Texas Railroad History - Towers 9 and 41 - Navasota

Crossings of the International-Great Northern, Houston & Texas Central, and Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe railroads



Above: Mailed from Navasota on May 20, 1907, the cyanotype photo on the front of this post card is identified on the back as "Navasota, Texas <Grimes Co.> R R Tower". There were two railroad towers in Navasota; this one was Tower 9 located a short distance north of downtown at a crossing of the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railway and the International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad. Because of the "fish scale" pattern on the upper story, the tower resembles many that were built by H&TC's owner, Southern Pacific (SP); this pattern was used on virtually every SP tower in Texas (e.g. Tower 17, Tower 26 and Tower 115 among many others.) But other railroads sometimes used this same pattern (e.g. Tower 4, Tower 28), and the height of the pattern area on Tower 9 is noticeably smaller than typically found on SP towers. The I-GN was the second railroad at this crossing, arriving about the time that the new interlocker law took effect in 1901. For new crossings, the law gave the second railroad full responsibility for the capital outlay for the tower and its interlocking plant, thus it's likely that Tower 9 was funded and built by I-GN. This is reinforced by the fact that I-GN agreed to be responsible for all staffing and maintenance for Tower 9.

The post card view of Tower 9 is to the north showing the staircase on the south side of the structure. Visible behind the tower on the right side is the I-GN track to Madisonville. Passing to the left of the tower is the H&TC main line to College Station. The track that crosses the H&TC main line on the diamond in the foreground is the I-GN line to College Station. This crossing was the reason for the Tower 9 interlocker which was approved for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) on June 16, 1903. Also of note: there is no external identification visible on the tower. In particular, there is no white rectangular tower number placard as was prevalent on almost every two-story interlocking tower in Texas (see the tower reference links above for examples.) This is probably due to the early date of the photo which likely preceded RCT's issuance of a regulation mandating a particular type and placement of tower number signs. (The post card was mailed in 1907, but the photo could have been as early as 1903.) Such regulation is presumed to have existed at some point based on the commonality of white placards with black numerals on Texas interlocking towers built by various railroads. (post card from the John Miller Morris collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, hat tip Dennis Hogan)

Below: Another Navasota post card with an interlocking tower, this one was not mailed so there is no postmark date. This structure can be identified as Tower 41 because it was located near the Union Station passenger depot (seen in the background) used by the H&TC and the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway. The tower sat adjacent to the crossing of these two railroads near downtown Navasota, with the H&TC line to College Station visible beside the tower. The photographer is probably standing on or near the Santa Fe tracks, which crossed the H&TC at an acute angle and passed behind (to the left of) Union Station. This tower also has the fish scale pattern, but unlike Tower 9, the pattern height matches that of the typical SP tower, and there are no known Santa Fe towers that exhibited this feature. Though Santa Fe was the second railroad at this crossing, it had arrived long before interlocking towers were addressed by Texas law. Thus, the new interlocker law required Santa Fe and SP to share the financial responsibility for the tower. Tower 41 was substantially more important to SP's main line than it was to Santa Fe's branch line, so it is not surprising that SP oversaw the design and construction task, with RCT commissioning accomplished on June 24, 1904. The external sign clearly reads "NAVASOTA"; other parts of it are illegible although the numeral '3' appears to be visible. The tower does not have a white tower number placard, and again, this is most likely due to the photo being taken before the regulation was issued. The clothing of the tower crew certainly suggests a pre-1907 photo like the Tower 9 image above. (Dennis Hogan collection)
       
 

Navasota is one of the oldest railroad towns in Texas, becoming a major rail junction with the intersection of three main lines. First to arrive was the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad in 1859, building north out of Houston, the first major north/south railroad in Texas. The Civil War disrupted progress, but by 1873, the line had been completed north to the Red River. The H&TC was eventually acquired by Southern Pacific (SP) and integrated into the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad, SP's operating railroad for Texas and Louisiana. H&TC's original route remains in active use through Navasota, today operated by SP's successor, Union Pacific (UP).

In 1878, the newly chartered Central & Montgomery (C&M) Railway built 27 miles of track between Navasota and Montgomery to provide timber interests in Montgomery County with rail access via connection to the H&TC at Navasota. In 1882, the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway initiated plans to build a lengthy branch line east from their main line at Somerville to tap the growing east Texas timber industry. The initial Somerville to Navasota segment was built in 1883. Santa Fe then acquired the C&M since it would save 27 miles of eastward construction. Eighteen miles of track was then built from Montgomery to Conroe which was reached in 1885. This line continues east beyond Conroe and remains in service, now owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).

