Texas Railroad History - Towers 13 and 14 - Houston (Eureka and Chaney Junctions)

Two Major Railroad Junctions Three Miles Apart in Northwest Houston


Above: This undated photo of Tower 13 was taken facing east along the Missouri - Kansas - Texas ("Katy") railroad, apparently not in wintertime judging by the open windows. The "fish scale" pattern between the stories identifies the tower as being of Southern Pacific (SP) heritage, identical to many other SP towers in Texas (e.g. Tower 26, Tower 30, Tower 81, etc.) (Carl Codney collection) Below Left: Tower 14 (with magnification below right) sits to the edge of a large construction site in this photo. The angle of the rolling stock and the known location of the tower implies that the camera is east-northeast of the tower facing west, about where the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. had been located. (photo by James Pirie c. 1912; all James Pirie photos are from the collection of the Texas Department of Transportation)

The Galveston & Red River (G&RR) Railway was chartered in 1848 with a grand plan to connect the port of Galveston with the Red River where railroads from the midwest were expected to arrive. Unable to raise sufficient capital, the project languished until an unrelated opportunity arose: agricultural interests in Chappell Hill needed better transportation to the Houston market. Chappell Hill was 60 miles northwest of Houston and, critically, was located west of the Brazos River, a formidable obstacle due to its width and tendency to flood. A meeting was held in 1852 to discuss Chappell Hill's transportation issues; Paul Bremond, one of the founders of the G&RR, attended. He suggested that in exchange for financial backing from Chappell Hill investors, the G&RR could be re-chartered to start construction in Houston and pass close enough to Chappell Hill that a short branch could be built. Bridging the Brazos was not necessary for the G&RR to reach the Red River, but a branch line was plausible. Bremond's proposal was accepted and the Legislature approved the change in 1853.

That same year, while Bremond and Chappell Hill residents began to raise capital for the G&RR, the first actual track construction in Texas began at Harrisburg, a port on Buffalo Bayou southeast of Houston. The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado (BBB&C) Railway began building west that year with twenty miles of track laid to Stafford's Point, followed by twelve additional miles in 1855 to Richmond. While the BBB&C remained in Richmond in 1856, the G&RR completed its first 25 miles out of Houston to Cypress, arriving just as the Legislature approved another charter amendment granting a new name, the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railway. Unfortunately for Chappell Hill, the amendment prohibited H&TC from building branch lines until the main line was complete (but Chappell Hill soon had a branch line anyway!) Passing through Hempstead in 1858, the H&TC turned north to Navasota and stopped at Millican for the duration of the Civil War. Meanwhile, the BBB&C had resumed construction in 1857 and by 1860 had reached Alleyton, on the banks of the Colorado River 48 miles west of Richmond, where it stopped for the Civil War. After the War years, construction continued for both railroads. H&TC rails reached Denison at the Red River in 1873. The BBB&C, restructured and recapitalized as the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway, proceeded west toward San Antonio, arriving in 1877.

The GH&SA's line out of Harrisburg was located several miles south of Houston, so the GH&SA didn't actually serve the city. By 1877 it was clear that Houston would become the dominant commercial center of the area so the GH&SA obtained trackage rights into downtown on the International & Great Northern from Pierce Junction in 1877. Around this time, Southern Pacific (SP) began discussions with the GH&SA about extending the line to El Paso. With funding and additional construction crews provided by SP, the GH&SA built west from San Antonio and east from El Paso until the teams met at the Pecos River on January 12, 1883. A silver spike was driven signifying completion of a major part of SP's southern transcontinental route. The GH&SA had already begun calling their line "the Sunset Route", and SP appropriated the moniker for the entire route. Anticipating completion of the El Paso line (and undoubtedly at the urging of SP), the GH&SA built its own line into Houston. In A History of the Texas Railroads, the 1941 definitive history of Texas railroading, author S. G. Reed states this line was built in 1881, but other sources say 1880.

This GH&SA line into Houston began at Stella, very close to Pierce Junction, and went north, reaching the H&TC west of downtown at a location that became known as Chaney Junction. Shortly thereafter, the GH&SA proceeded north across the H&TC and curved due east toward the main yard of the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad. The T&NO was the primary rail line east out of Houston to New Orleans, and it was acquired by SP in 1881. As SP expanded into Texas, it sought control of other railroads, acquiring the H&TC in 1883. It also leased and ultimately acquired the GH&SA. At Chaney Junction, the GH&SA made a connection to the H&TC for access to H&TC's downtown passenger station which became the station for all of SP's railroads in Houston. 

