Three Interlockers on the Houston East & West Texas Railway in North Houston
Above: By the time John W. Barriger III snapped this photo of the Tower 71 crossing as he looked south from his business car in the early to mid 1940s, the single-story building that served as the tower was long gone. The interlocker remained in place, however, operated remotely from Tower 26 which Barriger's train had just passed a couple of minutes before. Years earlier, Tower 71 would have been directly in the forefront of Barriger's view, on the west (right) side of the tracks near the crossing amidst numerous utility poles in this industrial area of north Houston. Barriger's International & Great Northern train, northbound on the HB&T toward Tower 80, has just crossed T&NO's former HE&WT tracks that ran north out of downtown. In a few moments, Barriger will see the T&NO tracks swing away from him to the left on a northeast heading toward Tower 76 and east Texas beyond. The cars visible in the image are on Quitman Street which crossed both rail lines at grade. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library) Below Left: The 1924 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Houston depicts Tower 71 as a small rectangle near the HB&T/HE&WT crossing north of Quitman Street (adjacent to "47" near the center of the image.) Magnification reveals "Signal Tower" written next to the rectangle. Markings inside the rectangle indicate a single story building with a south side door facing the diamond. Below Right: Long ago, Tower 71 became merely an equipment cabinet; a photo of the original manned tower has not been found. The interlocker was controlled remotely starting in 1930, hence the building was in use for less than 25 years. By the time this photo was taken in 2006, the Tower 71 crossing diamond had been retired for ten years, but the "71" equipment cabinet survived. (Jim King photo)
The Houston East & West Texas (HE&WT) Railway was
called "the Rabbit", but the origin of this nickname is in dispute. One source
claims it derived from passengers shooting rabbits from the train during stops
en route between Houston and Shreveport. A more
plausible explanation can be found in Robert S. Maxwell's book Whistle in the
Piney Woods [East Texas Historical Association and University of North Texas
Press, 1998] where he writes... Because of its short, bobbing,
narrow-gauge cars, its up and down hill roadbed, its tendency to jump the track,
and, above all, its proclivity for "stopping behind every stump", the road was
promptly labeled "The Rabbit". Whatever the case, "the Rabbit" was a narrow gauge track from Houston to
Shreveport, although technically, HE&WT's ownership interest ended at the
Louisiana border. Construction commenced in Houston in 1877 and proceeded slowly
northeast. It took nearly a decade to reach the Sabine River boundary between the two
states, 40 miles southwest of Shreveport. The bridge over the Sabine into
the town of Logansport, Louisiana opened on January 26, 1886.
Hard economic times led to bankruptcy for the HE&WT, a common occurrence for railroads of this era. After receivership and reorganization, the newly reconstituted HE&WT converted all of its tracks to standard gauge on July 29, 1894, a massive one-day project that somehow succeeded without cell phones. Standard gauge made the HE&WT substantially more valuable as it became able to interchange cars directly with other railroads, providing better service to Houston for east Texas agriculture, timber and oil commodities. Passengers were also important as the HE&WT served the two largest towns in deep east Texas, Lufkin and Nacogdoches. With the timing of the HE&WT's development coinciding with the early years of massive industrial growth in Houston, the HE&WT came under the control of Southern Pacific (SP) in 1899. As with its other Texas railroads, SP allowed the HE&WT to continue operating under its own name. This arrangement continued until 1927 when the HE&WT was leased to SP's primary Texas operating railroad, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad. In 1934, the HE&WT became extinct, merged fully into the T&NO, but "the Rabbit" lived on as T&NO's Lufkin Subdivision.
A few years after SP acquired the HE&WT, four railroads in Houston created a switching company to facilitate city-wide freight interchange. The Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway was founded in 1905 by the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway and three other railroads under the control of rail baron (and native Texan) B. F. Yoakum: the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M), the Beaumont, Sour Lake & Western (BSL&W), and the Trinity & Brazos Valley (T&BV). The companies contributed existing tracks and rights-of way (ROWs) to HB&T as it began construction of additional tracks around Houston. One of HB&T's earliest efforts was to build the North Belt out of downtown which would intersect the East Belt semi-circular track planned for the east side of town. The North Belt was really just a continuation of Santa Fe's existing line that ran north across Buffalo Bayou to reach two SP connections. At the T&NO east/west main line midway between Towers 25 and 26, Santa Fe had a southeast quadrant connector that facilitated freight movements between SP's Englewood Yard and Santa Fe's South Yard south of downtown. (In 1927, Tower 26 was relocated to the northwest quadrant of this crossing and also began controlling Tower 25's interlocker so Tower 25 could be retired.) The Santa Fe line continued north across the T&NO and curved back to the west to merge into the HE&WT north/south line, facilitating freight exchange between the two railroads. The 1896 Sanborn Fire Insurance index map of Houston shows this connection which implies that it was built within a year of the HE&WT's conversion to standard gauge in 1894.
