Texas Railroad History - Tower 32, Tower 74 and Mariposa Tower - Beaumont

Tower 32: A Crossing of the Texas & New Orleans Railroad and the Gulf, Beaumont & Kansas City Railway

Tower 74: A Crossing of the Texas & New Orleans Railroad and the Beaumont, Sour Lake and Western Railway

Mariposa Tower: A Santa Fe Tower near Downtown Beaumont


As railroad executive John W. Barriger III surveyed facilities in the late 1930s and early 1940s for the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, he snapped these two photos looking out the rear of his business car while traveling eastbound on the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad toward downtown Beaumont. Above: Coming into Beaumont from Houston, the first structure of interest that Barriger passed was Tower 74 where the T&NO crossed over Missouri Pacific's (MP) main line between Beaumont and Houston. The view is west-southwest along the T&NO right-of-way, with MP's tracks visible crossing diagonally in front of the tower. Below: Less than a mile farther east, Barriger snapped the Mariposa Street bridge with Tower 32 in the background. From this view, the north/south Santa Fe line crosses in front of the tower while the T&NO line to Dallas and Port Arthur passes behind the tower. (John W Barriger National Railroad Library)

"Texas & New Orleans Railroad" was the new name adopted on Christmas Eve, 1859 by the Sabine & Galveston Bay Railroad and Lumber Co., a railroad chartered in 1856 to serve southeast Texas lumber interests. By May, 1861, the "T&NO" had connected Houston with Orange using wide (5' 6") gauge construction. In 1863, rails were removed between Orange and Beaumont by Confederate forces to assist in building a fort at Sabine Pass. The complete line between Houston and Beaumont was rebuilt to standard gauge in 1866 and extended to Orange in 1876. Numerous disruptions caused by war, sabotage, flooding, washouts, bankruptcies and corporate restructurings delayed the completion to New Orleans by two decades; a train finally made the trip all the way from Houston in 1880. In the course of financial reorganization, the T&NO was sold to Southern Pacific (SP) and became SP's primary operating company in Texas and Louisiana into which other SP railroads were folded. SP's southern transcontinental "Sunset Route" passed through Beaumont on T&NO's tracks.

One of the railroads SP acquired was the Sabine & East Texas (S&ET) Railroad. The S&ET had laid 55 miles of rail in 1881 from Sabine Pass to the new town of Kountze. Crossing the T&NO's east/west main line, the S&ET's north/south construction created Beaumont's first rail junction. The S&ET was extended 48 miles farther north to Rockland in 1882 and was then acquired by T&NO that October. With additional construction and line acquisitions by SP, this route eventually extended north all the way to Dallas.

John H. Kirby founded the next railroad into Beaumont. Kirby had made his fortune in timber land and sawmills in east Texas. Needing better transportation, Kirby chartered the Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City (GB&KC) Railway in 1893. Within two years, a 52-mile line between Beaumont and Kirbyville was in operation. On Beaumont's north side, the GB&KC tracks paralleled T&NO's Rockland line south, then crossed T&NO's Sunset Route and curved southeast into downtown.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railway bought the GB&KC in 1899 to provide a nearby Gulf outlet for its Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway subsidiary. The GC&SF main line went from Galveston to Temple and points north, but they had built a branch line into east Texas from Somerville to pursue the expanding lumber commerce. The GC&SF routing from east Texas back to Galveston via Somerville was often uncompetitive to routes offered by railroads at Conroe and Cleveland. Since the GC&SF tracks ended at Rayburn only 50 miles west of Silsbee where the GB&KC already served sawmills, Santa Fe directed GB&KC to begin building yard and maintenance facilities in Silsbee while the GC&SF constructed the remaining 50 miles eastward. In 1903, Santa Fe conveyed the GB&KC to the GC&SF by lease.

