Texas Railroad History - Tower 54 - Rockdale

A Crossing of the International & Great Northern Railroad and the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railway

Above: Facing west, Tower 54 is shown in detail in this photograph taken by railroad executive John W Barriger III from the rear platform of his business car eastbound through Rockdale, probably in the mid to late 1930s. A switch into the International - Great Northern Railroad yard is visible on the west side of the Plum St. grade crossing. Barriger has just passed over the diamond of the former San Antonio & Aransas Pass railroad, which had been acquired by Southern Pacific in 1925.

Rockdale was founded in 1873 as the International Railroad was building a rail line from Hearne to Austin. By that time, the International had already agreed to merge with the Houston & Great Northern (H&GN) Railroad to create the International & Great Northern (I&GN) Railroad. The two railroads were already led by a combined management team, but the merger required approval by the Texas Legislature which was not yet forthcoming.

The H&GN had been chartered first, in 1866, by Houston interests with a plan to build north to the Red River. Construction was delayed for several years as major New York banks were reluctant to lend money to a Texas railroad during the initial Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Work finally began in Houston in December, 1870, and by May, 1873, the tracks had reached Palestine, 151 miles north. The H&GN's construction team was the third such crew to reach Palestine in less than a year! The other two belonged to the International, which had built into Palestine from opposite directions. The International's goal was to establish a route from Texarkana to the Mexican border, hence the "International" name. Much of its financial backing came from investors of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern (SLIM&S) Railway which was building from St. Louis to Texarkana. The International had been chartered in August, 1870 to be essentially a Texas extension of the SLIM&S that would run through Austin and San Antonio to Laredo.

The International had commenced construction at both Hearne and Longview, in 1871. In his reference tome A History of the Texas Railroads (St. Clair Publishing, Houston, 1941), author S. G. Reed explains why.

Longview was selected instead of Texarkana as the Texas & Pacific [T&P] was planning to build from Texarkana to Longview. Hearne was selected because the H. & T. C. [Houston & Texas Central] had reached that point. All the materials except ties, timber and piling, came by steamer to Galveston and by barge or G. H. & H. [Galveston, Houston & Henderson] to Houston, thence to Hearne over the H. & T. C. By December 13, 1871, 50 miles had been completed and by July 12, 1872, Palestine, 90 miles from Hearne, was reached. In the meantime equally rapid progress was made on the line from Longview to Palestine, which was completed January 31, 1873.

Before the H&GN had even reached Palestine, the management of the International saw the value in a combined railroad that would eventually serve Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, with favorable connections to Galveston and Texarkana. In December, 1872 (by which time only one of the three construction crews had actually reached Palestine), the two railroads began operating under a combined management structure headquartered in Houston while awaiting legal permission to merge. With the lines into Palestine complete, the International resumed construction, building south from Hearne toward Austin. Land for the Rockdale townsite was acquired by the railroad in 1873, reportedly including a large rock outcropping that inspired the town's name. A sale of town lots was held on September 3rd, several months before the rails reached Rockdale on January 28, 1874. Farming in the region had grown substantially during the recovery from the Civil War, and the town quickly developed into a shipping point for local agriculture. In the 1890s, lignite mines were dug in the vicinity, adding to the local economy.

Left: Quoting the Milam Messenger, the Denison Daily News of February 21, 1874 reported the rapid development at Rockdale. Since the Texas Legislature had not yet granted a charter for their proposed I&GN combination, the newspaper was correct that it was the International Railroad that had reached the town. Getting a charter bill passed for the I&GN required significant debate, drama and compromise in the Legislature.

There was a major issue regarding the International's claim for construction subsidy bonds to be issued by the state. Claiming corruption, the Texas Comptroller had refused to countersign and register the bonds despite the state engineer's report that the work covered by the bonds was of high quality and met the requirements of the International's charter. As legal proceedings moved slowly, a lengthy debate raged statewide. Much ink was spilled as to whether the bond issuance was in accordance with state law, or instead constituted a demand by the International for an unconstitutional subsidy. Legislators are usually responsive to their constituents, and those constituents wanted railroads now. This was certainly true in Austin, which only had a line to Houston, and in San Antonio, which had no rail lines at all. A compromise was ultimately found, and the charter was issued.

Left: Galveston Daily News, March 26, 1875

After a year's delay, construction commenced out of Rockdale on May 22, 1876, and the I&GN rails reached Austin seven months later on December 16th.

The second railroad through Rockdale was the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) Railway. The SA&AP had completed its initial main line between San Antonio and Corpus Christi in 1886, and then promptly began a plan for additional construction. One of the new lines branched off the main at Kenedy and built as far as Wallis in 1887, eventually to reach Houston. A branch from the Wallis line was built north toward Waco. It reached West Point in late 1887 where work stopped while a bridge was contemplated for the Colorado River two miles to the north.

