Texas Railroad History - Towers 21 and 144 - East Waco

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

Above: John W. Barriger III took this photo facing south from the rear platform of his private railcar as his train proceeded north, probably in the mid 1930's. His camera was prompted by the sudden appearance of Tower 21 in his view as he finished crossing the Missouri - Kansas - Texas (" Katy") railroad bridge over the Brazos River into East Waco. Beside him to the right are tracks of the St. Louis Southwestern railroad, with its 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: This photo of Tower 21 was also taken by Barriger. Here, the view is to the north as his train is southbound, and he is about to be (or perhaps already is) on the Katy's bridge over the Brazos. Southern Pacific tracks are visible crossing in front of Tower 21.

The Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railway commenced building north out of Houston toward the Red River in the late 1850s, and after a pause during the Civil War, construction had passed through Hearne and Bremond into Groesbeck by the end of 1870. Bremond was significant because it was the target of the Waco Tap Railroad which had been chartered with the intent to "tap" the H&TC main line to bring rail service to Waco, already a town of over 3,000 population. The project was mostly dormant, but conveniently for the Waco Tap, H&TC's investors had been looking at the prospect of building a lengthy branch line into the Texas Panhandle. Waco was the obvious gateway in that direction, hence, negotiations ensued to see what might be done under the Tap's existing charter. To convey H&TC's long range intent, the Texas Legislature modified the charter on August 6, 1870 to establish Waco & Northwestern (W&NW) Railway as the new name for the Waco Tap. The branch line from Bremond to Waco was completed for the W&NW by H&TC's construction forces in September, 1872. An 11-mile extension north from Waco to Ross was also built. There was nothing special about the tiny community of Ross, so this short track segment was apparently a reminder of H&TC's long term intent to build toward the Panhandle.

Bremond is east of the Brazos River but downtown Waco is west of the Brazos as the river flows through the city. Rather than bridge the river, an expensive proposition, the W&NW remained east of it and located their depot in East Waco, an unincorporated community of neighborhoods northeast of the Brazos that was ultimately within the city limits of Waco. The W&NW was formally bought by the H&TC in 1873 and operated as a subsidiary. By that time, the H&TC main line out of Houston had reached Denison and connected with the Missouri, Kansas & Texas ("Katy") Railroad which had bridged the Red River from Oklahoma into Texas.

The H&TC attracted the attention of Charles Morgan, owner of a major steamship line operating in the Gulf of Mexico. Morgan was pursuing a strategy of acquiring railroads to move goods through the major ports servicing his steamship line, particularly at Houston, the H&TC's base of operations, where he was building his own port along Buffalo Bayou at Clinton. To this end, he organized Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad and Steamship Company, and then bought the H&TC in early 1877, naming his son-in-law, Charles Whitney, as President. With Morgan and his family now in control, they refocused on the W&NW and the planned northwest extension. Morgan envisioned Denver and the plains east of the Rocky Mountains as a source of traffic for his railroad and steamship lines since Houston was the nearest port. Also, much of the land that had been granted to the H&TC by the State of Texas for completion of the main line to Denison was to be surveyed and patented in northwest Texas, all the more reason to serve that area; land values would rise with the presence of the railroad.

In 1881, nine years after the H&TC arrived in Waco, the Missouri Pacific (MP) Railroad decided to initiate construction northward out of East Waco to meet a line it was beginning to build south from Ft. Worth. Technically, the tracks were owned by the Missouri, Kansas & Texas ("Katy") Railroad but the Katy was leased to MP. Both MP and the Katy had come under the control of Jay Gould a year earlier and publicly, the construction was viewed as an MP activity. MP's line south from Ft. Worth had the eventual goal of reaching Houston. MP did not have a rail line into Waco, but they could ship construction materials and locomotives there on the H&TC. Southward construction stopped at Alvarado, and the northward construction reached there in August, 1881, opening service between Ft. Worth and East Waco.