On January 28, 1904, Tower 32 was authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT). The tower was recorded officially as a GB&KC / T&NO crossing. The electrical interlocking plant controlled 37 functions, exceeded at the time only by a 45-function interlocker at Tower 21 and a 54-function interlocker at Tower 26. The tower had tracks on three sides: T&NO's Sunset Route on the south side, the GB&KC tracks on the east side (leased to GC&SF), and T&NO's Sabine Pass / Rockland line on the west side.

The next railroad into Beaumont was the Gulf & Inter-State (G&I) Railway, chartered to bring rail service to the town of Port Bolivar on the Bolivar Peninsula across the bay from Galveston. The G&I proposed to build a rail line up the peninsula to the community of High Island and from there northwest to Liberty where a T&NO connection would be made. The route to Liberty never materialized, and instead, rail construction continued northeast at High Island, reaching Beaumont in 1896. The G&I tracks entered Beaumont from the southwest, crossed T&NO's line to Sabine Pass and connected with the GB&KC tracks at a triangle junction, the third leg being Santa Fe's lead into downtown. In 1898, new G&I ownership hired Santa Fe to develop the docks and tracks at Port Bolivar. Santa Fe bought the G&I in 1908 and integrated it into the GC&SF.

About the time G&I's tracks first reached Beaumont, Arthur Stilwell's idea to construct a route between Kansas City and a new port on the Gulf of Mexico had begun to materialize. Under his Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf (KCP&G) Railway, Stilwell acquired the Texarkana & Fort Smith (T&FS) Railway to build and operate the Texas portion of his route. The T&FS charter was amended to add a route south from Texarkana to the new port on the Gulf, much of it located in Louisiana. In 1896, the T&FS built 24 miles of track south from Texarkana to the Louisiana state line and 19 miles of track north from Stilwell's eponymous new port, Port Arthur, into Beaumont. In between, the line went south to Shreveport and then to DeQuincy, where it turned southwest and crossed into Texas at the Sabine River. In 1897, T&FS completed the remaining Texas construction between the Sabine River and Beaumont, bridging the Neches River near downtown and connecting with the tracks from Port Arthur. Full service between Kansas City and Port Arthur commenced on November 1, 1897.

In 1899, Stilwell lost financial control of the KCP&G and it was acquired in 1900 by the newly chartered Kansas City Southern (KCS) Railway. Because KCS was a Missouri-chartered railroad not headquartered in Texas, the State of Texas appealed a 1933 Interstate Commerce Commission ruling that granted KCS permission to acquire the T&FS and absorb its operations into KCS, notwithstanding Texas law to the contrary. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 1934. KCS had already leased the T&FS, so the formal merger was delayed until the lease ended in 1943. In addition to KCS' long term success, Stilwell's founding of Port Arthur was a boon to the T&NO. Its tracks from Beaumont to Sabine Pass went through the west side of Port Arthur which quickly developed into a major industrial area. T&NO abandoned the Sabine Pass portion of this line south of Port Arthur in 1932.

The last railroad into Beaumont was the Beaumont, Sour Lake and Western (BSL&W) Railway. It was chartered in 1903 to build west from Beaumont to the newly developed oil field at Sour Lake. In 1905, it was sold to B. F. Yoakum, who added it to his collection of railroads known as the Gulf Coast Lines (GCL). To reach the Port of Beaumont, the BSL&W tracks crossed the T&NO main line about a mile west of Tower 32, a crossing that became interlocked with a 12-function mechanical plant commissioned as Tower 74 on May 15, 1908. As the BSL&W built west from Grayburg to Houston in 1908, Yoakum negotiated trackage rights on the KCS from Beaumont to DeQuincy, where another GCL railroad had tracks into New Orleans. The BSL&W connection with the KCS in Beaumont became known as "GCL Junction", a term that remains in use today. In 1925, the GCL collection of railroads was acquired by Missouri Pacific (MP).

