A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from April 22, 2018
Tank town (small town)

Performing professionals in a big city like New York often also gave performances at “tank towns.” A “tank town” (or “water tank town") was a town that had, as its main feature, the water tank that served steam locomotives in the 1800s and early 1900s. In many cases, the water tank was built before the town.

“Tank town” was a way of saying “small town” or “hick town.” “Water-tank town” was printed in an 1884 newspaper. The Sunday Herald (Chicago, IL) explained on October 11, 1891:

“I HAVE just returned from a tour of the ‘tank’ towns. A ‘tank’ town is a railroad way station originally established for watering purposes only and forming the nucleus for a composite grocery, bar-room and post-office, a church, a drug store and a town hall.”

The “tank town” term, like the steam locomotives, became mostly historical by the early 1900s.


(Oxford English Dictionary)
tank town n. U.S. a small, unimportant town, orig. one at which trains stopped to take on water.
1906 J. F. Kelly Man with Grip 11 Tank towns are big ones, compared to our route.
1940 R. Chandler Farewell, my Lovely v. 38 You would find them in tanktown vaudeville acts.

25 November 1884, Las Vegas (NM) Gazette, “Personal Pencilings,” pg. 4, col. 1:
Will Connors and wife will spend a week visiting the water-tank town of Deming.

1 April 1889, Los Angeles (CA) Daily Herald, “The Southern Circuit,” pg. 3, col. 1:
All sorts of stories are current about the water-tank town manager, one being to the effect that he is one his way to Europe in connection with an affair of the heart.

11 October 1891, The Sunday Herald (Chicago, IL), “Out with a Snap Show,” pg. 25, col. 1:
I HAVE just returned from a tour of the “tank” towns. A “tank” town is a railroad way station originally established for watering purposes only and forming the nucleus for a composite grocery, bar-room and post-office, a church, a drug store and a town hall.

I was one of several tourists with a dramatic “snap.” In the theatrical vocabulary a “snap” is a dramatic organization that goes out on its “uppers” and comes back on its trunks. “Snaps” play “tank” towns. This “snap” was no exception to the rule.

12 May 1894, The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA), “Our Picayune,” pg. 4, col. 1:
But when they come home the neighbors will see the name of a little near-by water-tank town written in chalk on the steamer trunk.

Chronicling America
14 December 1902, New-York (NY) Daily Tribune, “Theatrical Incidents and News Notes,” pg. 3, col. 2:
The train finally pulled up at a tank town and O’Neill, calling his troop about him like a matron of an orphan asylum, led them up the platform to the station.

Google Books
Conversations of a Chorus Girl
By Roy Larcom McCardell
New York, NY: Street & Smith
1903
Pg. 26:
“Finally we struck one of them water-tank towns that don’t seem to belong to the United States. You know them burgs! You are looking out of the car window at night and see two lights, and the engine goes ‘Wheep, whe-e-e-eep!’ but doesn’t stop. Well, it’s one of them.”

Chronicling America
9 July 1911, The Call (San Francisco, CA), “Vaudeville’s Vernacular,” pg. 27, col. 2:
TANK TOWN—Small town.

OCLC WorldCat record
Playing the tank towns and other sketches
Author: M T Space; Thomas Bird Mosher; Mosher Press (1912-1923)
Publisher: Portland, Me. : Mosher Press, 1916.
Edition/Format: Book Microform : Fiction : Microfilm : Master microform : English

OCLC WorldCat record
Tank town tunes
Author: Mal Rose
Publisher: Oskaloosa, Iowa : Times Pub. Co., Publishers for Mal Rose, [1920?]
Edition/Format: Print book : English

OCLC WorldCat record
Jelly Roll Morton and his Orchestra, Red Hot Peppers, Trio, with Wilton Crawley and Lizzie Miles (1929)
Author: Jelly Roll Morton; Lizzie Miles; Wilton Crawley; Henry “Red” Allen; Barney Bigard; et al; All authors
Publisher: RCA
Series: Black & white series, vol. 72
Edition/Format: Music LP
Contents: Indhold: New Orleans bump ; New Orleans bump ; Down my way ; Try me out ; Tank town bump

OCLC WorldCat record
Views of Towanda: The Material Culture of an Early Illinois Tank Town
Author: Greg Koos
Edition/Format: Article Article : English
Publication: Material Culture, v31 n3 (19991001): 1-20

Google Books
Vaudeville Old & New:
An Encyclopedia of Variety Performances in America

By Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly
Psychology Press
2007
Pg. 1090:
TANK TOWNS
Derisive term for hick towns that were so small that the biggest and most important feature in town was the water tank that fed railroad locomotives. Indeed, the water tanks were often built before the towns. Locomotives needed a regular supply of water to create the steam that propelled the train, so tanks were stationed at regular intervals along the tracks to replenish the boilers’ water supply.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityMusic/Dance/Theatre/Film • Sunday, April 22, 2018 • Permalink