Texas Railroad History - Towers 33, 156 & 169 - Bay City and Allenhurst

Three Crossings of the Cane Belt Railroad, the New York, Texas & Mexico Railway and the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway

Special thanks to Julian Erceg and Carl Codney for information about the Bay City Area interlockers.

Above Left: Tower 33, date unknown (Matagorda County Historical Museum collection)  Above Right: Looking east along the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M) Railway at its crossing of the Cane Belt Railroad, John W. Barriger III snapped this photo sometime in the 1930s from the rear of his business car as his train passed through Bay City heading timetable south toward the Rio Grande Valley. This crossing was interlocked as Tower 169 in June, 1931, but there was no tower.

Below: Instead of a manned structure, the Tower 169 interlocker controls were located in the nearby SLB&M depot a short distance west of the diamond. The depot (built in 1905) appears trackside in this photo Barriger most likely took a few seconds after the one above, with the Cane Belt crossing now a bit farther in the distance.

: Here's the same view roughly 85 years later (2019). Population brings trees! The depot is now owned by the city. (Google Street View)

Bay City was founded in 1894 by David Swickheimer, a land developer and promoter who believed the location near the Colorado River was ideal for a town. Promotion included publication of a local newspaper, the Bay City Breeze, before the first buildings in town had been built. The newspaper aggressively promoted the town throughout Matagorda County. When Bay City won the election in September, 1894 to be named county seat of Matagorda County, the newspaper article celebrating the victory mentioned that the town did not yet exist. Bay City quickly developed into a major rail junction with three railroads arriving within ten years.

The first was the Cane Belt Railroad in 1901. It had been chartered in 1898 to acquire a mile of track from the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio (GH&SA) main line at Eagle Lake south to a sugar refinery at Lakeside. From there, ten additional miles south to Bonus were built to serve a sugar cane plantation. The Cane Belt continued building south, reaching Wharton in 1900 and Bay City in 1901. Southward construction resumed in 1903 with a line from Bay City to Matagorda. That year, the Cane Belt was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) and then leased (in 1905) to a subsidiary, the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway. The Cane Belt continued to operate under its own name until it was formally merged into the GC&SF in 1948. The GC&SF was absorbed into its parent ATSF in 1965.

The second railroad was the New York, Texas & Mexican (NYT&M) Railway as they constructed a round-about branch line from Wharton to Palacios via Bay City, serving agricultural and mineral interests in the lower Colorado River valley. The NYT&M had been founded in 1881 as part of a grand plan to build from New York City to Mexico City. Its initial construction was 91 miles from Rosenberg to Victoria via Wharton. Shortly thereafter, it was acquired by Southern Pacific (SP) but continued to operate under its own name. In 1900, the NYT&M began construction of a branch south from Wharton, reaching Van Vleck in 1901. Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) documentation states that the tracks from Van Vleck through Bay City were built as part of a continuation of this branch to Palacios in 1903, but other documentation suggests the construction actually passed through Bay City in 1902. RCT records also list 1903 as the year that the NYT&M built a branch southeast from Van Vleck to Hawkinsville. This branch is significant only because the the third railroad into Bay City built across it at a location that was interlocked after a delay of more than two decades.

That third railroad into Bay City was the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico (SLB&M) Railway chartered in 1903 to build from Algoa (near Houston) to the Rio Grande Valley. Construction proceeded north and south from Robstown, passing through Bay City in 1906. In 1910, the SLB&M became owned by the St. Louis San Francisco ("Frisco") Railway and was assigned to a Frisco subsidiary, the New Orleans, Texas & Mexico (NOT&M) Railroad. In 1916, a new independent company, the New Orleans, Texas & Mexico (NOT&M) Railway, was established to acquire several Frisco railroad properties, including the SLB&M and the prior NOT&M "Railroad". Collectively these railroads had been known as the Gulf Coast Lines, and they retained that moniker. In 1925, the NOT&M was purchased by the Missouri Pacific (MP) Railroad. Under MP ownership, the SLB&M continued to operate under its own name until 1956 when it was merged into MP. MP was then acquired by Union Pacific (UP) in 1982.