The terminal railroad in Beaumont was the Beaumont Wharf and Terminal (BW&T) Company, founded in 1897 by John H. Kirby and others. The BW&T built tracks to connect to all of the railroads and to serve the port and other industries located along the Neches River. Although Kirby's GB&KC railroad was acquired by Santa Fe, the BW&T remained a separate company until it was merged into the GC&SF in 1957.

Below: This annotated Sanborn Fire Insurance Index Map of Beaumont from 1911 shows the major rail routes. In addition to Towers 32 and 74, there was one other tower operating in the Beaumont area in 1911. Tower 31 was located at the KCS / T&NO crossing off the map to the right. There was never an RCT-numbered interlocker at GCL Junction. The crossings of three rail lines a short distance south of Tower 32 might have been controlled by the Tower 32 interlocker, but this has not been determined.

  
Above Left: Tower 32 appears in this cropped image of a photo taken by R. D. Evans, March 8, 1956. (Texas & New Orleans Color Pictorial by Steve Allen Goen, Four Ways West Publications, 2004; used with permission.) Above Right: Eastbound SP train #2 passes along the south side of Tower 32 in early 1950 and has already crossed the T&NO line that ran immediately beside (and west of) the tower. The locomotive is about to cross the Santa Fe track that was a few yards east of the tower. (Raymond Mueller photo)

Below: This annotated image derives from a 1954 aerial photo of Beaumont (Don Johnson collection, hat tip, Mark St. Aubin) that is facing generally east-southeast. The T&NO Sunset Route and yards are on an east-northeast heading into downtown to the left. Tower 32 is visible west of the Mariposa St. bridge. The T&NO Dallas/Port Arthur line is visible passing this side (west) of the tower while the Santa Fe tracks pass on the opposite side of the tower, curve to the southeast toward downtown, and split. The left branch continues toward the Santa Fe depot downtown while the right branch curves back to the southwest and proceeds to High Island on the former G&I route. Mariposa Tower was located somewhere in the yellow circle, just past Santa Fe's Orange Ave. (Mariposa St.) grade crossing. This tower is known only by reference in a Santa Fe letter to RCT in 1961 regarding the tower's closure. It appears to have begun as a 3-story watchman's tower controlling signals and gates at grade crossings, but may have incorporated some role in controlling trains in the vicinity of downtown (see discussion further below.) Based on the typical design of watchman's towers, the best guess is that the Mariposa Tower cabin is the black rectangle with the white dot near the center of the yellow circle, and is elevated above and behind a white, 1-story building that has a dark roof. (Image magnification has been tried but does not add clarity.)


Above: an undated photo of Tower 74 (hat tip, Mark St. Aubin)

In the early 1960s, a major cooperative effort among Beaumont's railroads led to many changes in rail traffic flow. SP and Santa Fe built a connection between their parallel tracks at the Broadway St. grade crossing about one-third of a mile north of Tower 32. This moved northbound SP trains onto Santa Fe's tracks at Broadway St. From there, SP trains continued north past Santa Fe's freight yard all the way to Loeb Jct. (near Lumberton) where they returned to SP rails. This allowed SP to abandon 9.5 miles of track between Broadway St. and Loeb in 1961. Santa Fe's line that passed Mariposa Tower from downtown was re-directed to connect to SP's tracks on the north side of Tower 32. This allowed Santa Fe to abandon its tracks south of Broadway St. and begin using SP rails to Tower 32 to reach the downtown connector. As Santa Fe dismantled their downtown operations (and requested RCT permission to close Mariposa Tower in 1961 as discussed further below), a new connection to reach Santa Fe's line to High Island was needed. This was accomplished with a branch off of SP's Port Arthur line which Santa Fe reached using SP's tracks south of Tower 32. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is the successor to Santa Fe and continues to operate the former Santa Fe lines in Beaumont.

