Texas Railroad History - Tower 65 - Algoa

Crossing of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway and the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railroad

Above: This image from Ken Stavinoha's collection (hat tip, Don Harper) shows the original Union Depot at Algoa. The upper story of this structure functioned as the manned Tower 65. The herald on the side of the depot says "St. Louis Brownsville & Mexico Railway" in a circle with "Gulf Coast Line" in the middle of the circle. The front of the depot has lettering that shows the name "Gulf Coast & Santa Fe" (see below) while the correct, legal name of the railroad was actually "Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe". Perhaps this was a mistake on the part of the construction company, confusion with the "Gulf Coast Lines", or maybe by the time this depot was constructed, the local citizens had used the name in error for so long that management opted to stick with the common, but incorrect, name. The name nonetheless pops up in odd places, such as the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Navasota. The image below from the Santa Fe Area Historical Foundation Facebook site shows a better view of this mistake.

Below: a photo of the Algoa Union Depot (photographer unknown, hat tip Robert Pierce)

The Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway began building its main line out of Galveston in 1877, passing through the area south of Houston where the town of Algoa was founded. Algoa never amounted to much of a population center - a couple of hundred people at best - but it became a railroad junction in the 1906-07 timeframe when the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M) Railroad reached Algoa building north to Houston. The SLB&M was part of the Gulf Coast Lines, a railroad syndicate run by B. F. Yoakum that planned to build and/or acquire railroads from South Texas north and east through Houston to New Orleans. Tower 65, a 25-function mechanical interlocker, was authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) on November 4, 1906 to control the Algoa crossing. This date is somewhat inconsistent with the Handbook of Texas which states that the SLB&M rails arrived at Algoa on May 28, 1907, roughly six months after the interlocker had been established per RCT records. [Charles Zlatkovich's book Texas Railroads: A History of Construction and Abandonment simply lists 1906 as the year of construction for the SLB&M's Bay City - Algoa segment.]  It is possible that the SLB&M's planning efforts with Santa Fe for a Union Depot, junction, and associated sidings and connections resulted in some early construction in the vicinity of the crossing, perhaps including the diamond. Although they crossed the GC&SF line with the intent of building into Houston, the SLB&M stopped at Algoa and never proceeded further. S. G. Reed, in his 1941 tome A History of the Texas Railroads, explains why:

"It stopped there for two reasons. The bridging of the Colorado and Brazos Rivers and the construction of the line through the bottom lands adjacent to these rivers had cost vastly more than expected. The other was that Yoakum was able to negotiate a satisfactory contract with the Santa Fe which served Algoa for use of its tracks to Houston, and with the I&GN for use of its track to Galveston."

The crossing diamond, apparently installed six months before the SLB&M arrived, would facilitate their direct access to the Union Depot, plus they fully expected to continue building north into Houston. There is some indication that a maintenance yard would be placed north of the depot. The entire plan changed after the SLB&M was able to negotiate a contract to use Santa Fe's tracks. Accessing the International & Great Northern (I&GN) tracks into Galveston required the SLB&M to use the Santa Fe main east to Virginia Point whereas reaching Houston required taking the Santa Fe main west to Alvin and their branch line from Alvin to Houston (where service was inaugurated by the SLB&M on December 31, 1907.) The final Santa Fe agreement, dated April 1, 1908, was sufficient for SLB&M to cancel their long term plan to build to Houston, eliminating the need for the crossing and the interlocker. Beginning with the 1913 Annual Report, the RCT official table of interlockers lists Tower 65 as "Abandoned and crossing removed".

The precise location of the depot, with the Tower 65 controls located in its upper story, can be discerned from the photos. The top photo clearly shows the diamond and was annotated to label the tracks, presumably by someone (the photographer?) who knew the scene. The Santa Fe tracks were opposite the main entrance to the depot for passengers, a large arched door. The shadows in the top photo, particularly of the men, are long and slant away from the Santa Fe tracks indicating the depot faced south on the north side of the tracks. The SLB&M tracks are along the east side of the depot, which sat in the northwest quadrant of the diamond.

Looking at the lowest of the three photos above, the semaphore pole is on the opposite side of the building compared to the top photo, hence the view is facing south along the SLB&M tracks on the east side of the depot. The train is turning south toward the Rio Grande Valley having come off of the Santa Fe tracks from the east (presumably a passenger train from Galveston via the I&GN connection.) The train is on the connector track southeast of the diamond and the people gathered along the east side of the depot are perhaps waiting for the train to back-up next to the depot to discharge passengers from Galveston, or accept new passengers for the journey south. This photo also shows three semaphore poles visible beyond the utility poles to the right of the depot. This is approximately where the southwest connector track would join the Santa Fe main line.

The Santa Fe Area Historical Foundation, Inc. (SFAHF) operates a museum in the former Santa Fe depot at Hitchcock, Texas (ten miles southeast of Algoa, with the town of Santa Fe located midway between them.) Their Facebook page says that the original Santa Fe depot in Algoa was built in 1897, resembling the wooden depots in Santa Fe and Hitchcock. They state that the Union Depot was built in 1904 but do not identify a source for this date. The existence of the diamond in both photos implies they were taken no later than October, 1913 (since RCT records state "crossing removed" as of October 31, 1913.) Both before and after the diamond was removed, SLB&M trains would have had to make back-up maneuvers to fully access the side of the depot for passengers, hence the crossing removal was not a significant operational impact -- the maneuver to reach the front of the depot was different but no more burdensome.