In the late 1880s, Gould's control over the Katy lapsed and MP's lease was dissolved. The State of Texas sued the Katy in 1887 for non-compliance with Texas' railroad ownership and service laws, and in 1890, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's order against the Katy. In response, the Katy's Texas holdings were consolidated in 1891 under a new state law that chartered the Missouri, Kansas & Texas ("MK&T") of Texas, a Texas-based wholly-owned subsidiary of the parent Katy railroad. [Note that after the Katy emerged from another bankruptcy in 1923, the company established at that time was the "Missouri - Kansas - Texas Railroad", hence the acronym became "M-K-T" (typically reduced to "MKT") instead of "MK&T".] Nearly one hundred years later, MP would again take control of the Katy, at the end of 1989, but through acquisition instead of lease.

Simultaneous with MP's 1881 construction at East Waco, the Texas & St. Louis (T&SL) Railway was building a narrow gauge rail line toward Waco from Tyler via Corsicana. The company had begun as the Tyler Tap Railroad chartered in 1871 to bring rail service to Tyler by "tapping" the Texas & Pacific Railway at Big Sandy in 1877. Two years later, the name was changed to T&SL when 107 miles from Big Sandy to Texarkana was built along with additional tracks into Arkansas. Despite the name change, the railroad was colloquially called "the Narrow Gauge" by the press (as if there was only one such railroad in Texas, which was not true!) The westward expansion toward Waco occurred in 1880-81, but like MP, the T&SL also elected to perform construction work at East Waco before the rails reached town. This track work led to a substantial and violent conflict with MP regarding rights-of-way (ROWs) and crossings. The clash was so intense that a lengthy article in the Galveston Daily News of April 26, 1881 described it with phrases such as "withdrawal of both forces to their camps", "expecting another attack" and "Missouri-Pacific forces again charged the track". The article also mentions a criminal proceeding on "...charges of destruction of property and inciting a riot..."

       "loth" - an older, less common spelling of loath
Left: The opening paragraph of this article from the Galveston Daily News of April 26, 1881 conveys a bit of the intensity of the brawl between MP and T&SL construction forces in the battle for right-of-way in East Waco.

Right: Elsewhere in the same edition, the Galveston Daily News reported on an injunction issued against the "St. Louis and Texas" by a Federal Judge in Dallas.

Below: The Fort Worth Daily Democrat of April 30, 1881 mentions that the T&SL's chief engineer had come to East Waco, presumably to find an alternate arrangement for their tracks.

When the conflict was settled, both railroads completed their lines into East Waco from Ft. Worth and Tyler, respectively, in August, 1881. Continuing past Waco, both companies needed to cross the Brazos River to proceed south (MP) or west (T&SL). MP's plan was to continue through Temple to Smithville where the main line would turn east to Houston. Their Brazos River bridge had been under construction since the spring of 1881; it opened in late December and tracks were laid as far south as Taylor by the end of 1882. The T&SL was building west to Gatesville; their bridge (100 yards west of MP's bridge) opened in April, 1882 and tracks to Gatesville were completed later that year.

Above Left: The Waco Daily Examiner of December 23, 1881 described the scene of the first railroad to cross the MP (Katy) bridge over the Brazos. Above Right: Four months later, the Waco Daily Examiner of April 23, 1882  reported the first T&SL engine to cross their new bridge.

Charles Morgan's death at age 73 on May 8, 1878 precipitated a change in control of the H&TC and his steamship line. In 1883, Southern Pacific (SP) acquired the Morgan interests including the H&TC, but the railroad was allowed to operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary. In 1885, the H&TC went into receivership and SP lost control. As part of the financial reorganization, a new Houston & Texas Central "Railroad" (not "Railway", as originally named) was chartered. This new H&TC was able to re-acquire the main line to Denison from the bondholders in 1890, and the H&TC was in turn reacquired by SP. The H&TC was allowed to continue to operate as a subsidiary until it was leased (1927) and then merged (1934) into SP's Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad, its primary operating company for Texas and Louisiana lines.

The W&NW had been separated from the H&TC by the bankruptcy court and remained in receivership, to be sold at auction. In her 1968 master's thesis, 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, Judy Jolley Rosenbaum explains what happened next (hat tip, Bradley Linda):

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.

