Ypsilanti Citizen Opinions Sidetrack

Thank you Ypsilanti
By Dan DuChene & Christine Laughren
Jun. 23, 2010   ·   5:07 p.m.

Christine Laughren and Dan DuChene, co-owners of the Ypsilanti Citizen, pose in front of their company's banner at Frenchie's during the Citizen's one-year anniversary party.

The Ypsilanti Citizen was launched in November 2008 to inform the Ypsilanti community about the news and events that were happening in their area.

Since our launch,...read more

Crossroads Summer Festival; rockin’ ladies night
By Dave Heikkinen and Frank Wright
Jun. 23, 2010   ·   4:37 p.m.

Barbara Payton and the Big Boss Trio rock Washington Street.

A special Ladies Night was held Friday at the 2010 Ypsilanti Crossroads Summer Festival in conjunction with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

Just...read more

Crossroads to hold Ladies Night for Relay for Life
By Dave Heikkinen and Frank Wright
Jun. 16, 2010   ·   9:13 a.m.

On June 11, the 2010 Ypsilanti Crossroads Summer Festival featured a rousing opening set from roots and blue grass band Dragon Wagon.

Dragon Wagon was joined on...read more

Electric rail pollution leads to dirty laundry
By Laura Bien
Jun. 15, 2010   ·   11:42 a.m.

From the approximate vantage point of the present-day Materials Unlimited, the interurban car barn and powerhouse on Michigan Avenue loomed large.

Maggie Smith was not looking forward to a forenoon of sewing pleats.

She put down her newest customer’s summer dress. Downstairs, she offered to get potatoes...read more

EMU students in wartime
By Laura Bien
Jun. 1, 2010   ·   10:32 a.m.

The 1942 Aurora yearbook, the 50th
anniversary edition, included images that contrasted modern and
old-time students.

Leroy Grindle was an Ypsilantian soldier who lost his life in WWII. He was a member of the Michigan Normal (EMU) class of ’41, and is memorialized with a black...read more

Ypsilanti's 'jerkwater' history

The track pans (yellow bar) were built on the railroad line just north of present-day Willow Run Airport. Photo by Ypsilanti Archives, altered by author

The track pans (yellow bar) were built on the railroad line just north of present-day Willow Run Airport.
Ypsilanti Farmers Market

To the Archives

By Laura Bien
Jan. 12, 2010    ·    10:48 a.m.


Imagine yourself describing the many wonders of Ypsilanti to an out-of-towner on an adjacent barstool. The conversation seems to be going well. But what if, his mind muddled by jealousy and perhaps a dram too much of the delicious yet potent Olde Number 22, your companion blurts out, “Ahh, Ypsilanti is just a little jerkwater town.”

Seize that opportunity! With typical Ypsilanti etiquette, smile sweetly and say, “You are correct! And I commend you on your laudable command of arcane railroad lingo!” As you edge away, savor his look of total confusion. Of course, an Ypsilantian would be too polite to add, surprised, “But that’s odd--I didn’t get the impression you were that intelligent.”

Ypsilanti became a jerkwater town in 1906, when the Michigan Central built track pans just east of town. “Jerkwater” is a railroad term originating with steam locomotives. To understand it, we have to see how a steam train works.

Most American steam engines hauled an enormous tender, or supply-box, which contained an inner reservoir of coal (in remote or wooded areas, wood) surrounded by a U-shaped water compartment. The water and fuel fed the steam boiler powering the train.

The engines used huge volumes of water. However, stopping for water delayed the schedule. One solution, according to Cassidy and Hall’s Dictionary of American Regional English, was to “jerk water” from trackside streams with leather buckets on ropes. This jerry-rigged system would only work on trains with smaller, less thirsty boilers, and “jerk water” became associated with smaller, less significant, or “backwoodsy” local train lines. It also came to signify insignificant towns where the train didn’t bother to stop, but only collected water, either with buckets or from an improved system called a track pan.

The track pans just east of Ypsilanti consisted of two long shallow metal troughs. One was built between the rails of the eastbound route, and the other between the westbound rails. Each pan extended for over a quarter of a mile. They were likely filled with water from a pond on the nearby Wiard’s farm, where Henry Ford later built his bomber plant and where Willow Run Airport now stands.

A train chugging out of Ypsilanti could lower a scoop from the underside of the tender, and gather water from the track pan without slowing down. At high speed, the water was forced into the tender, replenishing the supply. Sometimes the water also sprayed into the windows of the first passenger car--conductors warned passengers to close their windows when approaching the track pan.

“The new water chute of the Michigan Central whereby engines may take water while running at the rate of thirty-five miles an hour has just been completed and water was taken by the engines for the first time yesterday,” said the February 27, 1906 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“The chute, which is a long trough, is located on the track about a mile east of the city, back of the Wright and Harris farms,” the paper continued. “The water is pumped into the chutes, which are 1,600 feet long and are located in the center of each of the east and west bound tracks, from the Wiard pond about one half-mile farther east . . .”

Each trough was about one quarter mile long, but the newspaper says that the pans extended for half a mile. This suggests that the pans were staggered in their respective tracks. The route was busy, and if two trains simultaneously passed each other while spraying water, it could have been quite a mess.

The paper continued, “[The water] is kept from freezing by hot water pipes running beneath them.” The water in the pipes was heated at an engine house near the track pan manned by two engineers, who also operated a pumper that refilled either track pan after a train had passed.

The paper said, “The building of those chutes has cost the Michigan Central about $10,000 [$236,670 today], about $5,000 of which has come to this city in the form of wages for the laborers. For three months past a gang varying at times from twenty to thirty-five men have been at work, the track has been raised and filled with ballast for nearly a mile, water pipes have been laid, an engine house built and an engine installed, until now everything is complete.”

Track pans kept steam trains profitable by keeping them reliably fast. The railroad company’s investment paid for itself. As early diesel trains appeared in the 1950s, some also used the track pans, but only to replenish a hot-water heating system that warmed passenger cars. Eventually, the cheaper and easier-to-maintain diesels eclipsed steam trains, and as technology advanced, track pans slowly became obsolete.

But the idea still exists, in such firefighting “airtanker” airplanes as the Canadair CL215 and the CL415, both of which can scoop water from lakes or rivers. Just as with the steam boiler trains, the planes’ ability to gather water in transit saves valuable time. The old vehicles fire up to travel; the new ones travel up to fire.

It’s clear that Ypsilanti was a “jerkwater” town only in a technical, and not a pejorative, sense. You can still use the term another way, however—the way northern Michigan loggers used it, according to the Dictionary of Regional English’s description of logger slang. “Cooks are still ‘stomick robbers,’ their helpers are ‘cookees,’ coffee is ‘jerkwater,’ prunes, ‘log berries,’ biscuits, ‘cat-heads,’ and milk is ‘cow.’” Next time you pour some cow in your jerkwater, you might like to raise a little toast to the train men who helped build Ypsilanti. 

Laura Bien is the author of "Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives," to be published this winter. She also writes the historical blog "Dusty Diary" and may be contacted at ypsidixit@gmail.com.



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