The other major effort affecting Beaumont rail traffic was motivated in part by SP's desire to expand its yard, which was not feasible at its downtown location. SP built a new yard west of Tower 74 and eliminated its yard and tracks in downtown (except for an industry spur remaining in place east from Tower 32.) Removing its downtown tracks required SP to begin using MP's route east from Tower 74 to GCL Junction. At GCL Jct., SP trains moved onto KCS rails, crossed the KCS bridge over the Neches River, and continued a mile farther east to Tower 31 where they rejoined the Sunset Route. With this operation in place, SP abandoned its main line between Tower 32 and Tower 31 in 1967. SP's Neches River bridge was dismantled two years later. SP also revised their Port Arthur line; instead of continuing north to Tower 32, it was curved west onto the MP tracks toward Tower 74 to reach SP's new yard. With SP no longer accessing Port Arthur via Tower 32, the rails south of Tower 32 were curved directly onto Santa Fe's High Island line. All of these changes meant that Tower 32's complex interlocking plant was no longer needed. Most of traffic it saw was infrequent north/south Santa Fe movements accessing the High Island line. The interlocker was removed and replaced with a gate to guard access to SP's industry spur toward downtown. When this spur was rerouted to become a connection south of the diamond, the diamond was removed. The date and fate of the ultimate demise of the Tower 32 structure is unknown.

For its part, MP obtained trackage rights from SP west from Tower 74 to Langham Road, where it built a new 1-mile connecting track that angled northwest to rejoin the MP main line. This allowed MP to abandon 3.6 miles of track west of Tower 74 in 1962; a short section of track was retained near the tower as an industry spur. By the late 1960s, the Sunset Route through Beaumont had become a double-tracked main line corridor used by both MP and SP from the MP connector near Langham Road all the way to GCL Junction. Tower 74, no longer a crossing, was closed, but the closure date and the fate of the tower structure is unknown. Union Pacific (UP) became the successor to both MP and SP, and continues to operate substantial traffic through Beaumont. The KCS route through Beaumont has changed little since 1900 and it remains in operation by KCS today.


Above: Annotated map of Beaumont showing numbered towers and other locations. (G = GCL Junction, M = Mariposa Tower, K = KCS Tower at the Neches River Bridge)

Below: Two photos provided by Ted Ferkenhoff, who supplies these captions:

Below Left: The site of the original crossing of the MoPac's Livonia-Houston line and SP's Sunset Route is now referred to as CP (Control Point) 459. This view is looking east, with the Amtrak station/Tower 74 (new version) to our back. The foreground track alignment is that of the SP, whose main continued eastward through downtown Beaumont. The alignment veering to the right is that of the MoPac toward GCL Jct. where it joins the KCS mainline to DeQuincy, LA. When the MP and SP consolidated their trackage into a double-tracked joint corridor in the mid-1960's, the SP line was used from the west end of Beaumont (where MoPac built a new 1-mile connection to their original line) to Tower 74. The crossing was removed, and the corridor then followed the MoPac alignment east through town. The track diverging to the lower left is a remnant of the old MoPac main used to serve a gravel company. The track diverging to the upper left is remains of the former SP main, referred to as the "NO Main", for New Orleans main. The yard in the distance on the right is the MoPac downtown yard, and the track running on the far right is known as the "Roy Jones" connection, and connects to SP's yard which lies west (behind the photographer). The site of the original Tower 74 building is to the right just out of the photo. Below Right: This photo was the "new" Tower 74, which unceremoniously shared a building with the Amtrak waiting room at Beaumont until it closed in April 2000. It was replaced by dispatcher control at Spring, TX. The windows to the far left are the waiting room, the windows to the right are the operator's office where the CTC board, printer, fridge, and sundry other items were located. The remainder of the building to the right of the windows was a room full of relays and other electrical gear. This installation replaced the original Tower 74 building in the mid-60's when MP and SP consolidated their mainlines into a single corridor through Beaumont.
 

Below: Interior photo of the "new" Tower 74 c.1998 (Mark St. Aubin photo)

Update from Howard Bingham (Oct. 5, 2006): "The 'new' Tower 74 building...no longer exists. The building was leveled by the UP about 2 1/2 years ago after the City of Beaumont condemned the building due to damage caused by vagrants. All that remains today is a concrete pad where the building once stood in addition to the boarding platform which continues to serve any Amtrak passengers boarding at Beaumont."