As noted above, the Texas Central (TC) Railroad was represented at the second W&NW auction. The TC was an independent railroad but closely related to the H&TC. It had been founded a year after Charles Morgan's death when his son-in-law, H&TC President Charles Whitney, decided to organize new investors and charter a separate railroad to build the long planned northwest extension out of Ross rather than risk placing the financial burden on the H&TC. The new company would also build a northeast extension to Paris off the H&TC main line at Ennis, south of Dallas. The assumption behind these extensions was that upon completion, they would be acquired and merged by the H&TC. The TC began building north and west out of Ross in 1879, founding the eponymous towns of Whitney and Morgan in succession as the TC built toward Eastland County and Albany.

The TC went into receivership in 1885, and it was prevented from participating in the first auction of the W&NW in 1892 because its financial restructuring out of bankruptcy was still in progress. The reorganization plan resulted in the TC's main line from Ross to Albany being deeded by the TC's bondholders to a new Texas Central Railroad Company in January, 1893. The TC's northeastern branch out of Ennis had built through Kaufman and Terrell, but had yet to reach Greenville and all work had been halted. As it had no operational relationship to the TC's main line, it had been divested by the bankruptcy court and sold in 1892 to Wall Street investor Hetty Green, who rechristened it the Texas Midland Railroad. (Perhaps the financial task of resuming construction toward Paris was proving to be enough for the Greens; after winning and then losing the first W&NW auction, they did not participate in the second.) Shorn of the northeastern branch and on sound financial footing, the TC opened the bidding at the second W&NW auction; it wanted direct access to the other railroads at Waco rather than being limited to the W&NW connection at Ross. But the TC did not win the auction, so, for the time being, the W&NW at Ross remained their only south end connection.

The TC added tracks from Albany to Stamford (1900), Stamford to Rotan (1907), and De Leon to Cross Plains (1911.) The TC also built its own line from Ross to Waco in 1903. In 1910, the Katy (independent and no longer under lease to MP) acquired 90% of the stock of the TC. They did not, however, take control of the company until May 1, 1914 when the TC was leased to the Katy's Texas-based subsidiary, a necessity for compliance with state law regarding railroad headquarters in Texas. The Texas Central name continued to be used, but "the Katy" came into common parlance along this line as operations continued for several decades.

The TC's problem at the outset was that its only south end connection was with the W&NW at Ross. To counter this, the TC built a 1.6 mile spur from Ross to the Katy main line at a point three miles north of Elm Mott, as reported (left) on Sept. 24, 1897 by Railway Age. The H&TC sued, but failed to stop it. [This ROW is probably Ross Rd. today.] No longer getting much business at Ross, SP leased their Ross - Waco line to the TC, as reported (right) by Railway and Engineering Review, August 5, 1899. The TC later built its own line from Ross to Waco.

Having completed their line into Gatesville, the T&SL was conducting profitable operations in Texas, but lacked the lengthy sidings and rolling stock necessary to run single-track rail lines efficiently deep into Arkansas. The result was a receivership that began in January, 1884. After two financial reorganizations spanning seven years (during which the entire T&SL rail network was converted to standard gauge), the enterprise was reconstituted in January, 1891 as the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (SLSW, but also abbreviated "SSW" and more commonly known as the "Cotton Belt"). The Cotton Belt operated independently until 1932 when it became controlled by SP. It continued to operate as a subsidiary of SP until it was fully merged in 1992.

The major junction of all of these railroads was located where the H&TC line along the east bank of the Brazos crossed the Katy and Cotton Belt lines. This became the location of Tower 21 which was authorized by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) to commence operation on August 8, 1903. The complexity of the junction is indicated by the fact that Tower 21 opened as a 49-function electric interlocker with 44 levers, the most complex interlocker in Texas at the time (eclipsed by the 59 functions of Tower 26 several weeks later.) The interlocking plant was built by the Taylor Signal Co. with a capacity of 56 levers. In its annual report, RCT listed all three railroads as cost-sharing participants at Tower 21.

In 1916, RCT began listing the railroad responsible for operating each tower, and for Tower 21, it was the H&TC. This is no surprise; Tower 21 resembles many others that were built by SP in this general timeframe (e.g. Towers 16, 17, and 81), and in most cases, the railroad that staffed the tower was also the one that had built it. RCT's interlocker list dated October 31, 1916 also showed an increase in Tower 21's functions to a total of 59. By the time RCT stopped publishing annual lists of active interlockers (the last one was dated December 31, 1930), Tower 21's function count had increased to 67. It was a very busy place!

