Coaling & Fueling Facilities

Trains are pulled by locomotives and locomotives require fuel. With the exception of truly electric locomotives (which were rarely used in Michigan except in the international tunnels and in mines), locomotive carry their own fuel as they pulled passenger and freight trains throughout the region.  

The first common fuel for steam locomotives from 1837 through the 1860's was wood.  Wood was sold by farmers clearing their land to the railroads.  Some of this was hauled to cities like Detroit where trains originated and terminated.  But much was sold to the railroad along the right-a-way.  As an example, a Michigan Central engineer might stop his train between Dexter and Chelsea to add burnable logs to the tender from a local farmer.

After the Civil War, railroads began to burn coal.  In Michigan, local coal was mined in several areas including Saginaw and Jackson.  The coal from southern Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia was superior to coal found locally and this was mined and transported to Michigan.  This coal was stocked in piles and coal chutes in towns where trains originated or where yard engines switched rail yards and industrial spurs.  But the larger railroads such as the Michigan Central, Pere Marquette and the Grand Trunk had on-line coaling towers which straddles the main tracks so that the locomotives of through trains could simply pull under, load a new tender of coal, and proceed with minimal delay.

Coaling facilities ranged from simple, manual operations where firemen shoveled coal from a pile into their tenders, to clam-shovel buckets which took coal from a pile and lifted it up into the tender.  More sophisticated coaling towers varied from wood-bult (like at Wenona-Bay City on the Michigan Central) to extremely large multi-track motorized-lift concrete 100' tall towers (like at Michigan Central's Livernois Yard).

Coal served no purpose unless it was used to heat water into steam to power the locomotive and the train.  So, many coaling facilities also had nearby water filling facilities as well.  This ranged from trackside water towers (like the current example in Greenfield Village) to large, standpipes which were connected to reservoirs or even city water works.  These are covered in the Water Stations section of RRHX - Railroad History.

In the early 1930's, the arrival of diesel-electric locomotives changed everything.  First used in yard operation and then system-wide, diesel locomotives required diesel fuel which was stored in track-side storage tanks and pumped into the locomotive at nearby fueling facilities, often called "fuel pads".  Fuel trucks were also a common method in which diesel fuel could be brought by a  fuel contractor to almost any location to top off the diesel locomotive.

Today, railroads still consume large amounts of fuel in locomotives and environmental issues are a big factor.  Fueling "pads" require fire protection systems as well as methods to capture any leaking fuel so that it doesn't enter the ground water.  Examples of main line diesel fueling pads in the area today are the CN facilities in Battle Creek and the NS facility at Elkhart, Indiana.

To give readers a flavor of how locomotives have been fueled over the years, click on a link at the left so learn more about coaling and fuel facilities in Michigan and nearby areas.  About a dozen large concrete coaling towers still exist but are abandoned in Michigan.


The following sources are utilized in this website. [SOURCE-YEAR-MMDD-PG]:

  • [AAB| = All Aboard!, by Willis Dunbar, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids ©1969.
  • [AAN] = Alpena Argus newspaper.
  • [AARQJ] = American Association of Railroads Quiz Jr. pamphlet. © 1956
  • [AATHA] = Ann Arbor Railroad Technical and Historical Association newsletter "The Double A"
  • [AB] = Information provided at Michigan History Conference from Andrew Bailey, Port Huron, MI

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