Coaling Towers, Keeping Steam Locomotives Fueled

During the age of the steam locomotive coaling towers were an essential part of railroading as without them there was little way to effectively fuel the motive power.

The coal chute or coaling station, as it is also sometimes known, dates back to the late 1800s as steam locomotives became larger and required a larger fuel capacity.

As with steam locomotives themselves there were all different sizes of towers and they became much larger into the 20th century.

Some of the last towers ever built were from reinforced concrete and stood hundreds of feet tall.  Today, of course, the structure's purpose has long since ended. 

However, several of the last towers constructed were so well built that several still stand to this day, over a half-century since they were last used!

Chicago & North Western steam locomotives are over the ash pit at the 40th Street Yard in Chicago as the coaling tower looms above them during December of 1942. Jack Delano photo.

Steam Locomotives, devices that would literally drive and power the American railroad industry for its first 130+ years of existence actually has its origins in England.

Originally built by Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian in 1804 for the narrow gauge Penydarren tramway in Wales the contraption was first tested in America in August of 1829.

It was on the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company where Horatio Allen, its  chief engineer for the Delaware & Hudson, tested an early English steam locomotive design on a 16-mile stretch of track the company owned between Honesdale and Carbondale, Pennsylvania.

The locomotive used was named the Stourbridge Lion, which was a very simple two-axle machine with a vertical boiler, and it was employed to move coal from the mines at Carbondale to Honesdale.

Other Types Of Infrastructure

Ballast, Supporting The Rails And Ties

Railroad Bridges, The Types And Their Histories 

The Track, The Railroad's Highway 

The Ties, Supporting The Rails 

Tunnels, Conquering The Mountain 

The Yards, Sorting And Classifying 

The Roundhouse, Once The Realm Of Steam 

The Turntable, Turning Locomotives 

Until the 20th century virtually all steam locomotives coal as their primary fuel source (although very early locomotive designs, like 4-4-0 Americans used wood) with large tenders of water to produce the necessary steam.

Lots of Louisville & Nashville steamers were laying over at the engine terminal in Corbin, Kentucky when Bob Collins captured this scene on May 25, 1952. Note the coaling tower in the background.

The operations of steam locomotives are relatively simple, which I will try to explain just briefly. Fuel, usually either coal or oil, is fed into the firebox where the resulting hot gas enters boiler tubes, known as flues, to heat the surrounding water turning it unto steam.

From this point the steam is fed into the pistons whereby it expands and drives the steam locomotive’s rods (those massive steel shafts which are attached to the wheels) and propels it forward.

Illinois Central steam locomotives sit beneath a massive coaling tower in Chicago during December of 1942. Jack Delano photo.

The hot gases are then carried into the smoke box where they are funneled into the smoke stack and out of the locomotive.

A quick note about the "modern" steam locomotive smoke stacks, most carry grating or some other type of screening to help reduce the amount of cinders (especially in the case when wood was used as fuel) which are projected into the air and can cause brush fires. 

Coaling towers grew in size as needed with increasingly larger steam locomotives. Some of the first coaling towers were only a few stories tall and held less than 100 tons of coal usually also only serving one track.

However, as larger locomotives like 4-6-2 Pacifics, 2-8-4 Berkshires and 4-8-4 Northerns were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was obviously necessary to increase the tower's size.

A former Louisville & Nashville coaling tower maintains vigil for the next locomotive which will never come along the main line near Flomaton, Alabama in December of 1990. These tracks are now owned by CSX Transportation. Gary Morris photo.

The workings of a coaling towers are relatively simple. They were always gravity fed with the steam locomotive sitting below or nearby (if the tower employed chutes) and an operator would feed coal into the tender until it was topped off.

To refill the towers they usually had a staging track or an area where loaded hopper cars could be unloaded and a pulley/belt driven system would pick up the coal and load the bin.

Early systems were rudimentary using straight chain and pulley buckets but later systems used conveyor belts to efficiently load the coaling towers.



A classic wooden coaling tower still stands in the Soo Line yard at Marquette, Michigan on a cold and snowy November day in 1976. Rob Kitchen photo.

At their peak coaling towers were impressive structures standing multiple stories high and looking more like massive grain bins one might see out on the plains.

They were also built of reinforced concrete and either straddled multiple railroad tracks or used chutes to load as many locomotives at once as was possible to achieve economies of scale.

Unfortunately, these newer coaling towers were so well built that many have proven too expensive for railroads to demolish and several can still be found dotting the landscape across the country, abandoned sentinels of a bygone era of railroading.

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Header Photo: Drew Jacksich



SteamLocomotive.com

Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!



Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!