Although the NYT&M and Cane Belt lines were vaguely parallel, both coming south from Wharton, they crossed at a right angle north of the center of Bay City where the NYT&M right-of-way (ROW) was temporarily on an east/west heading. The first interlocker in Bay City, Tower 33, was commissioned for service at this crossing by RCT on February 18, 1904, as a 2-story manned structure with a 21-function electrical interlocker manufactured by the Taylor Signal Company. Eighteen months later, SP merged the NYT&M into another SP railroad, the GH&SA, and in 1934, the GH&SA was merged into SP's operating subsidiary for Texas and Louisiana, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railway.

Julian Erceg describes the Tower 33 crossing...

The tower was owned, operated and maintained by the T&NO, with maintenance costs split 50/50 between the T&NO and the Cane Belt. In 1943, the tower was upgraded to meet ICC code, with changes made to the signal types (semaphore to color light on the Cane Belt for the southbound home signal) and signal placement. The ownership changed at that time as well to reflect the amount invested by each railroad to bring the tower up to code. More interestingly, the towerman worked only one trick (first shift, Monday-Saturday), and occasionally would be called to line up signals at night and on Sunday. The first three switches south of the diamond on the Cane Belt were interlocked, switches for the passing siding, interchange track, and a track leading to industry/yard tracks. Here is the General Notice posted by the GC&SF headquarters in Galveston for the change to the signals on the Cane Belt:

General Notice #227
Bay City Interlocker #33
Galveston, August 16, 1943

Effective this date, home interlocking signals governing movement over T&NO Railroad crossing, Bay City, have been changed to color light type signals and relocated 250 ft north and 394 feet south of the crossing, respectively. The semaphore dwarf signals on north end siding, T&NO transfer[,] and industry track have been relocated approximately 3 feet from the derails protecting movements from these tracks to the main track.

The last paragraph of Special Rule 24, page 3, Timetable No. 147 reading:

"General Rule 780. Two arm semaphore signal just south of T&NO crossing at Bay City. Top arm governs southward movements on main track. Lower arm governs movements to north end of siding and T&NO transfer" is hereby cancelled and the following will govern:

General Rule 780. Three position searchlight type color signal just south of T&NO RR crossing Bay City. Proceed (green) indication governs southward movement on main track. Restricted (yellow) governs movements to north end of siding, T&NO transfer[,] and industry track.

It is interesting that they replaced a two-armed semaphore, standard for signals governing movements to both the main track and siding tracks, with a one head signal using indications in non-standard ways. One other detail. The Cane Belt south of Bay City is still used [~ 2002] by BNSF to reach the Equistar plant south of Wadsworth. The power for the turn is kept a few blocks north of the former MP crossing. It runs during the day. North of Bay City the track is used for a couple miles out of town to store the Equistar EQUX covered hoppers. I'm not sure if they are empty or loaded, stored in a one track Storage In Transit (SIT) yard.


Left: The "T&NO Victoria Division Time Table" effective June 5, 1938 specified two whistle codes for signaling the Tower 33 operator. It also defined the schedule for signal alignments and associated procedures when there was no tower operator on duty. Elsewhere, the timetable stated the tower was manned "Daily Except Sunday and Legal Holidays" from 8:30 to 11:45 AM and from 12:45 to 5:30 PM. The December, 1947 timetable listed the staffed hours as 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. In the December, 1949 timetable, the Tower 33 interlocker was identified as "Automatic", i.e. no longer manned at all. Whether the tower structure still stood as of that date is unknown, and the ultimate fate of the tower has not been determined.

