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Philip Jackman is the author of Collected Wisdom. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)
Philip Jackman is the author of Collected Wisdom. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)


The cold facts on water for locomotives Add to ...

This week, Collected Wisdom has a marked transportation theme as we answer queries about trains and boats and planes. Well, okay, we lied about the boats.


Robert G. Wuetherick of Edmonton wonders how, in the past, water stored in towers for steam locomotives was kept from freezing in winter.


“In locations where water towers were prone to freezing, Canadian railways enclosed the water towers inside wood-framed octagonal structures,” writes Gordon D. Jomini of Fredericton. The structures were not insulated and heating was provided by “a largish coal-burning stove inside, under the water tank. To extract the last bit of heat from the coal fire, the flue (chimney) for the coal stove was run through the water tank.”

He says the octagonal enclosure and the water tank inside were entirely separate structures. “The bigger railways – Algoma Central, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Northern Alberta, Ontario Northland and Pacific Great Eastern – each had their own standard designs.”

He points out that these structures were called octagonal water towers even though the actual water tank inside was cylindrical. He also says he has never seen a picture of one of these octagonal towers in the United States, “so the structures might have been unique to Canadian railroading. Certainly, the enclosures were very, very large structures.”

David Page of Kingston adds that for water tanks with no coal-fired heating, other means of preventing freezing would have been available, depending on location and water supply. “These could have included steam from the workshop or station heating plant, water flow if the tower was in big demand, and possibly draining the tower in winter if not essential to railway operations.”


“I fly a lot for my work,” says Peter Lawton of Kingston, Ont. “I've always wondered why the chief pilot sits in the left-hand seat in the cockpit.”


“Because it would be too tiring to stand all the time on a long flight,” writes Dewi Williams of Kanata, Ont.

Yes, very droll, Mr. Williams.

Luckily, we received a sensible answer from Peter Varty of Rockwood, Ont., who is a retired Air Canada captain.

“The captain (the pilot in command) sits on the left, the first officer on the right,” he says. “This may have originated in the 1930s when two-pilot airliners became the norm.”

Originally, he writes, all flying was done by visual reference and an aircraft to the right of yours had the right of way. “It was assumed that the captain would be the one flying and navigating, so it was among the first officer's duties to watch for other aircraft, particularly those on the right (of which he had the better view).”


  • Jennifer McIntyre of Toronto wants to know how much food, calorie-wise, a person would have to eat to get all the nutrients, fibre etc. recommended for an average adult over the course of a day.
  • Why do so many double doors have one side locked? Peter Ladner of Vancouver wonders.
  • John Owen of Dartmouth says he recently saw a picture of the presidents of France, Germany and Italy having a chat. His question: What language were they probably speaking?
  • Stephen Allaby of Fredericton tells us that he likes to dry his clothes on an outside clothesline. He wants to know the lowest temperature at which clothes will dry outside on bright, sunny winter's day.

Let's hear from you: If you have the answer to one of these questions (or a question of your own) send an e-mail to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Please include your location and a daytime phone number.

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