Above: This index for the 1926 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map collection for Waco has been rotated so that North is "up" and has been annotated to highlight the rail lines and the river. Besides the railroads discussed above, there are three additions that appear on the map. The San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) had entered Waco from the southeast in the late 1880s and ended in downtown near the river. Tower 59 was established in November, 1904 where the SA&AP crossed the Katy, about 700 ft. south of Katy's bridge. The International & Great Northern (I&GN) was by 1926 a recently acquired subsidiary of MP. The I&GN had a lead into downtown for passenger service coming from the east where it had tracks going north to Ft. Worth (crossing the Cotton Belt in East Waco at Tower 8) and southeast to Bryan and beyond. The third additional railroad, the Texas Electric (TE), was an electric interurban line from Dallas to Waco via Hillsboro. It had an interchange track with the Cotton Belt that ran down Price St.

The maps shows that the H&TC (green) tracks were still intact to Ross. Three years after this map was drawn, the H&TC would abandon this line. Other than perhaps accessing East Waco businesses, it had limited utility after the TC had laid its own tracks between Ross and Waco in 1903. The Katy had owned the TC for more than a dozen years by the time this map was drawn, but the TC operated under its own name.

: Although the commissioning of Tower 144 was still 13 years in the future, the junction it would control had existed for decades when this 1915 track chart (courtesy of Ed Chambers) was drawn by the Katy's Chief Engineer's Office. The track complexities make it apparent why Tower 21 had been commissioned with 44 active levers. Immediately north of Tower 144, the Katy established a major yard and shops at Bellmead. The "Cut-Off To T.C." at the top of the image is not the TC spur between Ross and Elm Mott. It was a shortcut between the TC and the Bellmead yard built after the Katy had acquired the TC. It remains intact to serve an industry adjacent to the former TC main line.

On May 29, 1928, RCT commissioned an interlocker, Tower 144, to control the crossing of the Katy and the Cotton Belt about a mile northeast of Tower 21. This location was just beyond the south end of the Cotton Belt yard, so Cotton Belt trains were generally traveling at low speed as they approached Tower 144. This is likely the reason that RCT's list of active interlockers published at the end of 1928 shows the Tower 144 interlocker having only two functions! That's the smallest number of functions ever incorporated into a numbered interlocker commissioned by RCT. RCT describes the interlocking plant as "Mechanical" instead of "M.-Cabin", which is how most of the others in that timeframe were listed, e.g. Tower 143 at Devers, Towers 145 and 149 at Edinburg, and several others. Cabin interlockers had become common in the late 1920s as RCT appears to have pressured the railroads to install safety systems at many of the remaining uncontrolled crossings that could not justify the expense of a manned tower. Automatic interlocker technology had not yet been approved by RCT, so cabin interlockers were the best option. Tower 144's listing as "Mechanical" with only two functions suggests that it was most likely a ground lever. It obviously couldn't have been a manned tower, and it would have been listed as "M.-Cabin" if it had been planned as a cabin interlocker. A ground lever interlocker was essentially a manual switch located trackside that controlled signals instead of a track switch. And since a single lever could control both of its functions, it is likely that the lever simply altered the state of the signals on the Katy tracks. The lever would normally be positioned to signal unrestricted movements on the Katy tracks (by far the busier of the two) until a Cotton Belt train needed to cross. All Cotton Belt trains stopped at the crossing; a crewmember would exit the train and throw the lever to the opposite position to warn any approaching Katy train to stop. The lever would then be returned to its normal position after the Cotton Belt train had completed its passage over the diamond. Since the Cotton Belt yard was a short distance north of Tower 144, its trains were always moving at low speed anyway, hence the manual interlocker contributed only a minor delay to operations.

In 1965, SP abandoned the original W&NW tracks between Marlin and Bremond, and sold the remainder of this line, between Waco and Marlin, to MP. MP's former I&GN line into Waco also passed through Marlin, but SP's route was shorter and had fewer grades and curves. MP connected the tracks into their (ex-I&GN) yard in East Waco, and the former SP tracks to Tower 21 were removed around 1967. MP's route through Marlin remains in service by successor Union Pacific (UP) as a major line between Waco and the Houston area. MP was already owned by UP when the Katy was acquired and merged into MP's operations in 1989. The former Katy main line through Waco between Ft. Worth and Smithville also remains a major route for UP. The fate of Tower 21 has not been determined, but it was likely removed from service in 1967 when the former SP tracks to the tower were abandoned.