Below: This Google simulated 3D view combining satellite imagery with ground elevation data shows that a new Amtrak shelter has been built to replace the "boarding platform" referenced above. The building at the bottom is a Police Substation. The view is east along UP's double-tracked main line toward GCL Jct. The former site of Tower 74 is in the trees across the tracks to the right. The spur that branches to the left is the former SP main line to Tower 32 and downtown, and is where Barriger's car was traveling as he snapped photo of Tower 74 (top of this page) looking out the rear of his eastbound business car. In those days, SP's main line right-of-way had three tracks while only a single MP track crossed at the tower toward GCL Jct.



Above: This 2011 image is essentially the same view as Barriger's shot of the Mariposa St. bridge at the top of the page. When T&NO's downtown tracks and yards were removed, the Mariposa Street bridge was dismantled and replaced by a surface roadway; this image was taken from that roadway. Patches are visible where industry spurs were removed. Below: An elevated 3D view from approximately the same location and direction as Barriger's photo of Tower 32 shows tracks remain in place west of the crossing, retaining north and south connections to the crossing track on the original T&NO alignment. The angled "gap" in the trees just below the middle left edge of the image is the Santa Fe right-of-way which curved toward downtown (lower left direction) after crossing the T&NO. Was Tower 32 also a religious facility? Google has inexplicably marked the tower site as the Unity Church of Southeast Texas! Note that Mariposa Street, which replaced the bridge visible in Barriger's photo, has been renamed North M L King Jr. Parkway. (Google Street View)

 
Above Left: This 2004 photo taken by Jim King faces west at the Tower 32 crossing. Although a gate is visible, Gary Williams reports that the "diamond at Tower 32 was removed December 14, 1998."  The gate remains intact today, guarding nothing. The photo shows rails buried in the weeds, but by 2008, (image above right facing north) the entire area was cleared. The spur track across Mariposa St. survived the original abandonment east of Tower 32 and was served from the west across the diamond until the lead was added from the northbound track. (Microsoft Virtual Earth image)  Below: This recent Google Street View looks south from Calder Ave. down the SP alignment towards the site of Tower 32. The connector track between the two railroads is visible angling in from the left, bringing southbound trains off the Santa Fe alignment and onto the SP alignment at Broadway St., the next grade crossing south of Calder. The abandoned Santa Fe right-of-way runs south through the gravel parking area behind the equipment cabinet at left of center, which is at the Broadway St. grade crossing. That cabinet is marked "U.P.R.R." while a similar one at the Calder Ave. grade crossing (to the left behind the camera) is marked "BNSF Railway", reflecting the track ownership transition that still persists from 1961.

Additional Tower 32 and Tower 74 Site Photos by Mark St. Aubin (click thumbnail to open a larger version on Flickr)
     

Mariposa Tower
Another tower stood two tenths of a mile from Tower 32, but it appears to have been a watchman's tower used by Santa Fe for manual control of grade crossing signals. Watchman's towers were common in urban areas and were never numbered or managed by RCT since they had no interlocking plants or other controls. In this case, however, RCT did have a file in its records (archived at DeGolyer Library) for "Mariposa Tower" [...or perhaps "Mariposa Interlocking". My personal notes from viewing this file in 2007 have the title "Mariposa Interlocking". I do not recall, and my notes do not specify, whether this was the actual title on the file folder, or perhaps a subject line in Santa Fe's letter. I did not realize it at the time, but it strikes me as significant that I chose "Interlocking" instead of "Tower", which I would not expect unless clued by something else. Unfortunately, I did not take good notes of the letter; I recall this being the very last file folder in the box and I was in a hurry to leave. Clearly, a return visit to DeGolyer Library is warranted. --jgk.] Mariposa Tower was located at the intersection of Orange St. (S. Mariposa Ave.) and Cement (also known as Ellison Court, but no longer existing) within the triangular junction of three Santa Fe lines. The northwest line was the GB&KC tracks to Silsbee. The southwest line was the G&I tracks to Port Bolivar via High Island. The third line went generally east toward downtown and terminated at the Santa Fe depot. RCT's Mariposa file contains only one item, a letter written by Santa Fe to RCT on February 2, 1961 discussing plans to close the tower and requesting RCT approval to do so. The fact that Santa Fe bothered to write RCT regarding this tower suggests that its operators may have taken on some train control duties in addition to activating manual grade crossing signals. There are no other RCT records of Santa Fe or any other railroad requesting permission to close a standard watchman's tower. The letter explains that the grade crossing signals operated by the towerman were being converted to automatic operation, and that discontinuance of passenger and freight service to Santa Fe's downtown depot would eliminate most of the train movements through this area, leaving "only one freight train in and out every other day between Silsbee and High Island."

