Texas Railroad History - Tower 47 - El Paso

A Crossing of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway, the Texas & Pacific Railway, and the El Paso & Northeastern Railway

Above: It's fortunate that John W Barriger III instinctively photographed virtually every railroad bridge and building he happened to notice out the rear of his business car. He might not have known that a similar photo he took of Tower 47 on a recent visit to El Paso was badly overexposed; he photographed it again anyway. Most likely in the early or mid 1930s, his view is to the northeast along the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway in central El Paso where four railroads intersected. Another Barriger photo (below) shows Tower 47 and was likely taken a few years later, perhaps the late 1930s or early 1940s. The identity of Tower 47 is confirmed by the nearby "Consumers Ice & Fuel Co." building to the right, a business that now operates as "Reddy-Ice" in El Paso. This view is looking south on the El Paso & Northeastern with the El Paso & Southwestern crossing in the immediate foreground, and the boxcars in the distance (to the left of the tower) probably on the GH&SA tracks behind the tower. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library)

Rails arrived in El Paso in May, 1881 as Southern Pacific (SP) built eastward from California, part of a southern transcontinental route, though not as originally envisioned. An 1871 Act of Congress awarded a Federal railroad charter to the Texas & Pacific (T&P) Railway and gave them the right to build from Marshall, Texas to San Diego, California. The Act also authorized SP to connect with the T&P at Yuma, Arizona. When SP reached Yuma in 1877, the T&P was nowhere to be found. It had built no farther west than Fort Worth, and was still trying to arrange financial backing to continue construction across the vast and sparsely populated frontier to San Diego. Over T&P's objections, SP took advantage and continued east past Yuma using the surveyed T&P route to carry its rails all the way to El Paso.

In 1878, SP Chairman Collis Huntington initiated discussions with Thomas Peirce (with the unusual ei spelling), head of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway. Huntington had arranged construction permission from the Arizona and New Mexico territorial governments and knew that SP would reach El Paso in two or three years. It was time to plan a route across Texas. The GH&SA had finished building to San Antonio from Houston in 1877 and Huntington wanted Peirce to extend this line westward to meet SP in El Paso. Huntington's real objective was to create a transcontinental route closer to both Mexico and Gulf of Mexico ports (thus, substantially south of T&P's congressionally sanctioned route) using San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans as waypoints. Huntington would need to build 800 miles across Texas, but he did not have a state charter to do so (and getting one from the Texas legislature would take time and was fraught with political peril.) Instead, Huntington proposed to finance the GH&SA's extension to El Paso knowing that SP would then be positioned to acquire the GH&SA and its route across Texas. By the summer of 1880, an agreement was in place and SP survey teams were in Texas mapping the route between El Paso and San Antonio.

Since the GH&SA did not have the resources to build the entire route on Huntington's ambitious timetable, Peirce contracted with SP's Southern Development Co. to manage construction east from El Paso, which commenced in June, 1881. The existing GH&SA team managed construction west from San Antonio which began about the same time. Huntington was in a hurry, and for good reason. The T&P had resumed construction west of Fort Worth and had reached Big Spring, about 350 miles from El Paso. At the time, the T&P was controlled by rail baron Jay Gould. Gould understood that because of Huntington's arrangement with the GH&SA, SP's tracks would be well east of El Paso by the time T&P's construction reached the vicinity. A deal was struck; Huntington gave the T&P rights on the GH&SA tracks into El Paso in exchange for Gould giving SP any rights or franchises T&P held west of El Paso and agreeing not to extend the T&P beyond El Paso. The meeting point for the two railroads became the new town of Sierra Blanca, 91 rail miles from El Paso. SP construction crews reached Sierra Blanca on December 6, 1881 (some sources say November 25, 1881) and the T&P rails arrived on December 16, 1881. SP continued building east, reaching Marfa in January and Sanderson in May. The SP and GH&SA construction teams finally met at the Pecos River on January 12, 1883 where Huntington and Peirce drove a silver spike signifying completion the major part of SP's southern transcontinental route. SP then leased the GH&SA for several years and ultimately acquired it.

About the time SP's construction began east from El Paso, the town's second railroad, the Rio Grande & El Paso Railroad, was completing 20 miles of track between El Paso and the New Mexico/Texas border. This line was to become part of an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line between El Paso and Albuquerque, a line that continues in service today, now owned by successor Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Despite extensive tracks in El Paso, Santa Fe was not involved with Tower 47 nor any of El Paso's other three interlocking towers.

While Santa Fe's route to Albuquerque went northwest from El Paso, other investors were seeking ways to build northeast from El Paso toward Kansas City and Chicago. A series of attempts to do so failed to make much progress until the El Paso & Northeastern (EP&NE) Railroad was founded by Charles Eddy. Eddy's stated objective was to build to coal fields in eastern New Mexico, 160 miles north of El Paso, but his larger vision was a connection to the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad in northeastern New Mexico. The EP&NE reached the coal fields near Carrizozo in 1899, and an additional 128 miles was built to Santa Rosa in 1902 where a connection with the Rock Island was made, completing a route between Chicago and El Paso. On November 2, 1902, Rock Island and SP collaborated to initiate the Golden State Limited passenger train service between Chicago and Los Angeles via El Paso and the EP&NE.

