Texas Railroad History - Towers 33 and 169 - Bay City
Crossings of the Cane Belt Railroad with the New York, Texas & Mexico Railway and the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway
Special thanks to Julian Erceg for information about the Bay City interlockers.
Historic Photo, Tower 33
Photo from the collection of Matagorda County Historical Museum
Bay City was founded in 1894 by David Swickheimer, a land developer and promoter who felt that 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 of the town had been built. The newspaper helped to aggressively promote the town throughout Matagorda County. When Bay City won an 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 there within ten years.
The first to arrive was the Cane Belt Railroad, in 1901, as they built south from Wharton to Matagorda, which was reached in 1903. The Cane Belt was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1903 which leased it to subsidiary Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) in 1905. The Cane Belt continued to operate under its own name until it was formally merged into the GC&SF in 1948. The second railroad to arrive was the New York, Texas & Mexican (NYT&M) Railway, in 1902, as they constructed a round-about line from Wharton to Palacios serving various oil and mineral fields in the area. The NYT&M passed through town on an east-west heading, crossing the Cane Belt at a right angle north of downtown. The first interlocker in Bay City, Tower 33, was constructed at this crossing in February, 1904. Eighteen months later, the NYT&M was merged with the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway. In 1906, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) Annual Report began listing the GH&SA instead of NYT&M in the interlocker list. GH&SA became part of the Southern Pacific (SP) system, and ultimately merged into SP's operating subsidiary, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railway. Julian Erceg elaborates...
"The tower was owned 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 some 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
ALL TRAIN AND ENGINEMEN:
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."
The third railroad into Bay City, the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico (SLB&M) Railway, was chartered in 1903 to build a railroad to the Rio Grande Valley. Construction proceeded north and south from Robstown, and in 1906, Bay City was reached. By 1907, the line was complete from Algoa to Brownsville. 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, 3/4ths of a mile south of Tower 33. This crossing was not interlocked until Tower 169 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 began operations mining sulfur from 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. When the Hall District was constructed from Cane Jct. to Thompsons in 1931, part of the benefit was that sulfur trains from Gulf Hill to Galveston saved 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, as 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. 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
ALL GC&SF TRAIN AND ENGINEMEN:
Effective 9:01AM, 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
Historic Map, Tower 169 Crossing
Above: The 1942 Sanborn map shows no structures located at the Tower 169 crossing, located at Avenue J and 1st St.
Below: a recent satellite image of the Tower 169 junction
Historic Railroads in Bay City