In 1902, the International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad passed through Navasota as it constructed a main line from Houston to Ft. Worth. In Navasota, the I-GN paralleled the other two railroads near downtown with the Santa Fe line in the middle, the I-GN to the east and the H&TC to the west. In 1904, the I-GN constructed a branch line from Navasota to Madisonville. The I-GN came under the ownership of the Missouri Pacific (MP) Railroad in 1925. Under MP management, the Madisonville line was abandoned in 1944. In 1956, the I-GN was formally merged into MP as part of a financial reorganization out of receivership. In 1965, SP and MP agreed to begin sharing the more direct SP line to College Station and abandon the MP line north of Tower 41. This eliminated the need for Tower 9. The MP tracks through downtown were merged onto the SP main at Tower 41 and the former MP track from downtown to Tower 9 was removed. In 1982, MP was bought by UP into which it became legally and fully merged in 1997.

Below Left: The Office of Chief Engineer of the Missouri - Kansas - Texas (MKT) Railroad maintained track charts for most of the major rail junctions in Texas, regardless of whether the MKT passed through them. This 1915 chart for Navasota has been annotated to show the tower locations, which were approximately a half mile apart. Note that I-GN maintained a separate passenger station ("I&GN Station") and did not share the "Union Station" (H&TC and Santa Fe.) Providing I-GN trains with the means to cross two main tracks to reach Union Station was not considered viable. The northbound H&TC is line is marked as heading for Hearne, but College Station and Bryan were along the route and closer than Hearne. Similarly, the I-GN line to the west would curve north and proceed to College Station and Bryan long before reaching Valley Junction. Singleton is listed as the destination for the I-GN line to the north instead of Madisonville. Singleton was certainly closer than Madisonville, but it was tiny, significant only because it was the site of a non-interlocked I-GN crossing of the Trinity & Brazos Valley (T&BV) Railway at grade. Despite the presence of two railroads, Singleton's population never exceeded 150. (track chart courtesy of Ed Chambers)

Below Right
: This recent Google Earth satellite image has been annotated to show the rail line heritage that remains active in Navasota. Through the center of town, the three lines run parallel: the H&TC on the west, the Santa Fe in the middle and the I-GN to the east. At Tower 41, the Santa Fe crosses over the H&TC and proceeds west to Somerville. North of Tower 41, the I-GN line originally remained parallel to the H&TC until Tower 9 was reached (off the top of the image) where the I-GN crossed over the H&TC to proceed northwest on a circuitous route to College Station. A switch south of Tower 9 gave access to the MP line to Madisonville which continued past Tower 9 and remained parallel to the H&TC for a quarter mile before curving northeast to head for Madisonville. After the abandonment of the MP line from Tower 9 to Tower 7 in 1965, a switch was added near Tower 41 so that MP could share the SP track north of Tower 41 all the way to College Station. North of Tower 41, the MP tracks were removed to Tower 9, which was abandoned; its fate has not been determined. Today, these tracks are operated by BNSF (GC&SF) and UP (H&TC, I-GN).




Above Left: This photo from the Denver Public Library Western History and Genealogy collection was taken by Robert W. Richardson. It pictures Texas & New Orleans locomotive #412 passing beneath signals in Navasota on December 15, 1946. The I-GN track to Madisonville is barely visible at the lower left edge. In the background, the north side of Tower 9 is in view. Under magnification (above right), the standard white tower number placard is apparent (with an illegible single digit.) This tower lacks the fish scale pattern of the original Tower 9, presumably because an MP design was used when it was rebuilt (as explained below by Richard Mousner.)

September 10, 2008: Richard Mousner discusses Tower 9...
I found the exact location of the 1946 photograph. The photo looks south and was taken as the engine crossed Stoneham Street northbound. I found the concrete pad and burned off I-beam of the signal mast in the photo (see photo below). Also, the Schumacher Oil Works can be seen in the background so I can verify 100% that the tower in the photo is Tower 9. I walked to 9's location. I lined up with the old I-GN roadbed and the SP tracks and got pretty close but found nothing, however it was further from the creek than I first thought. My T&NO map shows Tower 9 in the south right of way of Chase Street, a platted street but never built.

My good friend Roy Goodwin, who passed away at the tender age of 93 a couple of years ago related this story to me. Tower 9 had a trestle that carried the Madisonville Branch which also accessed the Navasota Creosoting Plant (burned 1980's). With the MP main line to College Station (bridge remains) and the T&NO main, this was a bad place for a derailment. The building just south of the tower that later became Goodwin's Realty once had the wall smashed in by a derailment. One hot summer night, the operator that manned the tower (Goodwin knew his name) looked up in horror to see a line of derailed boxcars bearing down on him, the only thing that saved him was that it was hot, the door was open, and he took a flying dive out of the tower just as it was destroyed. After the tower was rebuilt, he bid a job on another tower, and refused to work there again.