Coal was also a motivating factor for the last railroad to reach El Paso. The investment firm Phelps Dodge had acquired interests in copper mining in Arizona, an enterprise that required coal to produce coke as a fuel for smelting. Charles Eddy convinced Phelps Dodge that there was a source of higher grade coal for coking near Dawson, New Mexico to which his EP&NE was already building tracks. Phelps Dodge proceeded to buy coal mines near Dawson and began planning a rail route to reach them from Arizona. Renaming their existing Arizona & South Eastern Railway as the El Paso & Southwestern (EP&SW), Phelps Dodge built a new line east from Douglas, Arizona. It reached El Paso in 1903 where it connected with the EP&NE. In 1905, the EP&NE became a leased subsidiary of the EP&SW.

Left: This image from the index of the 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of El Paso has been annotated to show the rail junction where Tower 47 was located among the main freight yards, about a mile and a half northeast of El Paso's downtown Union Depot passenger station. It was authorized for operation on July 11, 1904 by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) with participating railroads being the GH&SA, the T&P and the EP&NE. By 1916, the interlocker function count had increased from 25 to 31 functions. Another increase to 60 functions is noted in the report for 1923. By 1928, ten additional functions had been added, bringing the total to 70.

The EP&SW operated tracks past the tower and had acquired the EP&NE in 1905, but it was not listed by RCT as part of the Tower 47 interlocker until 1927. Although T&P shared the GH&SA line into town from the east, it had its own yard south of Tower 47 along with its own connecting tracks and industry spurs. Santa Fe's tracks were mostly well south of Tower 47, off the bottom of the map near the Rio Grande.

When copper mining took a severe downturn in the early 1920s, Phelps Dodge leased the EP&SW tracks to SP; the lease did not include the EP&NE. The EP&SW main line became SP's "South Line" between El Paso and Tucson. SP was able to acquire the EP&NE in the late 1930s, and in 1955, it acquired all remaining components of the EP&SW. In 1959, SP began abandonment proceedings for various track segments including the South Line. In the mid-1990s, SP was acquired by Union Pacific (UP) which continues extensive operations through El Paso to the east, west and north.

Email from Bob Phillips, November 12, 2001
"Tower 47 in El Paso is...occupied by only the Signal Dept. as they still have signal equipment in the bottom floor of it. The tower was still occupied with a control operator (towerman), yardmaster, lead carman, and roundhouse foreman until November, 1997 when they were all moved into the yard office building, known as the line desk. The tower has been vacant of these employees since then. There is still a "control operator" at El Paso that controls everything that the Tower 47 operator and Tower 196 operator used to control. They are currently located in the new yard office northeast of the roundhouse that UP opened up approximately a year or so ago."

Above: Tower 47 photos by Ernie Leggett, 2006. Below: The location of Tower 47's brick building is annotated on this Google Map of El Paso. It was still standing as of March, 2013, but it was removed sometime thereafter and was definitely gone by 2017. A white equipment cabinet (visible above left) remains in place.

Although the main refrigeration building has been rebuilt, the Consumers Ice & Fuel Co. facility captured by Barriger in his photo of Tower 47 (above, John W Barriger III National Railroad Library) still stands (below, Google Street View, Feb. 2020 -- this is the Reddy Ice facility at bottom center of the above map.) Because the location of the Tower 47 brick structure is precisely known, the distance between the two buildings can be measured; it is ~ 330 yds., just shy of three football fields including end zones. The image above certainly gives the appearance that the two structures are closer than three football fields, but without knowing the details of Barriger's camera, it would be difficult to calculate the distance with any accuracy.

Below: Another Barriger photo shows both Tower 47 and the Consumers Ice & Fuel building at roughly similar distances. Again, the horizontal distance between them appears to be closer than three football fields. If the height of the peaked roof of Tower 47 is roughly 30 ft. (10 yds.), and assuming both buildings are more or less equally far from Barriger, the distance between them can be crudely estimated as ~ 60 or 70 yds. Even if this estimate was in error by a factor of two, it would still be less than half of the measured distance for the brick tower. It seems plausible that the new brick structure was built north and east of the wooden structure, perhaps to allow the tower to maintain interlocker operations during the brick building's construction.  (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library)

Below: This Barriger photo shows Tower 47 beyond the Cotton St. grade crossing in the foreground (guarded by a crossing control tower at right.) Cotton is now an overpass that appears to track the original roadway alignment. The distance from the overpass to the former location of the brick Tower 47 using a line parallel to the main tracks (a necessary caveat since Cotton is not perpendicular to the tracks) is about 140 yards. Does Tower 47 in this photo appear to be 140 yards beyond the grade crossing? It's difficult to say, but it's reasonable to suggest that it looks closer than that. The wooden tower being closer (more westerly) to Cotton would be consistent with the idea that the brick tower was east and north of the original tower. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library)

Above: A map in the 1954 "re-print" (but incorporating numerous updates) of the 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance map set of El Paso shows a structure (along the right edge of the map) approximately where the brick Tower 47 was located. Unfortunately (and despite magnification), the description of the structure is illegible. The only original Sanborn Map Sets of El Paso that might might show the location of Tower 47 are dated 1905 and 1908, but neither has a map that covers the area where the tower was located. The map above also shows a 4-story "Switch Tower" along the left edge of the image, undoubtedly the same yard tower seen in the image below, taken in 1960 with the Cotton overpass in the background. (courtesy Cornell University Library.)

Above and Below: The brick Tower 47 was most likely built sometime in the 1950s. These images of it were captured from the Cotton overpass in March, 1960 by Ernest Hoppock. (Special Collections, University of Texas El Paso)

Last Revised: 1/25/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Website