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Some Water on the Cheap

How a C&O caboose helped the Clinchfield solve a problem
Water was a problem for both the Clinchfield Railroad and for local residents at Elkhorn City, Ky. The town is in far eastern Kentucky, at the north end of the Clinchfield where it met the south end of Chesapeake & Ohio's Big Sandy Division, forming a through route for merchandise as well as the region's coal. Drawn directly from the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River, the product the public water system delivered was, in appearance, not unlike weak coffee. The treatment system consisted of intermittent chlorine in a large wooden tank on the slope above the community. Signs at various taps cautioned users not to drink it.

This same raw water was used by the railroad, and over a period of years the liquid ate through the Clinchfield's steel 60,000-gallon Elkhorn City water tank, a structure once described as having he appearance of a porcupine owing to numerous wooden pegs driven into various holes in a vain attempt to stem the leaks.

The remoteness of Elkhorn City and the resourcefulness of the railroad community unofficially combined to partially alleviate the potable water problem. As the need arose during these early bad-water times, before CTC signaling had been installed and before the days of close supervision by railroad officials, the Elkhorn City station agent would determine if any railroad officials were in the area. If the coast was clear, various water vessels, ranging from bottles, buckets, and drums to the yard office water-cooler tank would be loaded aboard a C&O caboose laying over between the arrival of southbound time freight 92 and the departure of its counterpart, 95.

Unbeknownst to officials in either faraway Erwin, Tenn. (Clinchfield's HQ), or equally distant Huntington, W.Va. (the nearest big C&O offices), the C&O caboose got some extra offline miles … tacked onto the rear of Clinchfield coal train 16 departing Elkhorn City early in the morning. A few miles up the hill out of Elkhorn City, just over the Kentucky-Virginia state line, a spring delivered fresh, clear potable water almost to trackside at Towers passing track. There the Clinchfield conductor and caboose occupants would collaborate to pull the coupler pin with the aid of a little slack action from a knowing engineer, allowing the C&O caboose to come to rest at the spring.

After the containers were filled and reloaded, the car's brake would be released, and gravity would then deliver the caboose and its cargo through three tunnels and across Pool Point Bridge right into the Elkhorn City caboose track, handy to all consumers, who easily carted their portion of the goods to nearby points. A good flagging job at the Elkhorn yard office cleared the way for the rolling reservoir.

It is unclear whether better public water standards, management knowledge, or electronic surveillance via CTC brought this practice to an end. It is known that an investment of $8134.67 in a new wooden water tank did the job for locomotive water in 1947.


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Three stories written and photographed by Jim Shaughnessy.


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