Below Left: This standard SP form was used to document interlocker functions, usually for the purpose of recording the agreed allocation of operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses between the participating railroads. This form for Tower 9 is a modification of the original as indicated by the handwritten comments in the REMARKS column noting that changes were made in 1937 and 1941. This form also shows that despite a roughly balanced function count, 100% of O&M expenses were assigned to I-GN. While this was not typical, it was the same practice employed for Tower 7 in College Station between the same two railroads. Note also that the DATE of October 23, 1901 was only 8 days after the first hearing ever held by RCT to discuss the new state law mandating interlockers for major rail crossings that had taken effect a few months earlier. The significance of this date is explained in more detail in the discussion for Tower 7. Note also that the "in service" date in the REMARKS column is two days after the date listed by RCT for Tower 9's commissioning. (Carl Codney collection) Below Right: This image taken from the 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Navasota shows Tower 9 in the center, slightly north of where the I-GN line to College Station crossed over the H&TC line. The right-hand track is the I-GN line to Madisonville which will parallel the H&TC for a quarter mile before veering off to the northeast. Magnification shows Tower 9 to be a 2-story "Signal Tower" with an L-shaped staircase on the south side. This description is consistent with both of the Tower 9 images.

 
Above Left: This image taken from the 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Navasota has been annotated to show Tower 41 at left center (red circle) located slightly north of where the Santa Fe tracks crossed the H&TC tracks. Magnification (above right) shows the building to be a 2-story "RR Signal Ho" (House) with the stairs on the northeast side. Note also the proximity of the joint passenger depot (Union Station) northwest of the tower. The  postcard photo of "Navasota Tower", with the stairs visible on the right side of the tower and Union Station in the background, matches what would be expected based on the Sanborn map.

Richard Mousner provides this story about Tower 41...
Another story concerns my uncle Herb Doerge born in Navasota in 1910. When he was about 10 yrs. old, his father Albert took him to the H&TC tower to meet a famous man on the H&TC. As he sat and watched, this man, with two telegraph bugs going off at he same time, proceeded to write both messages down at the same time, using his right and left hand and copying both messages not making a single mistake. He said people would come and just sit and watch him work...I doubt H&TC paid him extra.

Richard also raises an interesting question about Tower 41...
Now 41 is going to give you fits because the maps I have state that Interlocker #41 is in the depot building. The post card photo of the old tower is definitely about where it should be, because of the location of the H&TC Depot in the background. My maps are revised 1928. Do you think 41 was torn down before 1928 and moved to the depot? My maps are the survey maps and are made from actual surveys on the ground. I used them in my 34 yrs as a land surveyor to locate property along the railroad.

It is certainly possible that Tower 41 was removed prior to 1928, with the interlocking system moved to an equipment cabinet and the controls relocated to Union Station. Since Tower 41 was commissioned in 1904, the building may have required some serious maintenance work by the late 1920s. Rather than continue to maintain it or build a new tower, the railroads could have decided to relocate the interlocker controls. It was an electric interlocker with 20 functions, a relatively small number of functions which tends to indicate that the movements it controlled were neither numerous nor complex. This would imply that an operator may not have needed direct visual observation of the movements to maintain safety. Track sensors and other automation (or perhaps the view from the depot) may have been sufficient, making this a good candidate to be an interlocking controlled from the depot. Whatever the case, the precise construction, evolution and disposition of Tower 41 is unknown. What is known, however, is that by 1927, SP was completing the installation of automatic block signaling on the H&TC line between Houston and Dallas that passed through Navasota.

Left: Volume 20, No. 1 issue of Railway Signaling magazine (January, 1927) contained this news brief regarding SP's plans for automatic block signals from Navasota to Hearne and elsewhere (green highlight.) It's easy to speculate that as part of this upgrade, H&TC and Santa Fe agreed to dismantle Tower 41 and relocate its remaining controls to Union Station. Below: At some point, Tower 41 became an automatic interlocker housed in this cabinet, which may be too new to be from 1928. Mounted to the post beside the cabinet are two gray boxes, possibly control buttons or perhaps some kind of voice communications system which might have served as a means for manually overriding the governing interlocker signals. (Jim King photo c.2000)

