By Ken Zurski
In the mid to late 19th century as railroad lines expanded and towns literally grew on land where the trains ran, depot buildings were built to accommodate riders on the various stops.
Today, pictures show the old depots with long stretched decks and indicator signs welcoming passengers to the train towns (in the photo below it’s “Ponca City (Oklahoma)” for example).
But look closely and you’ll see large barrels on the rooftops, maybe one maybe more. In some instances, if the depot is long and thin, a line of barrels covers the roof’s top, strategically positioned in between the buildings brick chimney’s.
Much debate has been made about these barrels, but there purpose was apparent: save the depot from burning to the ground.
Basically, it was a fire suppression method, an early and primitive sprinkler system, if you will.
Here’s how it worked:
The barrels were solid and thick, made of hardwood (usually oak, walnut, hickory or whatever was available) and bound by heavy iron or steel hoops. This sturdiness was to keep the liquid, in this instance water, from leaking out. In many remote locations, water was scarce and the air dry. So the threat of fire from a passing or stopped train was increased.
The trains pulling into the station were especially threatening to the depot. Cinder sparks from the wood and coal engines would land on the roof and ignite. If caught in time, someone from the station, usually a ticket agent or even a passenger would go to the roof and open the barrels. In most cases, a permanent ladder was placed atop the slanted roof and another along the narrow crest to make it easier, in theory, to reach the barrels before the building went up in flames. Water-filled barrels were also placed near chimneys since a stoked fire from a pot belly stove could easily create a spark which ignited the roof.
In 1869, a large roundhouse in Truckee, California caught fire and burnt to the ground. Nearly a dozen engines were parked inside. Luckily, a nearby mill worker spotted the blaze and alerted the night watchman. The building with its oil soaked boards went up quickly, but most of the engines were saved. The trains carried lumber freight along the Central Pacific line from Truckee to nearby Sacramento, so a large supply of timber was stacked inside and along the back wall. Since there was no proper supply of water nearby, saving the roundhouse, more like a tinderbox in this case, was hopeless. Thankfully, no one was killed.
When the Truckee roundhouse was rebuilt a new characteristic was added: the rooftop water barrels. After that, it was reported, several more fires flared up, but were quickly extinguished.
History cannot record all the near misses, but the Truckee roundhouse fire is a good example that the makeshift safety feature worked in principle at least. While the threat of a fire could not be eliminated, perhaps the resulting inferno could. Not a fully reassuring notion, for sure, but what other choice did they have?
If anything, the barrels on rooftops helped calm nerves each time a train whistle blew and sparks flew.