Southern Pacific Water Tower: Elmira

I planned to sketched the water tower at Black Butte, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta in Northern California.

I wanted to sketch this Southern Pacific water tower because of it’s historical significance and also because this is one of the few water towers still in operation as Union Pacific (it’s current owner) keeps this active to water any of UP’s heritage steam engines and other steam excursions that might pass this way. (SP 4449 topped up her tank here in the summer of 1991). The tower was built in 1926.

But not all plans come to fruition. I headed up to Weed to sketch the water tower only to find that the road leading to it was gated and all the signs around the area read “No Trespassing, Do Not Enter”. This area was still very much an active Class I railroad and I’m sure UP didn’t appreciated railroad gawkers and sketchers near their tracks.

So in order not to become a headline in the local paper, I chose to turn back towards Dunsmuir.

Steam engines cannot function without water. If water runs too low in the boiler it can result in a deadly boiler explosion. Therefore railroads built water tanks or towers near railroads, spaced out so there would be water along the line, when the locomotive became “thirsty”.

But I still wanted to sketch a more accessible Southern Pacific water tower so I did some research. I found that in the State of California, there are 16 Southern Pacific water towers still in existence. While I was not able to access one of those, there were still 15 left to find.

I hade seen the 65,000 gallon restored water tower across from the passenger station in San Luis Obispo. It was built in 1940 and was retired in 1956. I did have it on my sketch list but I didn’t get to it. One down, fifteen to go.

The restored Southern Pacific water tower in San Luis Obispo. This tower was slated to be torn down but local interests intervened and saved it from destruction.

I set my sights on the Southern Pacific water tower in the small Solano County town of Elmira (population 188).

Elmira was a major railroad stop in the early part of the 20th century as it was on the Cal-P line between Vallejo and Sacramento. At Elmira, there was a spur that went to Vacaville, Winters, and Rumsey as part of the Vaca Valley and Clear Lake Railroad. It is easy to understand why a water tower was built here because of the rail traffic and the spur.

Then U.S. Route 40 (now Interstate 80) was created as one the the first Interstate Highways in 1926. It was the first major east-west route, starting in Atlantic City, New Jersey and terminating in San Francisco. The route passed west of Elmira, through the town of Vacaville. Since that time the town of Elmira never recovered. As the population and development in Vacaville grew, the town of Elmira became a rural backwater with a shrinking population.

The same growth in the Nation’s Interstate Highway system also was the death knell for many railroads across the country with trucks and cars replacing freight and passenger service.

The last freight train to run on the spur to Vacaville was in 1985. After that the rails between Vacaville and Elmira were abandoned and then later removed.

The abandoned but still standing Southern Pacific water tower at Elmira. The tower is not fenced in and there are no historic signs about the tank. It looks to be similar to the 65,000 gallon tower in San Luis Obispo and I imagine that it was built in the 1930s or 40s and used up until the mid 1950s.

The passenger station is now gone but active double tracks still pass the abandoned and rusted water tower at Elmira. The Capital Corridor passenger service runs 16 trains every weekday. The 168 mile service runs from San Jose to the state capital in Sacramento. A few trains head further north to Auburn.

Looking north towards Davis and Sacramento. Two sets of polished tracks pass through Elmira. These rails get lots of use with 16 passenger trains on a normal weekday.
Westbound train number 729 passes by Elmira’s water tower at 9:28 AM on a Saturday morning at a rapid clip. There is no longer a passenger station in Elmira. The closest station is to the south at the Fairfield-Vacaville Station. On point is an EMD F59PHI with “California styling”.

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