Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Every Eleven Miles

On New Year's Day, Terry Thornton of Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi wrote a post entitled "Walksheds in the Hill Country." It's a fascinating look at the past when, in the old days before we became a country of automobile owners, general stores and/or grist mills were situated about three miles apart, so that everyone could live within a comfortable walking distance to and from a place where they could do their business and trade. At once I was reminded of a conversation I had had with my father-in-law some time back where he was telling me how railroad stations, and particularly manned water towers, were located eleven miles apart. I couldn't remember the details, so I asked to talk to him after my husband called to wish his parents a Happy New Year. What I received what a great little history lesson about days gone by and an enjoyable conversation as well.

My father-in-law, Troy MIDKIFF, was the son of John Franklin MIDKIFF, Jr., who was a Northern Pacific Railroad station master in Mabton, Yakima Co., Washington. Troy's maternal grandfather, George Rice WESTABY, III, worked for years for the Great Northern Railroad in both Montana and in Washington State. My father-in-law himself worked for the NP railroad as a telegraph boy. His father would receive the telegraph messages as part of his duties as a station master, and Troy would deliver them. During World War II, the death notices for soldier's families would always have a black mark on the envelopes, and my father-in-law delivered his share of them. He knew enough to ask for payment before he handed over the envelope, knowing the shock would drive out all other thoughts from the recipient's mind. As you can imagine, often being the bearer of bad news, he was not always the most welcome visitor to people's homes, since for many of them, the only telegrams they ever received were unhappy ones.

From left to right, Norman (the elder) and Troy Midkiff,
with their father, John F. Midkiff, Jr.
at the Northern Pacific Railroad station in
Mabton, Washington, c. 1942.

Troy told me that steam engines needed good clean water for their steam; otherwise, the minerals and impurities in the water would corrode the interior of the engine. Despite what you might see in old western movies, they couldn't just stop and draw water out of a river or creek unless the steam engine was fitted with a specialized filtering system, which was very unusual. A steam engine could go about eleven miles on level land before it would run out of water to produce steam. So railroad stations or manned water towers would be situated about every eleven miles along a railroad route, and even closer on steep grades.

Troy told me how there were stations at Toppenish and Mabton (where he and his parents and siblings lived just 100 yards off of the Yakima Indian Reservation), located 22 miles apart, with a manned water tower at Satus halfway in between. There was another station at Prosser, 11 miles east of Mabton, and then a station at Whitstran, another 11 miles east and somewhat north of Prosser. You can look at online maps of Washington State for Highway 22 and the Old Inland Empire Highway, which follow the Yakima River, to find these locations.

Along the Columbia River, on both the Washington and Oregon sides, as one traveled east from Vancouver or Portland, the situation was the same: railroad stations or manned water towers every eleven miles. However, as one approached the Columbia River Gorge, where the railroad tracks had to climb along the steep sides of the river, the stations were situated closer together, since the steam engines used more steam to power their climbs up the steep grades. For example, somewhere west of Biggs Junction, Oregon on the Columbia River, there was a station, possibly near Celilo, where the railroad traveled southeast along the steep rocky hills along the DeChutes River. From that station to Wasco, the line was less than eleven miles long. Looking at current online maps, it appears that the railroad no longer comes this way, but was probably along what is now either Highway 206 or Interstate 97.

I found this bit of history simply fascinating, and it made me stop and think about how travel was for my ancestors who rode trains cross country, either to migrate to a new location or to travel to visit relatives. Those trips sure must have been long when you had to make a stop every eleven miles! It has also made me more interested in researching the background of my husband's and my own ancestors who worked for various railroads around the country. Searching for "northern pacific railroad" maps on Google gave me some fascinating results as well. Thank you, Terry, for the great reminder!


Terry Thornton said...

Miriam, What a wonderful article and great history lesson! You shall have to coin a new term "steam-engine-shed" to mean a distance described by Mr. Midkiff. I took for granted that the large steam engines could carry enough water to go for miles and miles --- I had no idea that the range was so limited. I shall be on the lookout for evidence of "steam-engine-sheds" about every ten or eleven miles along the historical rr tracks I can plot here in Mississippi. THANKS!

Terry Thornton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miriam Robbins said...

Isn't it fun to learn something new, Terry? I enjoyed learning about the walksheds immensely. These things do put our ancestors' lives into a new light, don't they?

Unknown said...

I have found water tower bases around spokane but had no idea that they were set every 11 miles I figured 100 but looks like I was really wrong.
Good article Miriam
David Rummel

Unknown said...

Great article! I currently live in Mabton and love learning about the history of my little town

Miriam Robbins said...

Thank you! I'm sorry I didn't see your comment to publish it until now. Blogger no longer emails us when someone has posted a comment.

Mabton is a great little town!