By Rick Dapp
If you have traveled on Route 581, the Harrisburg Expressway, between Harrisburg and Camp Hill, you have passed it. You may have noticed it and perhaps fleetingly wondered what it is. Or you may, in your haste to make the next exit, not have noticed it at all.
However, if you ease off slightly in the vicinity of the Lemoyne exit, just past the Bridge Street bridge, and look to the right, you’ll see a cylindrical brick structure next to the railroad tracks looking forlornly like a small silo with no roof. It’s surrounded by brush and scrubby trees and has suffered the ravages of time and the indignity of spray paint “taggers.” Yet it still stands there as a memorial to an era that was extraordinarily important to the history of the region.
According to local railroad historian Sam Leach, the structure in question is the base of a wooden Reading Railroad water tank. Leach says it was typical of lineside structures that serviced steam locomotives during the golden era of steam railroading, which ended with the advent of their diesel replacements.
“It’s in pretty sad shape, but it is one of the few surviving examples of steam lineside structures in the region. The water tanks for the Reading Railroad were basically all the same, built to a standard design,” says Leach. “I’m surprised that it hasn’t been torn down, but it’s nice to have as a reminder of our railroad history. The Reading Railroad station building still remains as well. It’s across the street from Kreamer Brothers in Lemoyne and is owned by J.C. Budding.”
Steam locomotives were rapacious consumers of water, often using up to 100 gallons per mile in the 1870s. Special en route watering facilities were rare in the early days of railroading, so engines carried a supply of water in a barrel on their tender, as well as a supply of coal for heating the boiler. Before the mid-1800s, locomotive tenders had very limited water capacity, and it was not uncommon for a train to require replenishment every 10 miles. Often, the locomotive tender was refilled at convenient streams along the route.
As a consequence, some railroads erected strategically placed and regularly refilled water towers, or tanks, along their lines. Depots with lineside structures like water tanks and coaling stations were erected at 10- to 12-mile intervals. Ironically, the euphemistic term, “tank town” was synonymous with places that had little more to distinguish them than a railroad water tank.
Typically, a water tank like the one along Route 581 had a base that supported a circular tank of all-wood construction – usually cedar or cypress – much like a wooden barrel with upright staves held together with circular iron hoops. Water was delivered to the locomotive tender via a hinged spout, which was lowered over the opening at the top of the locomotive tender’s tank and gravity-fed into it.
The water source for the tanks was just as important as the storage and delivery system. Some tanks were filled from rainwater runoff retention basins, while others were supplied by wells. Horse mills and windmills – among various other methods – were often used to pump water into the tanks. It is unknown what supplied the water tank in Lemoyne, but investigation may reveal a nearby well or perhaps retention ponds that have been filled by the passage of time.
The structure in Lemoyne has a section of the exterior wall knocked out, revealing an inner brick column that may be an internal support or an enclosure for a pumping apparatus. Interestingly, the wooden construction of the tank and the large volume of water helped to keep it from freezing, but heaters were necessary to keep the water flowing in extremely cold conditions. Railroad employees had to maintain stoves to keep the tanks from freezing. Perhaps the inner column of the structure in question was for heating the water during the much colder winters that affected the Harrisburg area in years past.
So, the next time you are driving on the Harrisburg expressway, look right if you are coming from Harrisburg or left if you’re coming from Camp Hill, and just imagine a steam locomotive parked near that round brick structure. It will take a vivid imagination to get past the graffiti sprayed on its walls, but if you’re very creative, you’ll see that wooden barrel with a spout. And if you’re very motivated, you’ll ask the railroad to restore it before it’s gone forever.