Steam locomotives required large quantities of good-quality water to generate steam to power their trains. At the turn of the century, most railroads used water towers trackside to slake the Iron Horse’s thirst. Water could be supplied from municipal sources, a spring, a well, a nearby stream or river; it really depended on the location and what was needed. Sometimes, the water quality was poor so a water treatment facility was placed next to the tower. Water towers were spaced along the track to meet demand for water, and more often where convenient, such as at a crossing of a stream, or in a town/city where a train would stop to pick of freight and passengers.
Mid-Continent’s water tower might be considered a typical wooden tower from the early 20th century. Most wooden towers featured a wooden support structure below the tank, however Mid-Continent’s features a more durable steel frame base. The tower tank was originally constructed by the Milwaukee Road and used at Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. It was moved to North Freedom in 1972. The museum built the steel support framework from scratch. The tank is supplied from a 2″ pipe that is fed river water from a pump at the enginehouse. The water tower is normally used at special events only because of the higher demand, and because the river water is not of as high a quality as that at Quartzite Lake. (Mid-Continent’s steam trains traditionally take water at Quartzite Lake at the end of the line).
The tower’s operation is simple. The locomotive stops next to the tower with the spout lining up with the water hatch on top of the tender. The fireman climbs up on the tender and pulls the spout into the tender’s hatch. He then pulls on a chain attached to the water valve in the bottom of the tower. Water flows out through the spout into the tender. The fireman must be careful not to open the valve too quickly or the force of the water can push the spout out of the tender’s hatch. When the tender is full, the water tower’s valve is closed by releasing the chain. The spout is then pushed back to its upright position and the locomotive can continue on its way. The entire process takes about five minutes. The water tower holds enough water to fill two tenders on the average. While it may only take several minutes to empty the tower, it may take hours to fill back up with the small river pump. During Mid-Continent’s Snow Train every February, the water tower must be thawed out with a steam hose before it can be used.