Wood, Wood Wrapped, Veneered, Concrete, and Brick Tanks

Urban and Railroad Water Towers

The original water tower builders were barrel makers who expanded their craft to meet a modern need as buildings in the city grew taller in height. Even today, no sealant is used to hold the water in. The wooden walls of the water tower are held together with steel cables or straps, but leak through the gaps when first filled. As the water saturates the wood, it swells, the gaps close and become impermeable.  The rooftop water towers store 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water until it is needed in the building below. The upper portion of water is skimmed off the top for everyday use while the water in the bottom of the tower is held in reserve to fight fire. When the water drops below a certain level, a pressure switch, level switch or float valve will activate a pump or open a public water line to refill the water tower. Very high volumes and flow rates are needed when fighting fires. With a water tower present, pumps can be sized for average demand, not peak demand; the water tower can provide water pressure during the day and pumps will refill the water tower when demands are lower.


Today, there are thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of water towers located throughout the landscape of the world, like New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburg and beyond.  These iconic symbols of an era within the United States’ development are still being used daily today.  There are penthouses, apartment buildings, and even restaurants that are provided their daily water from the ground level and stored in these tanks. As a part of the Americana of our country, architects and builders have taken varied approaches to incorporating water towers into the design of their buildings. On many large commercial buildings, water towers are completely hidden behind an extension of the facade of the building. For cosmetic reasons, apartment buildings often enclose their tanks in rooftop structures, either simple unadorned rooftop boxes, or ornately decorated structures intended to enhance the visual appeal of the building. Many buildings, however, leave their water towers in plain view atop utilitarian framework structures Historically, railroads that used steam locomotives required a means of replenishing the locomotive’s tenders. Water towers were common along the railroad. The tenders were usually replenished by water cranes which were fed by a water tower.  We also have many railroad water towers that have been maintained over the years.  Many of these water towers have been relocated to areas where they have been preserved, while others, even not in use by the railways are still in place and can be photographed pretty easily.