Texas Railroad History - Tower 21 - East Waco

A Crossing of the Houston & Texas Central, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas, and the St. Louis-Southwestern railroads

Above: John W. Barriger III took this photo from the rear of his private railcar as his train proceeded north, probably in the late 30's or early 40's. His train has just crossed the Katy railroad bridge over the Brazos River into East Waco, passing Tower 21. The Cotton Belt line at right goes south to its own bridge over the Brazos visible in the distance. Although the bridges are more than 500 ft. long, the river's presence is otherwise undetectable from this view. Below: Another photo of Tower 21 taken by John W. Barriger III from his railcar. The view is to the north as his train is southbound, either on or entering Katy's bridge over the Brazos River. Southern Pacific tracks are visible crossing in front of Tower 21.

The first railroad to serve Waco had been chartered as the Waco Tap Railroad in 1866. It planned to "tap" the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad southeast of Waco 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. [Although often referenced as if it were a town, East Waco is not; it is a collection of historically interrelated African-American neighborhoods northeast of the Brazos River, mostly within the Waco municipal boundary.] The Waco Tap name was changed to the Waco & Northwestern (W&NW) Railroad to promote the railroad's idea of building beyond Waco, even though completing the line as planned was proving to be difficult enough. The town of Bremond some 40 miles southeast of Waco had been selected as the H&TC junction point, but construction had only reached Marlin by 1871. Seeing an opportunity for a new market, H&TC agreed to complete W&NW's line, which was accomplished in 1872, including an extension north from Waco 13 miles to the town of Ross. The W&NW was subsequently sold to the H&TC, but not without significant drama. Bradley Linda provides the explanation below (from The Waco and Northwestern Railroad – A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Baylor University in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Degree of Master of Arts, January 1968, by Judy Jolley Rosenbaum.)

December 28, 1892, Auction on the steps of the McLennan County courthouse – bidding war between Julius Kruttschnitt - GM Southern Pacific Lines Texas & Louisiana, L. Harrison of the Rock Island, L.P. Gold of a 3rd Party and E.H.R. “Ned” Green, Hetty Green’s son – who won the railroad for $1.365 Million. However, the land notes were subject to a claim by the stockholders and was not included in the sale. Following a lengthy court battle between C.P. Huntington and Ned Green, Green’s bid was set aside and in March 1895, the US District Court at Galveston ordered the railroad again to be sold at auction.

September 3, 1895 – Auction day – speculation had been rampant that the Burlington, MKT, and SA&AP were all interested in buying the W&NW. At the auction, Charles Hamilton, VP & GM of the Texas Central opened bidding at $1 Million. Bidding war ensued between Hamilton, Judge R.S. Lovett of Houston, and when it hit $1.3 million, Judge Wilbur Boyle of St. Louis jumped in, winning the road for $1.505 million. Boyle was an agent of Huntington, and on July 1 1898, Boyle paid the remainder of the price, and conveyed it to the H&TC

Long before the sale, the H&TC had come under Southern Pacific (SP) ownership (1883), but continued to operate separately until it was merged into SP's Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad 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. Nearly 30 years later, the Katy became the owner of another railroad in the Waco area, the Texas Central Railway. In 1882, the newly chartered Texas Central (TC) had built a 178-mile main line from Ross (where they connected to the H&TC) northwest to Albany. In 1903, the TC built their own line from Ross to Waco to gain direct access to the additional railroads located there. In 1910, the Katy bought the TC.

The major junction of these railroads was located in East Waco where the H&TC line, paralleling the Brazos River, crossed the Katy and Cotton Belt 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 opened as a 49-function electric interlocker, the most complex interlocker in Texas at the time (but eclipsed by the 59 functions of Tower 26 several weeks later).

The railroads of East Waco changed considerably over the years. In 1965, SP sold its tracks from Waco to Marlin to Missouri Pacific (MP) and abandoned the remainder of the original W&N to Bremond. This gave MP a better route into Waco from Marlin than the line they owned which had been built by the International & Great Northern (I-GN) in 1902.  The Cotton Belt line was abandoned in 1988 but their 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.

Historic Photos, Tower 21 (Harry C. Blaize Jr., from the collection of John Linda)
Above: 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). Ken Stavinoha points out that the "fish-scale" pattern between the stories, common to many SP towers, was a feature of the Queen Anne architectural style popular in the late 1890s.

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 I-GN to access downtown from their main line that skirted the east side of Waco. Although I-GN built into Waco in 1902, the spur construction date is unknown; I-GN was never listed as a railroad at Tower 21. The I-GN crossed the Cotton Belt at Tower 8 much further east at a location that was also designated as "East Waco". The Katy and SP lines that are parallel off the top of the map are headed to Ross. The Katy acquired this line with their purchase of the TC in 1910. The H&TC line to Ross dated back to the original W&N construction in 1872. H&TC abandoned their line to Ross three years after this map was published. Tower 59 and Tower 144 were also located along the Katy main.

Above: This Google Street View (GSV) facing east shows that evidence of the original parallel SP and TC grades from Ross into Waco still exists. Below: The Cotton Belt tracks remain buried on University Parks Dr. in this GSV image from November 2016. As of February, 2018, studies were underway to evaluate alternatives for renovating the Cotton Belt bridge for pedestrian and bicycle use.

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)

Last Revised: 3/11/2018 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.