Texas Railroad History - Tower 17 - Rosenberg

A Crossing of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway and the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway

Above Left: This photo shows the east face of the original Tower 17 as it appeared in 1907. The gentleman in the photo is C.C. Harris who was employed as a towerman. (Rosenberg Railroad Museum courtesy of Ken Stavinoha) Above Right: Tower 17 was enlarged in the 1950's when additional operators were moved from the Rosenberg depot to the tower. The ground floor door and window on the east face remain in the same position as in the 1907 photo, but the tower has been expanded on the south side, necessitating removal and redesign of the staircase. The Queen Anne style "fish scale" pattern between the floors (common to SP towers, e.g. Tower 16) is the same as in the 1907 photo, but lays only beneath the original four windows, not the two added windows. (Jim King photo c.1997)

Above: George Werner took this photo of an eastbound Southern Pacific train crossing the diamond on January 4, 1969 (from Southern Pacific's Eastern Lines 1946-1996, D. M. Bernstein, 2015) Below: This undated photo was taken facing northwest from a window of Tower 17 during a rare winter storm. Informed speculation suggests December, 1924 as a possible date. It shows a southbound Santa Fe train waiting near a downed utility pole with ice-covered wires. (Ken Stavinoha collection)

One of the earliest major rail junctions in Texas, Tower 17 is located in the town of Rosenberg, named for the president of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway. The town was founded when the Santa Fe built through the area in 1880, crossing the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway a few miles west of Richmond, the county seat. The GH&SA was chartered before the Civil War as the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado (BBB&C) Railway, the first railroad in Texas. Proceeding west from Harrisburg on Buffalo Bayou east of Houston, twenty miles of track was laid in 1853 to Stafford's Point. By 1855, twelve additional miles had been built to Richmond. Continuing west, Alleyton on the banks of the Colorado River was reached in 1860 as the Civil War began.

The economic demise caused by the War resulted in the BBB&C's post-war default on its construction financing. In 1870, the BBB&C was acquired from receivership by an investor group headed by Thomas Peirce. Peirce rehabilitated the railroad and renamed it the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway. With plans for westward construction to San Antonio and beyond, the nickname "the Sunset Route" was adopted. The GH&SA arrived at San Antonio in 1877, and within a year, Peirce was developing plans to extend his railroad farther west to El Paso to connect with the Southern Pacific (SP) coming east from California. In January, 1883, Peirce drove the Silver Spike with SP near the Pecos River signifying the completion of a major portion of the southern transcontinental route. Having obtained an interest in the GH&SA by financing its westward construction from San Antonio, SP was able to lease the GH&SA in 1885 and subsequently acquired it.

As GH&SA's tracks were entering San Antonio, Santa Fe's tracks were leaving Galveston Island, crossing to the mainland on a new bridge. Construction continued west to the outskirts of Richmond in 1879. Having enjoyed rail service for more than twenty years, Richmond officials were unwilling to provide land for a separate Santa Fe right-of-way (ROW) through town. Instead, Santa Fe built directly to the GH&SA ROW on the east side of town and then paralleled it two and a half miles west before crossing over and building 60 miles to Brenham in 1880. The location of the crossing became the newly founded town of Rosenberg.

In 1881, the New York, Texas & Mexican (NYT&M) Railway was chartered as part of a grand plan to build a railroad from New York City to Mexico City. The enterprise was organized by Italian financier Count Joseph Telferner (or "Telfener" -- the Handbook of Texas uses "Telfener" but S. G. Reed's 1941 book A History of the Texas Railroads uses "Telferner" and that's the spelling of a town located on the railroad.) Work began in Texas with construction of a 91-mile line from Rosenberg through Wharton to Victoria. It was completed in 1882, mostly built by laborers brought in from Italy (and thus nicknamed "the Macaroni Line".) The NYT&M's grand plan was curtailed when the railroad was acquired by SP in 1885, although it continued to operate under its own name. (As a freight agent for SP assigned to Victoria only four years later, S. G. Reed likely had first hand knowledge of the correct spelling of Telferner's name.) In 1900, an NYT&M branch line was built south from Wharton to Van Vleck to serve the rich agricultural area of the lower Colorado River valley. In 1905, SP fully merged the NYT&M into the GH&SA. Because the Macaroni Line branched off the Sunset Route a short distance west of Rosenberg, the NYT&M had not been one of the railroads officially associated with the Tower 17 interlocker (a 27-function electric plant from the Taylor Signal Company) when it was authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas two years earlier on July 23, 1903.

The diamond at Tower 17 continues to see heavy traffic. The GH&SA Sunset Route is now owned by Union Pacific (UP) while the GC&SF line is part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). During the UP/SP merger in the 1990s, Kansas City Southern (KCS) obtained trackage rights on UP between Beaumont and Robstown, a vast distance for which the authorized route passes through Rosenberg. This enabled KCS to connect its Port Arthur - Kansas City main line with the Texas Mexican Railway (of which KCS has controlling ownership) at Robstown. The routing required southbound KCS trains coming west out of Houston to pass through Rosenberg and continue west to Flatonia on UP's Sunset Route. At Flatonia, KCS trains turned south to Victoria and continued on to Robstown via Placedo. The Macaroni Line presented a 61-mile shorter route between Rosenberg and Victoria, but the line had been out of service since 1986 (with 85 miles from Victoria to McHattie, near Rosenberg, formally abandoned in 1993-95.) In 2000, KCS was given the right to reestablish service over the Macaroni Line if desired. After a 2004 study of the feasibility of rehabilitating the route, construction commenced in 2007. Freight operations over the rebuilt line began in 2009 and continue today.