Right: The June 23, 1888 edition of the San Antonio Daily Light announced the route of the  SA&AP through Rockdale.

The Colorado River bridge was finished in 1889 and that year, the line was extended north to Lexington, 18 miles shy of Rockdale. A track segment from Waco south to Lott, about 40 miles north of Rockdale, was also completed in 1889. The SA&AP went into receivership in the summer of 1890, and the final 58-mile segment, from Lexington through Rockdale to Lott, was completed during its bankruptcy in 1891, but not without difficulty. Track-laying between Cameron and Lott was held up by a lawsuit filed by a contractor for claims of unpaid grading work. After the suit was resolved and the line completed, the Brenham Weekly Banner of October 29, 1891 simply reported "The gap between Cameron and Waco has been closed."


Tower 54 was authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) on September 1, 1904 to control the crossing of the SA&AP and I&GN at Rockdale. It housed a 15-function mechanical interlocker built by Union Switch & Signal Co. The fifteen functions implies additional control beyond the minimum standard (12) for a basic crossing of two railroads, most likely an exchange track. The function count decreased by one in 1916 and remained at fourteen through the end of 1930 (after which, RCT no longer published such data regularly.)

As the crossing had existed prior to passage of Texas' interlocker law in 1901, the railroads were required to split the capital cost of the tower and interlocker evenly. RCT documentation from 1916 states that the I&GN was responsible for the tower's operations and maintenance (O&M) staffing, and this tends to imply that the I&GN had also taken the lead in building the tower and acquiring the interlocking plant. The recurring O&M expenses would have been split between the two railroads on a "weighted function" basis, i.e. the percentage of the interlocker's total functions assigned to each railroad.

Barriger's Tower 54 photo provides the best available example of an I&GN tower. Though involved in numerous towers, the I&GN took the construction lead on relatively few, and there is only one, Tower 9 at Navasota, for which a photo has been found.

Left: This map shows only the I&GN and SA&AP rail lines, but there were numerous others in the vicinity of Rockdale. Every town marked on this map had an interlocker controlling the grade crossing of two railroads: Tower 15 (Hearne), Tower 23 (Milano), Tower 52 (Cameron), Tower 132 (between Round Rock and Austin). and Tower 205 (Austin.) Waco had four interlockers: Tower 8, Tower 21, Tower 59 and Tower 144.


Above: This 1915 track chart (courtesy Ed Chambers) from the Office of the Chief Engineer of the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad illustrates the crossing at Rockdale. Tower 54 is not marked on the map, but an inset image from the July, 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Rockdale has been added to show the location of Tower 54 (identified as "Signal Tower" under magnification.) It also shows an I&GN "Section Ho" (house) east of the tower. At least by 1915 and probably from the initial commissioning date for the interlocker, there was an exchange track between the two railroads. Both railroads developed small yards at Rockdale with multiple tracks. The I&GN's yard was immediately west of Tower 54 (see Barriger's photo at top of page); the SA&AP's yard was southwest of the tower.

Below Left
: The tower foundation is visible on the south side of the former I&GN tracks, now owned by Union Pacific. (Jim King photo c.2005) Below Right: This Google Street View taken in May, 2023 facing west from the Plum St. grade crossing (literally atop the former location of the diamond) approximates Barriger's view.

The I&GN proceeded to complete its line through San Antonio to Laredo. It also added shared ownership of a rail line into Galveston, and later built a main line from Houston to Fort Worth. For many years, it was the largest railroad in Texas. It was acquired by rail baron Jay Gould in 1880 but he briefly lost control in the late 1880s. He reacquired the I&GN in 1891, and his son George ran it for the next 25 years. Coming out of a lengthy receivership in 1922, the new company formed to acquire the assets took on a slightly different name: the International - Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad. The I-GN was acquired by Missouri Pacific (MP) on January 1, 1925, but continued to operate under the I-GN name until 1956. In 1982, MP was acquired by Union Pacific (UP), but continued to operate separately until it was merged into UP in 1997. The I-GN line to Fort Worth is mostly abandoned, but all of the other main line routes of the I-GN remain in service under UP ownership.

The SA&AP line became a Southern Pacific (SP) property in 1925 and continued in operation for many years. SP abandoned the line from Giddings through Rockdale to Cameron in 1959, at which time Tower 54 was decommissioned.

Above: The I&GN depot still sits beside the tracks, now a museum. (Google Street View)
Above: The former SA&AP depot has been repurposed for a business. (Google Street View)

Above: This Google Earth satellite image of Rockdale shows the SA&AP right-of-way curved to form an acute angle as it crossed the I-GN at the Plum St. grade crossing. The former I-GN tracks (red arrows) remain heavily used as a major UP route between the Midwest and Mexico. Below: This image snippet from an undated rail map of Rockdale (Stuart Schroeder collection) covers much of the same ground as the satellite image above. The map does not show a structure at the SA&AP/I&GN crossing (upper right corner) so it may have been drawn before the installation of Tower 54 in 1904. The crossing shows a connection between the SA&AP main line and an I&GN siding, a connection that does not appear on the 1915 track chart. Note the depot marked beside the SA&AP tracks near the I&GN roundhouse. It apparently preceded the depot that survives today in a different location (see above.) Under magnification, the small square located trackside to the right of the depot says "Stock Pen". "Cattle Pens" farther to the right appear to have been loaded from the I&GN tracks. The pens overlap the SA&AP tracks but this does not seem likely, and it is unknown whether there was a loading capability on the SA&AP side. Two L-shaped section houses appear on the map, one for each railroad.