Mariposa Tower Site
 
Above: Mariposa Tower is the small square building located in the exact center of this image taken from the 1929 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Beaumont (rotated so that due north is up). The tower is just below the Santa Fe main line that slants across the image, within a large triangle of Santa Fe tracks. One triangle lead is the GB&KC at upper left; off the map, this line curves due north past Tower 32. The triangle lead at the right edge goes into downtown Beaumont to reach the Santa Fe depot. The third lead is at the bottom of the image where the two tracks merge (off the map) to proceed southeast on the G&I tracks to High Island. Mariposa Tower does not appear in the next earlier Sanborn map, dated 1911. The tower is shown on the 1929 map (magnification above right) as a 3-story "R R Signal Tower". Below: Mariposa Tower would have been visible somewhere near the center of this image. The angled dark patch in Orange St. is the Santa Fe right-of-way. (Microsoft Virtual Earth)

Frank Fertita wonders if Mariposa Tower might be the watchman's tower at Calder Ave. [edited from multiple emails]
"I looked for the site that the Sanborn map showed for the "Mariposa Tower" and there is absolutely nothing in that field to indicate that there was ever a tower at that location. ... The Calder Avenue watchman's tower (photo below) was...situated between the tracks of the Southern Pacific's branch line up to Dallas and the Santa Fe's line to Silsbee...located three blocks north of the foot of Mariposa viaduct which spanned the T&NO main line and was located in a far more heavily-travelled part of town. I believe that it could have easily been known as the Mariposa Tower due to its proximity to the viaduct and Mariposa Street itself (two blocks to the east.) Note that the Sanborn location is adjacent to Orange Street which is at the south end of the viaduct. ... If I am wrong about the Calder tower being the Mariposa Tower...that would mean, of course, that there were two identical watchman towers that the Santa Fe built circa 1929 bracketing the Mariposa overpass.


Above: In this 2011 Google Street View of the Mariposa Tower location, the dark patch in the Orange Ave. pavement is the former Santa Fe right-of-way. The patch does not look like it's been there for 50 years, so the tracks may not have been removed until more recent times. Per the Sanborn map, the tower was located in this field between the tracks and Orange Ave.

Frank may be on to something. Although the tower identified on the Sanborn map was undoubtedly a real structure (surely the cartographer couldn't have been off by several blocks!), the map clearly shows a 3-story structure. There are no other known interlocking towers in Texas that were more than two stories. The most likely explanation is that the structure at this location on the Sanborn map really was the facility that Santa Fe's letter called "Mariposa Tower" (or perhaps "Mariposa Interlocking" as in my notes) and it really was built as a watchman's tower. At some point, it took on a train control responsibility related to downtown track access, and these duties were sufficiently important that Santa Fe felt compelled to notify RCT of its plans to retire the tower. RCT correspondence at DeGolyer Library needs to be reviewed to see whether there are additional details pertaining to Mariposa Tower's location and function.

 
Last Revised: 2/13/2019 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.