Tower 17 was the last traditional manned interlocking tower in the State of Texas. Tower 16 in Sherman and Tower 47 in El Paso both closed in 2001 leaving Tower 17 as the last holdout until it closed on February 10, 2004. Albeit somewhat non-traditional, the last operational interlocking tower in Texas is Tower 97 which controls the lift bridge over Galveston Bay. The Rosenberg Railroad Museum has relocated Tower 17 to their museum site, just a few blocks from Tower 17's historic home. A hearty thank-you to the Rosenberg Railroad Museum for their efforts in the preservation of this piece of Texas railroad history!

Above: James Starkey from Templeton, MA visited Tower 17 on November 30, 2000 and took this photograph of BNSF 722 in Warbonnet paint rolling past the tower. Below: An interior photo of Tower 17; note the contrast between the technology of 1900 with the levers to control train movements and the computer terminals of 2000 that replaced the era of telegraph wires. (James Starkey photo)

Above: Tower 17's new home at the Rosenberg Railroad Museum (Jim King photo, November 2012)

Location Map, Tower 17

Above: In addition to the main lines originally built by the BBB&C, the GC&SF, and the NYT&M which continue in operation today, the GH&SA also built a line south from Rosenberg in 1918 to serve mineral extraction industries at Damon Mound. Known originally as the Damon Mound Branch, the line departed GH&SA's ex-NYT&M line near Rosenberg, proceeded eleven miles south to Needville, and then turned southeast for five miles to cross Santa Fe's Cane Belt at Guy (a non-interlocked crossing.) Past Guy, the line went six additional miles to the community of Damon. After SP abandoned the Guy - Damon tracks in 1944, the remaining branch became known as the Guy Subdivision and the departure point near Rosenberg became identified as Guy Junction. The 16 miles from Guy Junction to Guy was abandoned in 1986. One of the reasons this line remained intact 42 years beyond the abandonment of the Guy - Damon tracks is that it provided an alternate route to Victoria. SP's ex-NYT&M branch from Wharton to Van Vleck passed through Newgulf, and the Cane Belt had tracks between Guy and Newgulf. Hence it was feasible for SP trains coming east from Victoria to turn south at Wharton, proceed to Newgulf, turn east on the Cane Belt to Guy, and turn back north on the Guy Subdivision to Rosenberg. This alternate route was valuable to SP whenever the tracks between Rosenberg and Wharton were congested or blocked (e.g. a derailment, or, as in 1950, when a bridge burned.) This alternate route was specifically identified in a 1936 agreement between SP and the Order of Railway Conductors which stated "Movement over the Wharton Branch, Damon Branch, and over the Santa Fe will be made only as the exigencies of the service require."

Historic Tower 17 to close in January 2004!
Bill Waldrop, Houston, 11/9/2003

I went to UP Tower 17 (Rosenberg) today, and what we have long feared has happened. UP signal crews are now installing a new interlocker control building that will replace Tower 17, the last remaining operating tower in Texas. The small metal control building is in, a microwave link is set-up, and they are working quickly running wires, etc. According to a UP official I spoke with about this, he stated the tentative date for the changeover is the first week of January, 2004. The signal guys are going to have to replace all switches (and possibly the signals as well) that are controlled by the manned tower because they are not compatible with the current computer control system. The tower will come under the direct control of UP's Glidden Sub Dispatcher based in Spring. We are not sure how the BNSF will have any control of their line crossing UP at this tower, but I know their dispatcher sits very close to the UP dispatcher in the Spring Dispatch Center, so I'm sure it will be easily coordinated. The good news out of all this is the fact that the tower will NOT be torn down! In fact, UP will be moving it a few blocks east to the Rosenberg Railroad Museum, where they have already measured for the concrete base, etc. I've heard different accounts about how old this tower is and how long it has been in service...anywhere from the late 1800's to the early 1900's. It still uses the original equipment to control the switches and signals (manually pulled levers by the operator on duty). We all knew this was coming for many years, but reality has hit in the fact that it will happen very soon. I hope everyone has their pictures of this last operating tower in Texas, it's surely a classic, and it will be sorely missed. It's the end of an era.

Above: Looking west from Rosenberg down UP's Sunset Route toward Eagle Lake, the Tower 17 crossing is just above the center of the image with white equipment cabinets and vehicles sitting on the former tower site to the left of the diamond. The BNSF main line from Galveston enters the image at lower left and crosses the UP tracks at the diamond, disappearing into the northwest horizon toward Wallis at upper right. Just beyond the diamond, a lengthy siding begins along the Sunset Route to the right of the main line. The KCS line to Victoria then splits off to the left, disappearing into the southwestern horizon at upper left. (Abel Garcia photo, 2020) Below: This track chart from the Chief Engineer's Office of the Missouri - Kansas - Texas Railroad shows the track layout at Tower 17 as of June, 1915. Note the "Joint Station" located between the tracks. The chart identifies Sealy (the next junction beyond Wallis) and Wharton as the track destinations in addition to Eagle Lake, Houston and Galveston. (courtesy, Ed Chambers)

Last Revised: 2/15/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.