At the other end of the H&TC line, the railroad's arrival in Denison had matched that of the Missouri - Kansas - Texas (MKT, "Katy") Railroad building south across the Red River. The two railroads soon began service between Houston and St. Louis. In 1880, the Katy began accessing Ft. Worth from Denison using trackage rights on the Texas & Pacific south from Whitesboro (to which a Katy subsidiary had built from Denison the year before.) From Fort Worth, the Katy resumed construction, proceeding as far south as Taylor by 1882. In 1887, the Katy again resumed construction, this time south from Taylor to Smithville, then east toward Houston, arriving there in 1893. About five miles northwest of downtown Houston, the Katy crossed the H&TC's tracks. The location became known as Eureka Junction and the Katy built its main yard directly east of the crossing.

In July, 1901, a new state law mandated interlockers for busy railroad crossings. Without an interlocker, trains were required to make a complete stop before crossing another railroad at grade, incurring delay and wasting the energy stored in a train's momentum. For existing crossings, the capital expense of installing an interlocker would be shared by the participating railroads, so the Katy and the H&TC developed plans for an interlocker at Eureka Junction. The H&TC and the GH&SA determined that their crossing at Chaney Junction also needed to be interlocked, and they likewise established a plan. Tower 13 at Eureka Junction and Tower 14 at Chaney Junction were built more or less simultaneously and authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) a few days apart on the 4th and 15th of July, 1903, respectively. Both towers were designed and built by SP. RCT documentation states that Tower 13 was located at "Eureka" and that it hosted a 16-function electrical interlocking plant built by the Taylor Signal Co. A 2014 report authored by the City of Houston Archaeological & Historical Commission explains the origin of the "Eureka" name:

Eureka Junction gets its name from Eureka Mills, a small Texas community centered around the Eureka Mill, a cotton mill located five miles northwest of downtown Houston. The mill opened in 1870 under the ownership of a number of Houstonian businessmen and with an initial investment of $125,000. At its peak, the mill used 17,000 pounds of cotton per day. In 1872, the mill had 75 employees, all of whom lived in the surrounding community of Eureka Mills. By 1888, Eureka Mills was a stop on the H&TC line although the community had already begun to disappear.

Tower 14 was officially reported to be a 33-function electrical interlocker built by the Taylor Signal Co and located at Chaney Junction. The reason for the larger function count was that Tower 14 had connecting tracks between the railroads along with numerous spurs for local industries. The Industrial Cotton Oil Co. was known to have built a large, rail-served facility in the northeast quadrant of Chaney Junction. As noted in the caption, the above photo of Tower 14 was taken in 1912 from about where the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. had been located. The obvious question is...what happened to it?

One hundred and one years later, on January 19, 2013, Stephen Taylor of Austin posted this intriguing message to the Railspot Yahoo Group:

"Anne Cook, the photo librarian with the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin, has asked for our assistance. She has a series of photographs taken by an engineer named James Pirie; the images were taken between 1910-1920. The images reflect the construction of a cottonseed oil mill and warehouses. Her question? Where were the pictures taken? Here's what we know. One image shows a smokestack lettered with "Chef Oil", presumably a brand-name for a cooking oil. The mill and warehouses were for a company called the South Texas Grain Company. The first image shows an interlocker, on the far left of the image. Subsequent images shows a large number of railroad tracks and rolling stock and power (steam, of course). The facility, like every industrial facility in Houston at that time, had rail service. My hunch is that it was served by the H & TC. South Texas Grain had a facility very near the H & TC shops; this facility was shown in the 1924 Sanborn Maps. South Texas Grain had a number of facilities in Houston at that time, but none conform to these images; the warehouses are enormous. The images are in sequence, starting with a vacant lot with the interlocker in the background, progressing through construction; many images do show railroads and rolling stock. What I need is some help pinning down the location. I suspect that the interlocker might hold the key to the puzzle. I suspect that the railroad might be the H & TC, as that would have been the logical shipping choice for much of the cotton-growing sections of Texas. This facility, however, may not have even been in Houston proper, but in an outlying area. The supposition that the images are in Houston is based on the fact that Pirie worked in Houston from 1910 through 1918."

Using interlocker information, Sanborn maps and assistance from Railspot members, Stephen zeroed in on the likely location of the mystery interlocker: Tower 14 at Chaney Junction. [Editor's Note: Had I bothered to fully research the namesake of Chaney Junction, the answer would have been obvious! As excerpted from the web article Houston's First Oil Boom Was Based On Cotton...

