Texas Railroad History - Tower 14 - Houston (Chaney Junction)

A Crossing of the Houston & Texas Central and Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroads

Photo of Tower 14 Located!
(c.1912 by James Pirie, provided by TXDoT Photo Library, via Stephen Taylor)

Above: Through the efforts of Stephen Taylor, the Texas Dept. of Transportation and others, we are able to say with 99% confidence that the above photo shows Tower 14 at Chaney Jct. in the 1912 timeframe.

In 1877, the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway entered Houston by trackage rights over the International & Great Northern Railroad from Pierce Junction, a crossing on the GH&SA main line. Three years later, the GH&SA constructed its own line into Houston from Stella, a location on the main line very close to Pierce Junction (so close, in fact, that in later years, timetables conflated Stella and Pierce Junction.) The objective of this new line was to reach the Texas & New Orleans Railroad freight yards in north Houston. Doing so required crossing the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) Railway south of downtown Houston, a location that became interlocked by Tower 12, and crossing the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad west of downtown at a location that became known as Chaney Junction. Tower 14 was built at Chaney Junction, authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) on July 4, 1903 with a 16-function electrical interlocker.

The route between Stella and Tower 14 passed through the Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston, and by 1915, Montrose was rapidly expanding as a residential area. Under pressure from city officials to abandon the line through Montrose, the GH&SA began using H&TC's alternate route from Tower 14 to West Junction (on the GH&SA main line) via Tower 13 (Eureka Junction). Both railroads had been under Southern Pacific control for many years, so it made sense for them to cooperate, even though they were operating independently. Except for a short spur, the GH&SA tracks running south from Tower 14 were out of service by October 31, 1915 when Tower 14 was listed as "Abandoned and crossing removed" by RCT. On November 17, 1915, Southern Pacific wrote a 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."  On Christmas Eve, 1917, the GH&SA opened their own line parallel to the H&TC line between West Junction and Chaney Junction via Tower 13.

Today, the spur south of Chaney Junction has been taken out of service although various track segments are still in place. The former H&TC and GH&SA tracks between Chaney Junction and Eureka Junction are still in place and see regular Union Pacific traffic.

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.

Stephen received various responses to his request, including from the editor of this website. Using interlocker information and Sanborn maps, Stephen quickly zeroed in on the likely location of the mystery interlocker: Tower 14 at Chaney Junction. [Editor's Note: Had I bothered to fully research who "Chaney" was when initially creating the Tower 14 webpage, the whole investigation could have been short circuited! As excerpted below 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 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 Jct. labeled "Industrial Cotton Oil Co." But if a large facility already existed in 1907, how could photos taken at least several years later depict construction of a new mill in the same vicinity? The most likely answer is that the old mill was razed and a new one built at the same location. The first photo (below) 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.

Photos by James Pirie c. 1912, from the collection of the Texas Department of Transportation Photo Library

Being the first photo in the series, it is presumably showing the construction site at the beginning of the effort. Furthermore, the angle of the rolling stock in the image and the known location of the tower implies that the camera is east-northeast of the tower. But that's precisely where the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. was located in 1907 (see 1907 Sanborn insurance map below).

So...is there any evidence that the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. mill at Chaney Jct. was ever razed or perhaps burned down?

The above news article appeared in the El Paso Herald on January 6, 1912. So...how did the Industrial Cotton Oil Co. respond to the fire?

The above news article from the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch dated March 31, 1912 describes some enormous oil mill structures for which Industrial Cotton Oil Co. had "awarded [a] contract". They certainly didn't waste any time...awarding a construction contract a mere 85 days after the fire!

The photo below occurs much later in the construction sequence and appear to have been taken from the tower. The double track with semaphores is clearly the main line (in this case, H&TC), there is a some kind of crossing in the immediate foreground (based on the single rail visible in the lower left corner), an exchange track is visible at the right edge, and the building occupies the expected location for a view to the east-northeast from the tower.

As mentioned in Stephen's email, a "Chef Oil" smokestack is visible in one of the photos. Chef Oil was a cottonseed based cooking oil; advertisements for it appeared in newspapers throughout Texas.

Tower 14 Area, c.1999 (Jim King photos)

Above: Although it was out of service, the spur track from the south still connected to the main line at Chaney Junction.
Below: James Pirie's photo from nearly the same spot in late 1912 or early 1913.

Above: The large separation of the two rail lines (foreground and distance) is indicative of the two separate railroads that built lines from Chaney Junction to Eureka Junction. The H&TC and GH&SA were both eventually merged into Southern Pacific. The sign on the side of the white cabinet reads "Chaney Junction".

Historic Map, Tower 14
Above: This image taken from a Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map of Houston dated 7/26/1907 shows the Chaney Junction location of 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 (right)
reveals a two-story "Signal Tower" located in the southwest quadrant.


Track Charts, Chaney Jct. (courtesy, T&NO Archives)

Because the T&NO was successor to the GH&SA (above) and H&TC (below), two separate track charts existed in the T&NO archives.

Satellite Image, Tower 14 Site


General Location Map, Tower 14

Below: This simulated 3-D view of Chaney Junction is derived from 2018 satellite imagery and map data, and faces northeast. The curvature of the long abandoned GH&SA line to the south (lower right) toward Montrose and Stella is still evident. This line crossed the H&TC main line and connected to the GH&SA main line where it curved away from the H&TC tracks, with both the H&TC and GH&SA continuing east into downtown. Back to the west (lower left), both main lines went to Eureka Junction (Tower 13) and then south to West Junction.

Last Revised: 1/29/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.