Monday, May 19, 2008

Jerkwater Town

A listener asked about the term jerkwater town, as in “We were stranded in some jerkwater town with nothing to do and nowhere to go.” It means insignificant, small, inferior.

The traditional explanation:

The term goes back to railroading. Steam engines were nothing more than boilers on wheels, where water was heated to the boiling point in order to get steam power. In larger towns, water towers were available for the trains to use. In jerkwater towns, they were not.

A jerkwater train was a branch-line train. It received its name from the fact that these trains were smaller than the main-line trains, so water had to be replenished far more often. The crews would have to stop at a river or stream and “jerk” water (draw it) from the source and carry it in buckets to the train.

From the 1941 Sun (Baltimore) 7 Mar. 12/7: “In the early days of railroads the small boilers of the locomotives required frequent refilling, and water tanks were very few. Every train crew carried a leather bucket on a long rope with which they ‘jerked water’ from the streams along their track. As locomotives increased in size the small ‘jerk-water’ engines were relegated to branch-line service. Today no train crew carries a bucket, but the name ‘jerk water’ still sticks and has become part of our national heritage of American slang.”


I relied on the Oxford English Dictionary for the Baltimore Sun quote; I have never seen the original article itself. The OED also cited this: 1945, J. L. MARSHALL , Santa Fe, Railroad that built an Empire, 68. "The Santa Fe was the Jerkwater Line because train crews, when the water got low, often had to stop by a creek, form a bucket brigade and jerk water from the stream to fill the tender tank."

J. P. Maher of Northeastern Illinois University writes to cast doubt on the story:

"Jerkwater" choo-choos are the Piltdown hoax of etymology. I'd ask you not to dump it, but dump on it. . . .Over the years I've been digging into railroad history, American and European . . . .Tank town was real railroaders’ talk. Jerkwater was not. Ed Yost, the last steam engine man in Chicago, told me in 2004 that in fifty years of railroading he had never heard the term jerkwater town. Another witness was my brother Joe. During World War II, telegraphers were sorely needed in the US Army Signal Corps. At the age of fifteen, Joe became a telegrapher on the Erie RR, in 1942-45, since men of draft age were called up “for the duration”. When I brought up the term jerkwater to him, Joe, who was an M.A. in English literature, corrected me “you mean a tank town”. He said he didn’t know the term “jerkwater”. Although many writer took up the term, but railroaders didn't. Same for "iron horse".

OED’s first edition (1933) doesn’t include jerkwater; it is first cited in the second fascicle of the OED Supplement, with a reference to an alleged 7 March 1941 article in The Baltimore Sun. OED informed me that their archives don’t possess the purported article. My repeated requests of the Library of Congress to obtain a copy were futile. Periodicals Librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library Baltimore, Douglas Adolphsen, wrote me: “I have searched the Baltimore Index… compiled by Enoch Pratt Library librarians at the time, and was not able to find your requested article.” The Baltimore Sun’s archivist informed me the edition they have in their morgue contains no article containing the word, but that such might have been printed in an edition that was not archived.

I'd like to know who planted the Baltimore Sun story in the dictionary files. A pity that dictionary articles are not signed (as they are in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.) A disgruntled employee? H. L. Mencken?"


Glenn Knickerbocker

I stumbled on your post from last year about your investigation of
"jerkwater" and thought I'd pass on these citations thanks to Google
The Elements of Railroading, Charles Paine, 1885
" . . . Ramsbottom troughs, or 'jerk-water' system for filling the
tenders while the train is in motion . . . "

So a jerkwater town wasn't where the train was stuck waiting for the
crew to jerk water in buckets, it was where the train *didn't* stop
because it could jerk water up in its scoop while moving. Troughs or
track pans were introduced in 1860. In 1869, Albert S. Evans described
"'jerkwater' stages" in an article in the Overland Monthly:

I'd guess that's just enough later for it to be a figurative extension
of the railroad use.


ADDENDUM, October 2010

J.P. Maher passed on more information.

Track Pans on the New York Central

by Ernie Johnson

Back in the days when the predominant motive power on the railroads was the steam locomotive, several railroads, including the New York Central and the Pennsylvania, installed track pans at various locations to permit a locomotive to refill its tender without stopping.

In the final design of these pans on the New York Central, each pan, placed between the rails at the center line, was 24 inches inside width and contained water 7 inches deep. The length of the pans varied from 1400 feet at Schenectady, East Palmyra, and Wende, to 2500 feet in freight tracks 3 and 4 at Rome. The top of the pan was 1 inch below the running surface of the rail. The pan was formed of sheet metal and a 1-1/2 inch angle was applied to the top of the pan on each side, facing inward. A ramp was built into each end of the track pan, together with a safety rail extension beyond each end, as a protection against premature or late operation of the water scoop. Track pans were steam heated in the winter to prevent freezing.