"In 1880, the Galveston Houston [sic] and San Antonio Railroad built a connecting track that joined its main line, south of town, with a rail yard on the north side of Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston. This "entrance" into the city greatly enhanced the railroad's potential for rail service while also connecting it with the other large rail line of the city, the Houston and Texas Central. In March of the same year, Thomas R. Chaney, founder of the Howard Oil Mill Company, began the construction of a factory to be located adjacent to the intersection of these two great railroad lines. Over the next three decades, this rail junction, called Chaney Junction, was to become the focal point of an industrial district for the local economy's first major oil boom, the cottonseed oil boom." ]

Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of Houston confirm cottonseed oil factories in the vicinity of Chaney Junction. In particular, the 1907 map shows a large complex on the northeast corner of Chaney Junction labeled "Industrial Cotton Oil Co." But if a large facility already existed in 1907, how could photos taken c.1912 depict construction of a new mill at the same location? The most likely answer is that the old mill was razed and a new one built at the same location. The photo above is the only one in the series that shows the tower, but it also shows a large debris field in the foreground. This is not virgin prairie land in Houston; something was located here, and was either torn down or burned down.



Above Left: El Paso Herald, January 6, 1912  Above Right: This excerpt from the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch dated March 31, 1912 shows that the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. wasted no time in getting back in business, awarding a construction contract a mere 85 days after the fire. Below: This snippet from the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Houston shows the location of the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. northeast of the Tower 14 crossing diamond. The complexity of the track arrangement helps explain the higher function count for the Tower 14 interlocking plant. The Tower 14 structure does not appear at the crossing diamond on this map, but it does on another overlapping map (further below.)



Above: This 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map snippet shows the GH&SA and H&TC diamond in the upper right corner. The image has been rotated so that north is up (resulting in the upside down lettering for Washington Av.) Magnification (at right) reveals Tower 14 as a two-story "Signal Tower" located in the southwest quadrant. Below: This photo from much later during construction appears to have been taken facing east-northeast from Tower 14. The double track with semaphores is the H&TC main line. There is a some kind of crossing in the immediate foreground (based on the single rail visible in the lower left corner, presumably GH&SA.) The connecting track visible at the right edge goes to the GH&SA line to Stella. (James Pirie photo)



Above: Looking northeast along the connecting track in 1912 (left) and 1999 (right), the unusual "brick house" with the peaked roof atop the industrial building has either survived for a century or was retained during a reconstruction. (James Pirie and Jim King photos, respectively) Below Left: The southeast quadrant connecting track at Chaney Junction is gone, but the rails remain in the pavement on Center St. as of November 2019 in this view to the northeast. (Google Street View) Below Right: The sign on the side of the white cabin reads "Chaney Junction". (Jim King, 1999)

In 1912, as the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. was being rebuilt, the campus of Rice University opened three and a half miles south of Chaney Junction. The nearby First Montrose Commons subdivision became a popular neighborhood as university professors and staff moved in. Although construction of the GH&SA line between Stella and Chaney Junction preceded the founding of Montrose by at least twenty years, the neighborhood expanded such that the rail line ran right through the middle of it. To no one's surprise, residents complained to the city about train noise and blocked crossings, so city officials began to pressure SP to abandon the tracks through Montrose. In 1915, the H&TC built a 9-mile connector south from Tower 13 to the GH&SA main line at a location called West Junction, so named because it served traffic on and off the Sunset Route to the west. This allowed the GH&SA to begin using H&TC's tracks between Chaney Junction and West Junction via Tower 13. Except for a short spur at Chaney Junction, the GH&SA line from Tower 14 through Montrose to Stella was abandoned. On November 17, 1915, SP wrote a short note to RCT stating "FYI, we have removed crossing of the GH&SA Railway Co. and the H&TC Railroad Co. main line at Chaney Junction and have discontinued operation of Interlocking Plant #14." (According to Reed, the final removal of the GH&SA tracks to Stella did not occur until March, 1918.) This abandonment also allowed the dismantling of Tower 12, two and half miles south of Chaney Junction. This was the GH&SA crossing of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) Railway which had built into Houston from Eagle Lake and Wallis in 1887-88. The SA&AP had been owned by SP for eleven years, but was divested under court order in 1903 and became independent. Though Tower 12 was gone, this same SA&AP line was now crossed by the new H&TC connector about four miles west of Tower 12. Tower 104 was promptly commissioned there in 1916.

