Jerkwater reconsidered

Buckets of hogwash?

One of the things that make this column fun to write is the nearly instantaneous responses I get from readers. (The other things that make it fun are the cookies that come down the chute in my cage when I finish a column.) Anyway, when I first started writing this column back in the early 1990s, I’d get letters about what I’d written, real snail-mail letters with stamps and everything, weeks later — if at all. Thanks to the internet, however, I can now finish a column, send it by email, go downstairs to feed the dogs, and come back upstairs to find a nice email telling me I’ve just written something that is totally wrong. Actually, the vast majority of emails simply add helpful details to something I’ve written, and I urge readers to post those as comments when I put the column online.

Once in a while, however, a reader will send me information that completely changes my mind about something I’ve written, which brings us to today’s case. A couple of months ago, I wrote a column answering a reader’s query about the term “one-horse town,” meaning a small, backward burg. In the course of the column, I mentioned the equivalent 19th century epithet “jerkwater town,” and offered the following explanation: “Locomotives in the age of steam required regular replenishment with water, and in a small town lacking a water tower, the crew would have to form a bucket brigade and literally ‘jerk water’ from the nearest creek. By the late 1800s, ‘jerkwater’ had become an epithet applied to any thing or place considered ‘provincial, backward and insignificant’.” That is, in fact, the accepted origin of the term, echoed in dozens of dictionaries and etymological sources. The Oxford English Dictionary endorses this origin with two citations, from 1941 and 1945, that recount the “jerking water” explanation.

A week or so after I wrote that column, a reader named Robert J. Moyer sent me links to several sources that pointed out that the “bucket brigade” explanation really made no sense at all. Steam engines need two things: fuel (either wood or coal) to fire the boiler, and water, to fill the boiler and, as steam, to run the engine. A steam locomotive needs a lot of water, so many towns on its route would have water towers by the track, which made filling the tank on the tender simple. But we are talking hundreds of gallons of water, and the thought of railroad workers hauling it bucket-by-bucket from nearby streams is, quite frankly, a bit silly when you consider that train crews probably consisted of fewer than ten men, tops.

One of the links Mr. Moyer sent along was to a post about “jerkwater” on a blog called “Wordmall” (, run by Michael J. Sheehan, a retired college English teacher in Michigan, who rightly questioned the “bucket brigade” theory and provided some interesting links, as did his commenters. Long story short, it’s questionable whether railroaders themselves ever actually used the term “jerkwater town” for small, isolated towns; it was apparently more common to speak of “tank towns,” stops where the train stopped only to take on water from a water tower.

So if the “bucket brigade” story fails the practicality test and “jerkwater town” wasn’t authentic railroad lingo for a tiny town where the train stopped, where did it come from? This is where it gets truly interesting.

It turns out that steam locomotives did rely on “jerking water” to refill their tenders, but they did it without stopping at all. According to an article published in 1982 by the New York Central System Historical Society, several large rail systems that relied on steam locomotives outfitted them with remotely operated water scoops that could be lowered as the train passed through a station, scooping water from a shallow metal trough mounted between the track rails and passing it to the engine’s water tank. Such systems were apparently introduced around 1860, and, according to the article, there were still 19 such watering stations on the line between Harmon, NY, and Chicago in 1948. In the 19th century, this process was called “jerking water,” but by the early 20th it was known more felicitously as “scooping water,” and just before World War II it was possible for a train to travel at 60 miles per hour while “scooping” water.

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