Above: T&NO's one-page interlocker summary for Tower 33 (from the Carl Codney collection) is split into two scans, the top (left) and bottom (right) of the document. Note that the original contract date was November 20, 1902, only a month before RCT (pursuant to recently established state law) published its first list of grade crossings to be interlocked. The NYT&M/Cane Belt crossing was the final entry on that list. Although the Cane Belt built through Bay City first, the railroads agreed that NYT&M would be listed as the "SENIOR COMPANY". With NYT&M (or more likely, SP Engineering) taking the lead, the interlocker was commissioned 15 months after the contract date. The document shows that NYT&M was responsible for tower operations and maintenance, with costs split evenly by the railroads. It also records the design date as September 7, 1907, three and a half years after the interlocker began operation. There are no details of what, if anything, changed during that period, and it could have been merely a formal release of "as built" updates to SP's engineering drawings. The document was revised
"effective September 1, 1943" to show "elimination of main track derails", an action approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission on August 11, 1942. The final revision to the document was a notation (which someone tried to scratch out with a pencil) stating "Revised Feb. 14th 1949 account plant converted to Automatic Type." Other documentation (also provided by Carl Codney) shows that in anticipation of installing an automatic interlocker, a new plan was initiated on January 8, 1948 and added to the contract on July 9, 1948. This plan gave each railroad home signals for the automatic interlocker in both directions. The amended contract became effective on the transition date, February 14, 1949. Only five years later, the automatic interlocking was "Placed out of service 12:01 PM April 12, 1954". According to T&NO's May 1, 1955 timetable, the crossing had become a manual gate. A corresponding 1959 Santa Fe timetable states that all GC&SF trains must stop at the T&NO crossing in Bay City. Hence, the gate was normally closed against the Cane Belt tracks (if all trains on both lines had to stop, the gate would serve no purpose.)

T&NO's service to Palacios on the former NYT&M tracks from Bay City declined significantly in the 1930s. In 1933, state law changed to allow RCT to grant waivers to railroads from the minimum service requirement of "a train a day" on every branch line. T&NO's petition to reduce service to Palacios to one train per week was granted in March, 1938. Daily mixed train service to Palacios was replaced by weekly service plus "on demand" service if a carload of freight was offered by a shipper on the line. Although service may have varied over the years, SP was able to avoid abandoning the Bay City - Palacios line until 1985. Two years later, SP abandoned the tracks east from Bay City to Newgulf, the non-interlocked junction where Santa Fe's "Hall District" from Cane Junction to Thompsons crossed the NYT&M (as explained further below.) Thus, by 1987, SP no longer served Bay City.

Above Left: The 1917 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Bay City shows Tower 33 located in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of 11th St. and Avenue J. Near the tower, neither was an actual street, merely a railroad ROW, and they remain unpaved today. Magnification (above center) confirms Tower 33 was a two-story "R.R. Signal Tower". Above Right: Immediately west of where the tower sat, the NYT&M slanted southwest to 9th Street and then curved back to a westward heading. Like 11th Street, 9th Street was only a railroad ROW, at least on the west side of town, and it remains unpaved today. West of Bay City, the tracks turned south to Blessing and Palacios. Below Left: The Cane Belt tracks remain intact through Bay City. North of Bay City, they continue past Farm Road 3156, but a red sign indicates they are out of service north of the grade crossing as of 2019. Below Right: The Cane Belt tracks continue 13 miles south of Bay City past Wadsworth to serve the Equistar polyethylene resin plant.

Above: As of 1942, the Sanborn map description of Tower 33 had changed to "Switch Tower" and a one-story cabin had been added nearby. A connecting track facilitated T&NO - Cane Belt interchanges. Below: These Google Street View images from 2013 show traces of the NYT&M. At left, looking west from Ave. K along the NYT&M ROW, the Cane Belt tracks can be seen intact running north/south in the distance. At right, the view to the southwest at the intersection of 10th St. and Ave. H shows the NYT&M ROW as it angled toward 9th St. where it then turned back to the right on a due west heading.

Like the NYT&M, the SLB&M also ran through Bay City on an east/west heading, crossing the Cane Belt at a right angle on the south side of town, three quarters of a mile south of Tower 33. This crossing was not controlled until the Tower 169 interlocker was established there in 1931. Julian Erceg explains why...

"As the first railroad to arrive in Bay City, the Cane Belt held the crossing contract with the SLB&M giving the Cane Belt the right to force SLB&M to build a tower at the crossing if the Cane Belt ever desired one. In 1918, Texas Gulf Sulphur Co. began mining sulfur near the Cane Belt station of Gulf Hill, around five miles north of Matagorda. There were daily extra sulfur trains from Matagorda to Galveston passing through Bay City. Trains would take fuel at Lane City [north of Bay City], and would have to run to Matagorda(and back.) When the Hall District was constructed from Cane Jct. to Thompsons in 1931, the benefit was that sulfur trains from Gulf Hill to Galveston saved a considerable amount of mileage by being able to avoid going all the way up to Sealy. Fuel oil facilities had to be constructed in Matagorda, built between November, 1931 and January, 1932, because the trains no longer passed through Lane City to get fuel. However, this was short lived, as the last sulfur from Gulf Hill was 8 carloads in June, 1938.

