A Crossing of the Houston & Texas Central, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas, and the St. Louis-Southwestern railroads
The first railroad to serve Waco had been chartered originally as the Waco Tap Railroad in 1866. It planned to "tap" the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad which had resumed building north from Millican after the Civil War. The H&TC route was east of the Brazos River, so the Waco station would be in East Waco to avoid the need to bridge the river. The Waco Tap name was changed to the Waco & Northwestern (W&N) Railroad to promote the railroad's idea of building beyond Waco, even though completing the line to Bremond was proving to be difficult enough. The town of Bremond some 40 miles southeast of Waco was selected as the H&TC junction point, and eventually, H&TC completed the line for the W&N, opening Waco service in 1872. It acquired the W&N the following year. H&TC came under Southern Pacific (SP) ownership in 1883 but continued to operate separately until it was merged into SP's Texas & New Orleans Railway in 1927.
The next railroad into Waco was the Texas & St. Louis Railway, arriving from Tyler in 1881. Continuing construction to Gatesville required crossing the Brazos River, and this became the first railroad bridge over the Brazos River in the Waco area. The Texas & St. Louis eventually became a property of the St. Louis-Southwestern ("Cotton Belt") Railway. The Cotton Belt was acquired by SP in 1932 but continued to operate under its own identity until 1992. The third railroad into Waco was the Missouri-Kansas-Texas ("Katy") Railroad building their main line south from Indian Territory toward Houston. The Katy crossed the Brazos in 1882 as part of their construction that year from Hillsboro to Taylor. This was the second and last Waco area railroad bridge over the Brazos. A major junction of three railroads was located in East Waco where the H&TC line, paralleling the Brazos, crossed the other two lines close to their bridges. This became the location of Tower 21 which was authorized for operation on August 8, 1903. The complexity of the junction is reflected in the fact that Tower 21 was a 49 function electric interlocker, the most complex interlocker at the time (but eclipsed by the 59 functions of Tower 26 several weeks later).
The railroads of Waco have changed considerably over the years. SP sold its tracks from Waco to Marlin to Missouri Pacific (MP) in 1965 and
abandoned the remainder of the original W&N to Bremond at that time. MP's
line into Waco that skirted the east side of town was built by the
International & Great Northern (I-GN) in 1902. MP used SP's
tracks as a more direct route to Waco from Marlin, abandoning their former
route from Tower 191 in Marlin to Waco via Mart. The Cotton Belt line was
abandoned in the 1980s but the bridge over the Brazos remains intact. The Katy
line is now operated as a major north/south route by successor Union Pacific.
The fate of Tower 21 has not been determined. It reportedly was removed from
service in 1967, most likely replaced by an automatic interlocker.
Historic Photos, Tower 21
by Harry C. Blaize Jr., from the collection of John Linda
Above & Below: These 1954 photos of Tower 21 were taken from a train carrying
model railroaders from the MKT Waco depot to the Bellmead Shops. The tower was
built by SP, matching the distinctive style of several SP towers (e.g. Tower 16,
Tower 17, Tower 81).
Below: A portion of the index to the 1926 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Waco highlights the railroads in central Waco.
The map is rotated so that northwest is "up". The three original main lines (SP, Katy and Cotton Belt) converging at Tower
21 were joined by an I-GN spur that allowed them to serve downtown from their main line that skirted the east side of Waco.
Tower 59 and Tower 144 were also located along the Katy main line.
Below: West is "up" in this 1957 track chart provided by Tom Kline showing
Tower 21 located east of the Katy main line.
Above: Facing north, a highway now resides atop the SP right-of-way east of the site of Tower 21.
Below: This view of a northbound Katy train coming off the Brazos River bridge was probably taken from the
highway overpass, about where Tower 21 would have been located. (courtesy Tom Kline)
Below: If this Bird's Eye View drawing of Waco in 1892 is accurate, there
was no tower structure at
the future Tower 21 junction as of that date. There is some evidence that a few towers may have
already existed in 1902 when the Railroad Commission began authorizing tower designs and locations,
but apparently, Tower 21 was not one of them, at least as of 1892. The view is toward the southwest.
Note the H&TC passenger station near the center of the right edge of the image.