Jerkwater Towns in Richland County

So maybe somebody said you came from a jerkwater town and maybe that sounds like an insult to you.  But probably neither one of you knows where the expression came from, and how wrapped up it is in the early railroading lore of American History.  And how, after all, it might not be such a bad thing.

Because nearly every village in old Richland County started as a jerkwater town.

The Water Part

There were four major railroad lines that ran through Richland County, and two minor ones, and all of them began their careers behind steam locomotives.

Steam equals water plus heat.  The heat was primarily coal, burning in a firebox in the locomotive.  The water came from stops all along the tracks, where tanks or ponds kept a supply waiting for engines that were running dry.

These tanks were elevated above the engines, and each had an arm that swung out over the locomotive, made of pipe, to connect train to water tower.  In order to start the water flowing through the pipe, the engineer had to grab a chain give it a little jerk.

Consequently, in railroad jargon, any town where the train stopped to load up like this was a “jerkwater.”

The trains had to come to a standstill while this was going on, and passengers naturally wanted to get out and take a look around.  And, most often, there was not much to see at the site of the water tower, and certainly nothing to do except listen to the glug glug of the locomotive chugging water.

These little crossroads, having very little diversion for tourists, came to be known as jerkwater towns.

Our Tracks

Plymouth, Shiloh, Shelby, Vernon Junction, Ontario, Alta, Mansfield, Lexington, Bellville, Butler, and Lucas—these were all jerkwater stops.

As locomotives evolved throughout the 1800s they could go farther between water breaks, but the original lines—dating back to 1848 in Richland County—had water stops every 10 miles.

Sometimes the Conductor of the train—the man who conducted the business of the railroad and kept the train on schedule—wanted to avoid stopping at any town where passengers might be tempted to get off and delay proceedings, so they devised pit stops out the middle of nowhere.  These were the true jerkwaters.

There was one such a stop just north of Mansfield on the B&O—near the Reformatory—where a pond of water still exists today that once provided drink for steam engines.

Into History

The railroad water towers, once a familiar sight in small towns, are nearly all vanished today.  Diesel-powered trains pretty much did away with steam locomotives in the 1940s and 50s, though steamers still ran on the B&O tracks until the 60s.

Sometime about 45 years ago—when the last steam locomotives passed through here—Richland County officially ceased to be a place of jerkwater towns.

The railroad water tower in Plymouth was clearly a source of civic pride in 1896 when this photo was made.

Notice on the right side of the water tank where the spigot-arm can be lowered to supply water for steam-powered locomotives.
The B&O water tanks in Butler can be seen in the distance in the picture above from 1913. The B&O track from Butler north to Alta was all uphill -rising from 1070’ to 1292’ over 15 miles of track- requiring extra steam, and therefore extra water.
The B&O water towers in Lexington were located across the tracks from the depot on East Main Street. They are prominent in the background of the picture below taken around 1909.
This railroad map from 1900 shows Richland County crossed by four major railroads. Though they changed names through the years, these are known familiarly as the Erie, The Pensnsylvania, the B&O, and the Big Four (New York Central)
The boiler part of the steam locomotive is the large, cylindrical tank in front of the windowed car.

The steam locomotives began towing a water tender car behind the locomotive that could hold up to 10,000 gallons for the engine, making it possible to go much farther between water stops.
This photo shows the water tower at the B&O station in Mansfield on Springmill Street. A careful look shows that the water was supplied to trains by a special pipe that rose out of the ground between the tracks that could be swiveled to either side.
A harsh winter always brought certain logistical difficulties to railroad water tanks. This tower, at the B&O station in Mansfield on Springmill Street, was photographed in the 1890s.
A little pond on land adjacent to the Reformatory grounds north of Mansfield (seen below) served the B&O Railroad as a water stop at OSR for many years. The B&O paid for the water, providing a small income for the owner of the land, who was Phoebe Wise–a well known and loved local character.

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