SP soon decided that the GH&SA ought to have their own line into Houston and they proceeded to build one in 1918 that paralleled the H&TC tracks from Chaney Junction past Tower 13 to West Junction. Although RCT records only cite West Junction, this may have been when a connection was also added at Stella to allow GH&SA main line traffic to and from the east (e.g. Galveston, Harrisburg and lower Houston Ship Channel traffic) to reach Tower 13 for access to the H&TC main line to the north.

 
Above: The title of this undated (c.1920s) SP track chart (courtesy T&NO Archives) is "Eureka - Stella Cutoff." The east track between Tower 13 and West Junction is identified as GH&SA and the west track as H&TC. As the tracks curve past Tower 13, the east track becomes the south track and the west track becomes the north track and merges directly onto the H&TC main line. The crossover shown on the diagram just east of that switch remains in place today. Below Left: West Junction's name has remained unchanged for the past hundred years. Below Right: The eastern connection from the former GH&SA main line onto the double track to Tower 13 is now called Spence Junction. Whether this differs from the original connection at "Stella" has not been determined. The railroad location currently known as "Stella" is two miles east of Spence Jct. at what was historically known as Pierce Junction. (both images from Google Street View)

At Chaney Junction, the 1907 Sanborn Map shows the H&TC was already double track, but this appears to be related to the dense industrial activity near the junction. Other map components show the H&TC double track extended west a relatively short distance from Tower 14. To the east, the H&TC was mostly double track as their roundhouse was only a mile from the junction. Unaffected by abandonment of the line to the south, the GH&SA's single track north and east of Chaney Junction remained intact. Over many years this route morphed into SP's "Freight Line" that went past the Hardy St. Yard and proceeded onto T&NO's tracks to Englewood Yard. Eventually, the H&TC became SP's "Passenger Line" into downtown, going past SP's Grand Central Station, crossing the Katy at Tower 108, and rejoining the Freight Line near Tower 26. The Freight Line also crossed the Katy near downtown. This crossing was ultimately grade-separated; this may not have been the 1893 configuration when the Katy was built, but it never appeared in RCT interlocker records.


Above: Texas General Land Office aerial imagery from 1944 (served by Google Earth) shows the slight diagonal slant of the H&TC main line across the middle of the image, with Chaney Junction at left and the H&TC roundhouse at right, just west of Houston Ave. The GH&SA's original line into Houston is visible going north from Chaney Junction and immediately curving due east to head directly to Hardy St. and Englewood Yards. Tower 13 was located three miles west of Chaney Junction. Below: annotated 2018 satellite view of Chaney Junction

Once Tower 14 was gone, Tower 13 increased in importance as the only manned facility in the northwest Houston area for interlocker, signal and switch control. With SP running a busy double track through Eureka Junction and the Katy expanding its service, Tower 13 assumed additional responsibilities as various nearby crossings were modified to become remote controlled interlockers. The last comprehensive interlocker list published by RCT at the end of 1930 shows that Tower 13's plant had already increased to 34 functions. In 1941, an interlocker controlled by Tower 13 was established at Boulevard Junction, 0.7 miles west of Chaney Junction, for a spur running north into the Houston Heights area. At the same time, an interlocker was established at West Junction and control was given to the Tower 13 operator. In 1945, Tower 104's interlocker became remote-controlled from Tower 13. In 1966, the functions of Tower 13 were transferred to Tower 26 and Tower 13 was closed. The fate of the structure has not been determined.


These four photos show the changing appearance at Tower 13, all facing west along the Katy. Above Left: This photo (c.1950s) and caption appear in Southern Pacific Railroad in Eastern Texas by David M. Bernstein [Arcadia Publishing, 2011]. The bridge railings show that the Hempstead Rd. underpass had already been built. Above Right: In this 1983 photo by Stephen Hesse, an eastbound Katy train arrives at Tower 13 where two remote controlled interlocking cabins, one with "13" visible on the side, have replaced the tower structure. The locomotive is about to cross over Hempstead Rd. Below Left: This photo (c.1996) shows that the equipment cabins have been removed, replaced by a "Tower 13" sign on the power pole. The abandoned Katy right-of-way is visible in the distance as the tracks now curve south to connect to the double track heading toward West Junction. Note that the bridge railings are substantially farther apart than they appear in the two photos above taken at earlier dates. The wider right-of-way and the rail remnants adjacent to the railing on the left are evidence of a connecting track that was added for a short time between the Katy main and SP's H&TC line into downtown. (Bob Smith photo) Below Right: In this view from October, 2019 (Google Street View), the Tower 13 sign remains on the power pole as construction vehicles work changes nearby. (As of 2021, the work underway is reported to be a project to widen Hempstead Rd. and replace the bridges.) Unlike the prior photo from 1996, the abandoned Katy right-of-way is no longer apparent in the distance as new housing or apartment complexes have been built across it. The double track to West Junction is visible at far left.