During the 1915 hurricane that struck the vicinity of Galveston, the Algoa depot suffered major damage including the tower structure being toppled. Rather than rebuild the depot, a new Union Depot was constructed along the Santa Fe tracks a few hundred yards west of the original site.

Above: This SFAHF photo shows the destruction of the 1915 storm. The tower was blown off and there was heavy damage throughout the building.

Below: John W. Barriger III took this photo from the rear of his private rail car sometime in the mid-1930s, roughly 20 years after the 1915 storm. The view is northwest toward the Union Depot with the Santa Fe main line passing in front. Barriger's train is entering the southwest connector to head toward Brownsville on the SLB&M. As a result of the 1915 storm, the depot had been rebuilt west of where this connector departs the Santa Fe main line. The new Union Depot appears to have followed the original design but the tower structure was omitted since there was no interlocker to manage. (courtesy John W Barriger III National Railroad Library)

Above: This photo from SFAHF shows the Algoa Union Depot taken after it was rebuilt at the new location. The herald on the east side of the depot says "Gulf Coast Lines" (plural as it should be, unlike on the original depot) but without the SLB&M name around it.

Above: If this caption is correct, some kind of depot relocation activity occurred at Algoa in 1920. It appears that this may be the Santa Fe freight depot. (Jim Williams collection)

Below: Much later in life, the herald on the side of the Union Depot shows "Missouri Pacific Lines", successor to the Gulf Coast Lines, with a station sign that lists both of the railroads. The depot survived until the late 1950s or early 1960s. (SFAHF photo)

Second Below: This stock file photo from the Houston Chronicle shows the abandoned depot. A handwritten note on the reverse side says that the depot was built "less than a dozen years ago". Unfortunately, the note's handwriting does not match other handwriting on the back that lists the date as "12-1962" along with a "Chronicle Files" stamp. The "12-1962" reference might be the date the photo was added to the Chronicle's files, thus, there is no assurance of when the photo was taken or if the "dozen years ago" notation refers to 12 years before 1962. (Jim Williams collection)

The photos of the original Union Depot show the crossing diamond, so there is no question of where the depot was located. The Barriger photo, on the other hand, doesn't show any specific details that prove that our scene interpretation is correct. And since the rebuilt depot is no longer standing, is there any objective evidence (besides the recollections of elderly folks in Algoa!) of where the rebuilt Union Depot was actually located? Fortunately, there is, as outlined in the images below.

USGS Survey Map, Algoa Quadrangle (1956)

Above: This 1956 map shows a rectangular structure (across from the BM 43 label) at the location that corresponds to the assumed position of the rebuilt Union Depot as it appears in Barriger's photo, west of the junction of the southwest connector track. The map also shows a crossover leading to the depot. Note the southwest connector is double track, as it remains today.

Above: This screen capture from the NOAA website shows the location of USGS benchmark AW3911 well to the west of the original crossing.

Below: As of 1918, AW3911 was located in the east wall of the Algoa railroad station.

David Currey comments: "I used to be a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific's Kingsville Division. To me, the way the Missouri Pacific got onto the Santa Fe at Algoa sure looked like maybe there used to be an interlocking there. But my official guide from 1930 doesn't show such a thing. Then in my Wells Fargo bank, there was a map of their routes around the turn of the century, and there was a line drawn from Algoa to Houston separate from the Santa Fe. All the other lines on the map appeared to be accurate representations of rail routes, so why should the StLB&M route be drawn any less accurate? I went to Algoa and poked around, including asking some of the locals, and none could help me much, except one said there used to be a turntable there, which I find hard to believe. The only evidence I could find was a road which on the map lined up with where the track would have been had it continued on past Algoa. This road also made sort of a jog as you might expect if it had crossed over the tracks to continue on the other side. Also, two private driveways were directly opposite each other in the jog, which seemed pretty odd and too coincidental."

Although USGS maps do not go back far enough to show the crossing as it existed prior to 1913, this map from 1929 does show a stub track from the south that apparently was the line to the north until the crossing was removed. It also shows that as of 1929 (long after the Union Depot was rebuilt to the west), there was a spur track to the north.

USGS Survey Map, Algoa Quadrangle (1929)

Track Chart, Algoa (from Santa Fe Railway Historical Society)

Above: This image of a portion of a Santa Fe track chart of the main line through Algoa shows the SLB&M junction. South is 'up' and Galveston is to the left. The 'Joint Line B' agreement (indicated by the shaded area on the map) covered main tracks and sidings from "Algoa to T&NO Jct. (beginning lease to HB&T Co.)". SLB&M's route into Houston was from Algoa to Alvin on the original GC&SF main line and then from Alvin to T&NO Jct. (Tower 81) on a line that Santa Fe built in 1883 to reach Houston. North of Tower 81, the Santa Fe tracks were leased to Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) leading into New South Yard. HB&T was jointly owned by the major railroads serving Houston, and much of their property was original Santa Fe construction.

The GC&SF line is now operated by Santa Fe successor Burlington Northern Santa Fe and remains a principal route onto Galveston Island and the port facilities located there. The SLB&M became a Missouri Pacific property and is now operated by successor Union Pacific. The SLB&M line from Algoa to Brownsville sees substantial use as the primary rail line into coastal south Texas and the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Tower 65 Location

Last Revised: 1/3/2019 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.