Above: Carl Codney obtained this documentation from the SP offices in Houston showing two sets of interlocker controls for Tower 21, designated 21A (left) for the T&NO and the Katy, and 21B (right) for the Cotton Belt and the Katy. Unfortunately, the documents are undated, but judging by the typeset and lack of hand notations typically found on these documents (see Tower 2), they likely date from the 1950s. The significant number of "Trk. Cir." (track circuits) suggests that the Tower 21 interlocker had become automatic and it may have included the functions previously assigned to the Tower 144 interlocker. Below: SP continued to serve Waco over the Cotton Belt until 1988 when the line was abandoned west of Corsicana. The Cotton Belt bridge over the Brazos remains intact and is the subject of ongoing debate among Waco civic leaders regarding whether to repurpose it as a pedestrian walkway or dismantle it. (Waco Tribune-Herald photos)

Above: These 1954 photos of Tower 21 (by Harry C. Blaize Jr., from the collection of John Linda) were taken from a train carrying model railroaders from the Katy's Waco depot to the Bellmead Shops.

Above Left: Facing north, a highway now resides atop the former H&TC and TC rights-of-way near the site of Tower 21. Above Right: This view of a northbound Katy train coming off the Brazos River bridge was probably taken from the highway overpass, near the site of Tower 21. (courtesy Tom Kline) Below Left: This Google Street View image facing east shows evidence of the original parallel W&NW and TC grades from Ross into Waco. Below: The Cotton Belt tracks remain buried on University Parks Dr. in this Street View image from November 2016, with the Cotton Belt bridge visible in the distance.


Above Left: Tom Kline captured this image of the Tower 144 crossing site in 2007. Facing north along the Katy, the Cotton Belt tracks still came in from the northeast but were out of service and no longer crossed. Tom has documentation showing that around 1957, the Cotton Belt began merging here onto the Katy main line to Tower 21, where they reconnected back to their bridge tracks. The rails west of Tower 144 became industry tracks. Above Right: In this view to the south, concrete pads remained intact from earlier signal posts. The Cotton Belt ROW went through the tree line to the right of the Katy tracks. Below Left: By March 2013, Google Street View shows that the Cotton Belt tracks had been scrapped. Some sort of electronics box remained intact, and is visible in Tom's photo above right. Below Right: There's not much evidence of the former Tower 144 crossing, which now sits beneath a US 77 Bus. overpass. Both Cottonbelt St. and Katy Lane are nearby. (Google Earth)

As annotated onto the Sanborn Map further above, there was one other railroad through East Waco, an electric interurban line built originally by the Southern Traction Co. that was completed into Waco in 1913. The Texas Electric (TE) Railway was then chartered in 1916 to merge the Southern Traction Co. and the Texas Traction Co., creating a network of three interurban routes out of Dallas that ran to Waco, Corsicana and Sherman, respectively. The TE line from Dallas to Waco went by way of
Italy and Hillsboro. At Waco, the interurban had an interchange track with the Cotton Belt railroad on Price St. and then continued south to cross the Brazos River into downtown on a 3-pier rail bridge (above left, looking north, courtesy Baylor University Library.) The bridge was located about 350 yards upstream of the Cotton Belt bridge. The TE terminated its operations at the end of 1948 and the interurban bridge was re-decked to carry automobiles. The opening of the Franklin Ave. bridge in 1973 motivated the decision to dismantle the interurban bridge. This began in the summer of 1974 and was completed in September, 1975, but the bridge's three piers were left undisturbed in the river. The northernmost pier has been painted and repurposed (above right) to hold a circular observation deck. (Google Street View, November, 2021.) Below: The two piers that remain in the river along with the circular observation deck built atop the northernmost pier sit adjacent to the Waco Suspension Bridge. (Google Earth, October 30, 2019)

Thanks to Andy Nold, John Linda and Johnny Myers for information about the interurban line into Waco.

Last Revised: 3/26/2022 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.