique structures contained a steel tank (sometimes wood staved) enclosed by an outer wooden shell, which helped protect and insulate the tank from harsh weather. For the coldest days, a small coal stove (or boiler) would warm the water enough to keep it from freezing. A section man, who’s job is was to patrol and maintain a specific section of track, would keep the fire stoked, probably visiting the tower once a day when temperatures were low. Coal for the stove would be kept in a small bunker and would be filled by the maintenance of way department as needed.
A door into the structure would allow for maintenance and inspection of the tank, pipes, pump and down spout, plus it gave access to the stove.
Depending on how it was set up, water would be dispensed into the locomotive tender via a spout on the side of the tower itself or via a single or multiple-head stand pipe not far away. The later would allow two or more locomotives to be filled at one time and it appears our tower is of this configuration since it lacks that side spout.
Water would come from a nearby spring, lake, stream or town water source. A ball and mast on the roof would let the crews know how much the tank contained. As the supply varied, so would the position of the ball. High up means its full and if low, it’s empty (as it is today). A simple but clever system.
The origins of this octagonal design go back to the early 1900s. This one was built in 1946 however which makes it a late example, perhaps one of the last of the type built – diesels were after all, right around the corner by then. It replaced an earlier tower nearby.
Most of these structures fell out of use by the latter part of the 1950s as steam was replaced by diesel. Not all were torn down immediately though, and many lasted into the 1960s or 70s, sitting empty that whole time, before being demolished. The always frugal CPR did not want to spend the money to get rid of them until it was absolutely necessary. Today there are only a handful left and the number found by this author could be counted on one hand.
This tower used to sit across the yard but was moved to the present location in the 1990s. It has been spruced up and given it’s owned by the museum, has a safe future.
This style of tower was more common in the west I am told, although they could be seen out east too. Competitor CNR also used a similar design.
Located just down from this structure is the former Elko BC train station, built in the early 1900s. It was moved from that town in the 1980s after having sat empty for quite some time. It’s a fine example of a small town CPR station, few of which are left.
Also nearby, but not explored on this visit where a pair of locomotives undergoing restoration. We’ll make it a point to visit them when they are done – they are surrounded by a big fence now and under tarps now, making photography near impossible. They are an ex-CPR Montreal Locomotive Works model FA-2 and FB-2 pair from the early 1950s.
Seen across the yard is the railway’s turntable and roundhouse, still in use. This is another throwback to the old days, a real anachronism, and one of a few still in use by that railway. Formerly the building would be used to service and turn steam locomotives. Today it preforms a similar function and they do minor maintenance of engines there. I hope to visit the site and have made a request to the railway. I won’t hold my breath on it however – that type of access is rarely granted and understandably so. Rail yards after all are a dangerous place and the CPR does not want to risk someone getting injured.
The water tower, the station and the locomotives out front all belong to the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel. Further west they have a larger museum with numerous displays and countless rail cars. It’s definitely worth a visit. The organization was established in the 1970s and back then the main exhibit used to sit roughly where the Elko station and the two locomotives mentioned earlier are. As the collection grew, they moved to that new larger site not far away.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: October, 2013.
Location: Cranbrook, BC.