Left: As noted earlier, for track convenience, I-GN had its own passenger depot across from Union Station. I-GN's depot had an office for a telegraph operator who received train orders, handed them off to passing I-GN trains, and reported train arrivals and departures. Unfortunately, I-GN's traffic levels did not justify staffing the telegrapher position 24-hours a day. The document at left was their solution: a contract to use H&TC operators in Tower 41 to cover the night shift between 6 pm and 6 am. According to the court case for which this contract was an exhibit, I-GN's train orders originated from their chief train dispatcher at Mart (near Waco.) In the evening, orders would be sent to the H&TC operators in Tower 41 instead of the telegraph office in the I-GN depot. The contract uses unusual shorthand references for the railroads: "Central Company" for the H&TC and "International Company" for the I-GN. References to "James A. Baker" result from I-GN being in receivership at the time of this contract (1916). Baker was the I-GN's receiver assigned by the bankruptcy court (and he was also the grandfather of future Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury, and White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III.) To assist in navigating the opaque legal writing in the contract, tower references have been highlighted pink (9) and blue (41), respectively.

One particularly confusing paragraph states that it would be
"... impractical for the Central Company [H&TC] to install such service [telegraphy] in the interlocker covered by contract between the Central and International Companies [Tower 9]." Since I-GN built, staffed and maintained Tower 9, why would this be an H&TC impracticality? Had it been practical, wouldn't it have been I-GN's responsibility? This passage suggests that during I-GN's lengthy receivership (which did not end until 1925), H&TC may have put its own operators into Tower 9, perhaps concerned that I-GN might be unwilling or unable to maintain 24-hour staffing. For example, to save labor costs during bankruptcy, I-GN might have been willing to leave the Tower 9 interlocker periodically unmanned with signals set so that all trains had to come to a complete stop before crossing.

The court case was a 1918 Federal lawsuit against I-GN claiming that on ten occasions, they permitted a telegrapher in the Navasota depot to work more hours than were allowed under the Federal Hours of Service Act. The U.S. District Court ruled for the government but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. The government filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, but no record of that appeal being accepted has been found.



Above Left: The cabinet hosting the automatic interlocking system for Tower 41 is near the location where the tower sat. (Jim King photo, c.2000) Above Right: This Google Street View image from 2012 shows a southbound UP freight nearing the Tower 41 cabinet as it comes off of the former H&TC line and switches onto the former I-GN line to Spring. The Santa Fe line from Somerville enters the image at far right and crosses over the former H&TC line as it curves south, parallel to the other two main lines. This crossing was the impetus for the Tower 41 interlocker. Despite the proximity of its tracks, the I-GN was not directly involved with the Tower 41 interlocker.

  Left: An engineer's view of the Tower 41 interlocking (R J McKay photo.)  R J writes about Tower 41:
"This crossing, especially in the direction we are going [on the Santa Fe], and with a train going off on the old I&GN like the one in the picture, can be a bit disconcerting at night when you are tired and approaching it. On more than one occasion I have approached this crossing with it having a green aspect on our signal, slowing for the 10 MPH restriction over it. Suddenly I hear a horn blowing repeatedly for the crossing in town, a bright headlight comes around the curve, bearing down on us at 25 MPH. One begins to second guess the green indication we have, then the train suddenly curves off to your right and passes by! Had it proceeded on the old SP, it would have crossed our path, and that is what runs through your mind at the moment."

Tower 41 Location Satellite View

Above: When MP abandoned the I-GN line between Navasota and College Station in 1965 and began using SP's H&TC line to College Station, a switch (blue oval) was added to bring the former I-GN tracks onto the H&TC, and the tracks north of there (red dashed line) were removed. The new track from the switch to the I-GN main likely passed through the spot where Tower 41 originally sat, but the tower was long gone by then. (Google Earth image, with annotations)

Below Left: MP's straight track at Tower 9 was the branch to Madisonville, and N. Railroad St. actually sits atop the former I-GN grade. The curved line to College Station was the main line. To the south, the H&TC line went to Hempstead and on to Houston while the I-GN line went to Spring. (Google Earth image, with annotations) Below Right: About 4 miles north of Navasota on the H&TC line, SP's Mexia-Nelleva Cutoff branched off due north toward Mexia in 1907. Although the line was abandoned in 1933, the Navasota River bridge abutments are still standing on the outskirts of Navasota, with the south abutment casting a shadow into the river from the low sun in December, 2019. Arguably, it should have been called the Mexia-Navasota Cutoff since Nelleva was a tiny, unknown community on the edge of town. The Cutoff was not involved in either of the Navasota towers, but the reason for its brief existence, and what ultimately happened to it, is an interesting story. (Google Earth image)

 
Last Revised: 2/5/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.