Most locomotive tenders used in main line road service were fitted with a remotely operated water scoop. In later years the scoop was operated by an air cylinder which in turn was actuated by a magnet valve to provide prompt lowering and raising of the scoop. The scoop was adjusted to dip 5 inches (5-1/2" maximum) into the water. As the locomotive approached the track pan, the engineman would signal the fireman as they passed a lunar white signal at the beginning of the pan, and the fireman would lower the scoop by operating a valve or pushing a button on the front wall of the tender. Another signal from the engineman as they passed a blue or purple signal at the other end of the pan, and the fireman would raise the scoop.

In modern days this operation was called "scooping water". Back in the last century, when the technique was new, it was called "jerking water." Hence the name "jerkwater town," which probably implied, among other things, that the train didn't stop there.

On the New York Central main line in 1948, there were 19 pan locations between Harmon and Chicago. Placement of them was largely determined by the locomotive design and the tender capacity. A note regarding the design of the tenders is appropriate. As the design of the steam locomotive became more sophisticated, the requirements for water supplies and other facilities changed. The number of track pans, for example, could be reduced, and their length increased. Scooping speed increased gradually from 30 miles per hour at the turn of the century to 60 mph before World War II. Scooping speed was limited by the ability of the tender to retain the water that was scooped without overflowing and spraying any train that was on an adjacent track. Later designs added vents and an expansion tank, and redirected the water as it entered the water space of the tender. This allowed an increase of the maximum scooping speed to 85 mph.

The material for this article was taken from The Central Headlight, Second Quarter, 1982, a publication of the New York Central System Historical Society, Copyrighted © 1982 New York Central System Historical Society.


Ypsilanti as a Jerkwater Town
by Laura Bien


From:">"Greg Marquiss"
Subject:Jerkwater Town
Date:November 13, 2010 5:29:41 PM GMT-05:00

I looked at your definition of a "jerkwater town" and find it close what I have always understood, but not quite there. To start with, I am old enough that I remember being able to watch the Chicago & Northwestern trains bringing spectators into the Arlington Park race track when I was young. The Chicago & Northwestern, if I remember correctly, was one of the last major railroads to complete conversion from steam to diesel-electric power.

Anyway, idea of "jerking" water from streams with buckets is pretty far-fetched. A freight train crew of a conductor, one or two brakemen, a fireman, and an engineer, even with five gallon buckets (at eight pounds to the gallon water weight) would make filling a locomotive tender's water tank by bucket brigade impractical at best. Water towers along the right of way were an early fixture on railroads.

"Crown sheet failure" was the danger of running out of water. The water being boiled kept the temperature inside the boiler to manageable levels. When a locomotive ran out of water (and the crew or maintenance workers didn't know it was dry), when they put in a supply of water, that would reach the superheated surfaces in the boiler, and large quantities would vaporize almost instantly, filling the chamber with large quantities of high temperature, high pressure steam, turning it into a bomb. Photos of damage from exploding boilers show tremendous damage. Be that the case, railroads would not rely on buckets for filling the water tanks for any other reason than to prevent a boiler explosion. I hope that lays to rest the idea that it was ever common practice, even on branch lines to rely on pulling unfiltered water out of a river to refill the locomotive water tank.

My memory tells me that the standard was to have water tanks every 20 miles on the right of way. The water towers were commonly built beside the track, with a movable spout, having a 90 degree bend at the end. The locomotive would pull up beside the tower so the fill hatch was aligned with the tower spout. The fireman would climb up on the tender and walk out to the fill hatch ensure the spout and tank opening were aligned. He would pull the rope attached to the tank spout, bringing it down to the tank fill hatch. The mechanics of the tank fill spout had internal valves, and moving the spout into position opened the valve and started the water running. "Jerking water" referred to pulling the spout on the water tower into position to fill the locomotive's water tank, not to pulling water from a stream in buckets. Imaging the danger in crossing Kansas during a drought and finding the locomotive's water tank close to empty and the creek dry!

Now, on to the jerkwater town. Main line or branch line, it wouldn't matter, not every town on a branch line was small and insignificant, and not every town on a main line was big and important. The main lines went through many small towns. The concept of a "jerkwater town" was the train wouldn't stop there if it didn't have to jerk water (take on water).

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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