By 1930, the SLB&M was running many trains a day across the diamond at Bay City and desired protection to eliminate the time consuming stops for each train at the diamond. The Cane Belt, generally running only its scheduled mixed train 115/116 and a sulfur extra from Gulf Hill each day, didn't really need protection for the diamond. So, to avoid the cost of maintaining and staffing a tower for the Cane Belt, while still allowing the crossing to be protected for the SLB&M, it was negotiated to install a manual interlocking plant and have it be controlled by the operator in the SLB&M depot a few blocks west. If Cane Belt trains were ever to become regularly delayed waiting at the SLB&M-controlled interlocking, the Cane Belt held the option of forcing the SLB&M to build a tower, but this never happened. Signals and circuiting were installed, with approach lit color light signals governing movements on the SLB&M, and approach lit electric semaphores on the Cane Belt. Color light distant signals were located 3000' in advance of the crossing in each direction for SLB&M trains, with 2000' annunciator circuits extending past the distant signals. On the Cane Belt, an approach lit distant electric semaphore was placed 3000' south of the diamond, but no distant signal was used for southbound trains [southbound Cane Belt trains had already slowed or stopped for Tower 33]. A 2000' annunciator circuit extended south of the distant signal, and a 3440' annunciator signal extended north of the crossing for Cane Belt trains. Bulletin 379 issued for Santa Fe trains, June 24, 1931 reads..."

SUBJECT: Interlocked crossing - SLB&M Crossing - Bay City
Effective 9:01 AM, June 29, 1931, the SLB&M railroad crossing at Bay City, Mile Post 69.0, will be protected by standard home interlocking signals, controlled from the SLB&M telegraph office at Bay City, and a standard automatic distant signal governing northbound trains approximately 3000' south of this crossing. That part of the current time table, under Rule 17, regarding all trains and engines to stop at the grade crossing at Bay City, M.P. 69.0, is hereby cancelled and trains approaching the crossing and finding the signals indicating clear or proceed may proceed over the crossing without stopping. Trains or engines desiring to enter the SLB&M main track through transfer track will be governed by signal governing such movements on this track. Trainmen must communicate with SLB&M Operator by telephone before reversing switch on SLB&M main line, when "S" indicates switch may be reversed and if signal then indicates "yellow", train may proceed. Obtaining indication on the "S" does not permit train movement, but allows only the operation of the SLB&M main line switch. Train movements will be governed by signal indication. Trains or engines must not exceed a speed of 25 miles per hour at any time between home signals. Automatic speed recorders register speed of all trains as required by the Texas Railroad Commission. Rules in the Book of Rules and Regulations of the Operating Department will govern. A telephone will be located near water crane at passenger depot and another telephone will be located on home signal at the north end of the wye. Southward Santa Fe trains arriving in Bay City and finding it necessary to leave any part of their train in main track while doing station work will promptly notify SLB&M Operator by telephone that they have work to do at station and conductor will notify Operator by telephone when ready to pass over crossing. Please be governed accordingly.

A.G. Fish, Trainmaster

Left: This Area Map shows the main rail lines in the vicinity of Bay City with tower numbers in red (not all railroads shown). About six miles east of the Tower 169 crossing, the SLB&M crossed the NYT&M branch that ran from Van Vleck to Hawkinsville. This branch had been built in 1903, before the SLB&M came through the area, but it was not interlocked until August 2, 1929 when Tower 156 was approved as a 12-function mechanical cabin. Officially, RCT recorded Tower 156's location as Allenhurst (a tiny unincorporated community), but SP documentation (below) referenced it as "near Van Vleck (Allenhurst)". (Carl Codney collection)

<additional blank lines...note that the "10" below in the first column appears to be a stray mark>