All of the railroads involved in Towers 13 and 14 eventually became part of Union Pacific (UP). In 1988, the Katy was merged into UP's Missouri Pacific (MP) subsidiary. In the mid-1990s, UP acquired SP, and by 1998, both MP and SP were fully merged into UP. At some point in the 1990s, a connection was added at Tower 13 between the Katy main line and the H&TC line into downtown so that trains on the Katy could access Englewood Yard via the Freight Line connection at Chaney Junction. The Katy/H&TC connection presumably did not last long; in 1997, the Katy line west from Tower 13 to the town of Katy (a western suburb of Houston) was abandoned. The tracks east of Eureka Yard into downtown were also abandoned, thus only a small portion of the original Katy right-of-way still has tracks in Houston. The H&TC line is still in use from downtown through Hempstead to points north, and the double track from Chaney Junction to West Junction via Tower 13 remains intact. The GH&SA heritage "Freight Line" and the H&TC heritage "Passenger Line" both remain in heavy use through Chaney Junction.


Above: This annotated Google Maps satellite image from 2018 is marked with the heritage railroads; all tracks are now owned by UP. Tower13's location (red circle) was on the north side of the diamond of the former Katy / H&TC crossing. The H&TC / GH&SA double track between Tower 14 and West Jct. remained south of Tower 13 and did not cross the Katy. A telltale bridge no longer in use over Hempstead Rd. marks the connecting track (pink dashes) between the Katy main and the SP (H&TC) main into downtown. It was used to route trains between the Katy main and Englewood Yard. The construction vehicles present near the Hempstead Rd. underpass indicate the initial work to replace the bridges and restructure the road and the rail lines at Tower 13. This work is on-going as of February, 2021. Below Left: This Stephen Hesse photo from 1983 faces northwest on the former H&TC toward Hempstead. The bridge railings are for the Hempstead Rd. underpass. As a result of changes associated with the Hempstead Rd. widening project, this bridge is reported to be out of service as of February, 2021. Below Right: This Google Earth satellite image from December, 2018 shows a more detailed view of the bridges over Hempstead Rd. at Tower 13. Heavy equipment is in place for the widening project.
  

 


These Google Street Views from January, 2020 face north on Hempstead Rd. at Tower 13. Above: This view is just before passing under the double track bridge to West Junction. This is the first (southmost) bridge of the four beneath which Hempstead Rd. passes. The bridge's SP heritage remains faintly visible (yellow box.) Substantial construction was under way in this area both at track level and at street level. Below: Moving farther north, the remaining three bridges are visible. The next one is no longer in use for rails; it was the short-lived connection between the Katy main and the SP (H&TC) main. The second bridge in this view is the former Katy main line (with markings still intact), now used to access Eureka Yard. Viewed from beneath, it appears that the gap between these two bridges is filled above with wooden planks through which sky is faintly visible. In February 2021 on the Texas Railroad History Facebook Group, Darrel Yeates reported that this double-bridge structure has been temporarily reworked to carry the former H&TC line and the lead into Eureka Yard as part of the widening project, and that the former H&TC bridge has been taken out of service, presumably to be removed. That's the distant bridge that crosses at an angle in the image below. SP markings remain on that bridge viewed from the other direction (further below left.)


Above Left: Looking south near Tower 13 on Hempstead Rd., the northernmost bridge reveals its SP heritage. Above Right: Facing west, hopper cars are stored on what was once the Katy main line. East of Katy - Ft. Bend Rd., the tracks were abandoned in 1997 back to Tower 13. Below Left: This equipment cabinet is located along the original H&TC (closest track) where it merges with the double track 360 ft. east of the Tower 13 diamond. Below Right: SP's Freight Line (on the bridge) crossed over the Katy main line (now a paved trail) beside White Oak Bayou. The Freight Line's GH&SA heritage means that this section was built c.1882, roughly ten years before the Katy arrived. When grade separation occurs, typically the later arrival would build the bridge, but due to the presence of the bayou, it's possible that the Katy built beneath an existing GH&SA bridge if the bridge was high enough and long enough. Of course, it may originally have been a simple grade crossing, but if so, it was never part of RCT's interlocker management. (all images from Google Street View)
 

 
Last Revised: 2/20/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.