Above Left: Lignite was discovered near Rockdale, and several mines opened, served by the I&GN. The closest to Rockdale was a spur to the Worley Coal Co. mine, only about a mile east of Tower 54. The Rockdale Lignite Co. (Witcher mine), the International Coal Co. and the Big Square Coal Co. all had spurs immediately east of the Worley spur, and the Big Lump Lignite Co. had a spur about two miles farther east. (US Dept. of Agriculture 1913 Soil Map, courtesy Texas Transportation Archive) Above Right: The Worley spur, only a mile from the I&GN yard, eventually incorporated a wye, perhaps for the convenience of the yardmaster; the 1915 track chart does not show a wye in Rockdale but it does show a turntable for the SA&AP. (Google Earth, March 2022)

When lignite was found west of Rockdale, the Federal Fuel Co. opened a mine in 1919 and built a six-mile mine spur off the I&GN. In 1924, the mine's new owners chartered the spur as a common carrier railroad, the Rockdale, Sandow & Southern (RS&S), and applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for authority to set interstate rates. This would allow the RS&S to negotiate divisions and allowances with the I&GN which would result in receiving a percentage of the total revenue generated from any interstate shipment from the mine, even though the length of RS&S' haul would always be the same. This situation, where a railroad was owned by the company whose products it shipped, had been litigated extensively in the Tap Line Cases over the prior two decades. In Texas and the South, it was mostly in regard to timber companies and sawmill trams failing to fulfill the obligations of a common carrier. In the eastern U.S., it was railroads owned by coal companies that had abused the railroad rate system with unreasonable demands, leading to action by Congress.

The Hepburn Act of 1906 gave the ICC authority to set "just and reasonable" rates for railroad transportation. It also outlawed railroads shipping products or commodities in which they held a financial interest, although "...timber and the manufactured products thereof..." were exempted from this provision. The ICC had initiated litigation against numerous southern railroads owned by timber companies, and many such tap lines were found to be non-compliant with various obligations of common carrier status [Common carriers had two significant legal obligations: they were required to offer transportation services to the public without discrimination, and they had to set public tariffs and charge fees for all of their services, i.e. mills that owned railroads still had to pay them for the transportation services they performed.] As long as common carrier obligations were met, the hauling of logs and wood products to and from a mill that owned the railroad was legal by the Hepburn Act, and the ICC's efforts to claim otherwise failed to gain traction in court. As Ernest M. Teagarden described it in The History of Federal Regulation of Railroad Joint Rate Divisions (Bowling Green State University, Ohio, June, 1955) "In the final analysis, about all the Commission had accomplished toward a solution of the tap line problem was to have its power defined by the Supreme Court. Commission policy had been shifted from a policy of preventing proprietary divisions to one of regulating them." The ICC ultimately refused to grant the RS&S the interstate rate-setting permission it sought. The RS&S continued to serve the mine, but without the benefit of divisions and allowances negotiated with the I&GN for interstate shipments (not that there were any; lignite is a low energy fuel, hence larger volumes are required, limiting its viability to short hauls.) Lignite was eventually overtaken by more efficient fuels, and the RS&S carried its last load of lignite in 1950.

That was not, however, the end of the RS&S. In 1952, Aluminum Co. of America (Alcoa) built a smelter near the mine, excavating and burning the lignite on site to generate the large amount of electricity needed for the plant. Aloca upgraded the RS&S to support shipping aluminum ores and products to and from various Aloca sites. The nature of the shipping requirements and other factors allowed the ICC to grant interstate rate authority to the RS&S. The Rockdale smelter reportedly became the largest aluminum smelter in the world, but eventually the pollution that resulted from the burning of lignite caused the plant to fall out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. Aloca shut down the smelter in 2008 and sold all of the property to a real estate investment company in 2021. Plans to develop 3,300 acres of the property into an industrial site with 50 million square feet of space were announced in July, 2023. The former RS&S tracks remain intact, presently out of service.

Below Left: The RS&S switch off the I&GN is located about six miles west of the Tower 54 crossing. A small engine house and maintenance yard is located near the switch. Below Right: An Alco RS-3, RS&S #10, sits outside the engine house in October, 1970. (Murry Hammond collection, Texas Transportation Archive)


Last Revised: 1/29/2024 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.