SP's documentation for Tower 156 is interesting because it confirms that this plant may have had the shortest active life among all of the numbered interlockers in RCT's system. The interlocker was "Placed out of service Sept. 26, 1932" just three years and two months after it was commissioned. The decommissioning resulted from SP's decision to abandon the branch to Hawkinsville in 1932. During its brief existence, it was a mechanical interlocker with controls located in a trackside cabin. Cabin interlockers were unmanned, used where a busy line (here, the SLB&M) and a lightly used line (SP) crossed. For Tower 156, the controls were operated by SP train crews and the signals would be set to allow unrestricted movement on the SLB&M. When an SP train needed to cross, an SP crewmember would enter the cabin, set the signals to allow his train's movement over the diamond (thereby signaling a STOP condition on the SLB&M), and then reset the signals when the crossing was complete. SLB&M trains would always see clear signals unless an SLB&M train happened to approach the crossing while SP was using it. When Tower 156 first appeared in RCT's annual report, it was listed as having 12 functions, but the documentation above shows 13 functions. The extra function, undoubtedly the door lock, was incorporated after the initial commissioning date. Note also that by the time Tower 156 was commissioned, the NYT&M had been absorbed into the GH&SA, which was listed in RCT records as the official participating railroad (along with the SLB&M.) Like the arrangement with the Cane Belt for Tower 33, SP and MP agreed to a flat 50/50 share on maintenance expenses, disregarding the function weighting.

It would be easy to argue that the Tower 156 crossing was interlocked a couple of years before the Tower 169 crossing because the time and energy penalty for stopping was more substantial -- there was often a reason for SLB&M trains to stop in Bay City anyway, but there was virtually no reason to stop at Allenhurst (nor 1.6 miles west of there, where the crossing was actually located.) But in reality, Tower 156 was merely part of a larger, concerted effort on the part of SLB&M to interlock all of their "cabin-eligible" crossings during the first nine months of 1929. Between January 3, 1929 (Tower 145 at Edinburg) and October 1, 1929 (Tower 158 at Placedo), the SLB&M established all nine of the cabin interlockers it would ever have. Besides Tower 156, the other six were at Edcouch, Lantana, Alsonia, Rosita, Angleton and Blessing. Whether this was just good railroading or a response to pressure from RCT is unknown. The SLB&M did have other interlockers, but Harlingen, Victoria and Algoa were manned (Algoa was decommissioned in 1913), and Sinton was automatic. (Robstown and Bloomington were also automatic and were listed as MP instead of SLB&M.)

Below Left: This snippet from a 1952 USGS topographic map shows the "Old Railroad Grade" of the NYT&M crossing the MP tracks, providing a precise location for Tower 156.
Below Right: This Google Earth satellite image from 2018 shows the crossing location can still be spotted (right center), about 2,200 ft. east of the Farm Road 2540 grade crossing of the UP tracks. From the center of Van Vleck, the NYT&M track ran southeast on a straight line, reaching the Tower 156 crossing in about 1.6 miles. Allenhurst was about 1.6 miles east of the crossing along the SLB&M, so the official location of Tower 156 could just as easily been specified as Van Vleck.

Above: The 1942 Sanborn map shows the Tower 169 crossing located at Avenue J and 1st St.
Below: a recent satellite image of the Tower 169 junction

The Cane Belt tracks were ultimately inherited by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) resulting from the Burlington Northern merger with ATSF. South of the Equistar plant near Wadsworth, the eight miles of track to Matagorda was abandoned in 1990. To the north, the Cane Belt tracks remain intact approximately 2.5 miles north of the Tower 33 crossing, but are out of service a short distance beyond the FM 3156 grade crossing. Farther north, the tracks were abandoned by BNSF in 2004. BNSF now owns approximately 16 miles of track from south of Wadsworth to the FM 3156 grade crossing north of Bay City. They reach these tracks using rights on UP's former SLB&M route through the Tower 169 junction. This line remains very active as the major rail line serving coastal south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

Above: This 2013 Google Street View faces southeast at the Tower 169 junction. The track in the foreground is the northwest quadrant connector. UP's ex-SLB&M main line runs horizontally across the middle of the image while the BNSF ex-Cane Belt line on the other side of the nearby block light crosses UP's tracks and immediately curves to the southeast. The southwest quadrant connector is barely visible beyond UP's main. Below: This 2013 Google Street View looks east along the UP main track at Tower 169 with the former Cane Belt main line crossing the diamond ahead. The northwest (left) and southwest (right) quadrant connecting tracks are also visible.

Last Revised: 4/1/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.