The Day the Water Tower Burned

Posted by on Apr 20, 2005 in Dad | 0 comments

If anyone has not heard of Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass music, then you have obviously not spent much time in rural USA. You don’t have to know anything about Bill and his brother Charlie to understand the story of the water tower, but it does provide some prospective. They are both dead now; buried on the sloping graveyard in Rosine that is also the final resting place for my Aunt Delora, Uncle Leslie and their stillborn son, Phillip. If you are a Bluegrass fan and have a morbid desire to see where Bill and Charlie’s bones are resting, you only need travel to my hometown, Beaver Dam and turn right onto old highway 62. Take the pleasant drive of about 10 miles through a slightly rolling landscape inhabited primarily by farmers and cows. You will pass through Horton, but if you reach Horse Branch, you’ve gone too far. If you arrive on a warm Friday night you can go over to the Rosine Barn Jamboree to listen to a free concert given by local Monroe wanabees. They play in or outside the barn next door to the Rosine General Store, depending on the weather. I hope you get there before the lawsuits are settled and they build a multimillion-dollar amphitheater and memorial. The cemetery is on your left and usually staffed by some young barefoot entrepreneurs who will be happy to sell you Monroe memorabilia at a very reasonable price. Bill and Charlie would probably have smiled at their resourcefulness and asked for a percentage of the profits.

The railroad that was the reason for the existence of Rosine, Horton, Horse Branch and my hometown, Beaver Dam was built between1852 and 1896. By the time Bill was born in 1911 and my father in 1914, the Paducah and Louisville line was a thriving operation, carrying the coal and other mineral of the area to distant places and bringing romance and excitement to children of all ages. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show came through in 1901 and 6 million dollars worth of gold was brought to Ft Knox in 1936. Once a year, circus cars were added to the passenger and freight cars. The big circuses did not stop in small towns, but sometimes the animals came out to get water and exercise, eliciting the same excitement as a space ship landing in the yard would today.

My father loves circuses and would always travel anywhere to see one. I don’t understand the appeal. I once thought it was because of the exotic animals, but he might have been checking out all those girls in tights and feathers. He thrived on risk taking, so he may have been considering a job as the man on the flying trapeze. He indulged his need for danger by being the chief of the local volunteer fire department, giving Mother another reason to ring her hands. Once he crawled into a smoke filled, burning building to see if anyone was inside, secured with a rope around his waist so his unconscious body could be retrieved. Well. unless the rope caught on fire but what were the odds on that happening?

Before cell phones and pagers, the firemen were alerted by the alarm at the fire station, which also rang at noon each day, except Sunday, loud enough to be heard throughout the town. Dad owned his business, so he could drop everything and be the first man at the station. That’s why he happened to be driving the fire engine the day the water tower burned down at Rosine. I’ve questioned him, and he no longer remembers the year, but all other details are fresh in his mind. The last steam engine was retired in 1962 and I only barely remember the event, so I’m guessing the Rosine fire was in the early 1950’s. The water tower was built before the remembrance of all but those too feeble to be in attendance on that exciting day. It was made of timber harvested locally, probably hickory, and covered in and outside with pitch, making it watertight. The structure was very near the tracks in order for the engine to be filled at each stop, the water providing steam for the pistons. On that fateful day, as the smoking engine arrived in town spewing cinders and sparks from its stack, a wayward ember landed on the top of the wooden water tower. Before the eyes of the passengers and crew of the train, the tower burst into flames. The cry went out to Beaver Dam, but before the truck could travel the 10 miles to Rosine, the tower was an inferno. It was certainly a sight to behold, the steam engine sputtering on the track, the passengers and townspeople agape, the firemen spraying water, and the tower collapsing, dumping its contents over the scene.

When Dad tells the story he begins with, “Did you know that Rosine was the only city in the USA where they burned down the water tower?’ By the time he finishes it seems a bit like a Doctor Suese story. You begin to imagine the circus elephants and performers also lined up to watch, and perhaps an old time Bluegrass band playing on the side. For good measure, he always mentioned the local baseball team, the Rosine Redlegs, but never actually placed them at the event. The glory days of the railroad are gone now, as are my fathers. Still, when he tells the tales of his prime, he is that man again, showing me extraordinary things that I would have missed if he hadn’t been my Dad.

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