Taking over Santa Fe's tracks, HB&T retained the HE&WT connecting track and built new tracks east of and parallel to the HE&WT, sharing a broad ROW for a half mile to the north. At that point, the HB&T curved to the northwest and crossed the HE&WT at a location that became interlocked as Tower 71. The HB&T then curved back due north toward Belt Junction while the HE&WT curved northeast toward Lufkin. After two and half miles, it crossed HB&T's East Belt at a location that became interlocked as Tower 76. Due west of Tower 76 at Belt Junction (Tower 80), HB&T's East Belt intersected the North Belt and the main line of the International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad.
This map of north Houston shows tower locations identified by number
and shows each railroad in a different color. Except for the HE&WT (in red),
all SP railroads are illustrated in light blue; the consolidation of
SP's lines into
the T&NO (as SP's primary operating railroad in Texas) began in 1927.
Tower 26 was originally at the HE&WT crossing but was relocated to the
HB&T crossing in 1927. Tower 25 was closed shortly thereafter. SP's
passenger station used by all of its railroads was located a short
distance west of the Missouri - Kansas - Texas (MKT) crossing at
Below: This annotated Sanborn Fire Insurance map from 1907 shows the tangle of rail lines along the north bank of Buffalo Bayou (yellow) near downtown using the same color scheme as the map at left. The Santa Fe line ("GC&SF RR") was used by HB&T, which had been created only two years earlier. Note there were three rail bridges over Buffalo Bayou near downtown.
Tower 71 first appears in a list of active
interlockers published by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) in their 1908
Annual Report. This report's list dated October 31, 1907 has Tower 71 as the
final entry. The interlocker is described as a 12-function mechanical plant at
"Houston" (with no further location detail), and the commissioning date is unspecified, merely listed as
"Aug. 1907". The railroads involved with Tower 71 are listed as "H. E. & W. T --
H. B & Ter. (No. 1)". The "No. 1" was a reference to
the fact that the HE&WT and HB&T had two joint interlockers planned, the second
being the future Tower 76. It was listed the same way but designated "No. 2" in the
list published two years later. (The intervening list in the 1909 Annual Report
ends with Tower 75.) It's apparent that RCT was apprised early on that there
would be two HB&T/HE&WT interlockers in north Houston, hence the No. 1/No. 2
designations. Yet, the towers were sufficiently far apart in planning and
construction that they were not assigned consecutive
numbers by RCT.
Documents in the RCT interlocker archives maintained at DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, show that the Tower 71 implementation did not go smoothly. As the second railroad at both crossings, it was HB&T's responsibility to initiate the design and construction of the interlocking towers. In response to receiving a copy of HB&T's letter dated July 31, 1907 requesting RCT inspection and commissioning of the newly constructed tower, HE&WT asked for technical assistance from another SP railroad, the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC). This was HB&T's first tower, and only the second (after Tower 26) that HE&WT had ever been involved with. An H&TC engineer, Mr. Eberspacher, responded to HE&WT with a letter dated August 9, 1907 detailing various inadequacies in HB&T's design, specifically "...There are no guard rails at the derails on the HE&WT RR, and the distant signal west on the HE&WT has no doll-pole on it while there is a track between it and the track it governs. I also object to the semaphore lamps furnished as they are one day burners and our standard is the seven-day lamp." (A doll-pole was an element of a signal post design that indicated to locomotive engineers that the signal pertained to a track that was not the one closest to the signal.) HE&WT immediately forwarded this letter to RCT, adding a cover letter dated the same day that said "...On account of defects enumerated in Mr. Eberspacher's letter...", they wanted RCT to require HB&T to fix all of the identified problems. This was presumably resolved to HE&WT's satisfaction; another document in the archives states that the Tower 71 interlocker was "placed in service" on September 11, 1907.
Northeast of Tower 71, Tower 76 was built a year later at what became known to railroaders as "Rabbit Crossing". The published RCT interlocker list dated October 31, 1909 shows Tower 76 with a commissioning date of November 1, 1908 (implying that it missed by one day being included in the prior year's list dated October 31, 1908.) While Tower 76 had a firm date published, Tower 71's commissioning was still listed generically as "Aug., 1907". This did not change until RCT's list dated December 31, 1926 was published wherein Tower 71 was finally shown with September 11, 1907 as its commissioning date, matching the service date found in RCT archives. This date lasted only one year, however, being changed to July 1, 1907 for unknown reasons in all subsequent RCT interlocker lists. RCT's final published list dated December 31, 1930 omits both Towers 71 and 76, instead noting that these towers had been "consolidated with" Towers 26 and 80, respectively.
In 1925, Missouri Pacific (MP) acquired both the I-GN (which was involved with Tower 80) and the BSL&W (whose tracks merged into HB&T's East Belt very close to Tower 76.) It also acquired the SLB&M at this time, making MP a half-owner of the HB&T. A letter from MP to RCT dated August 17, 1931 found in the Tower 76 file at DeGolyer Library states "...Tower 76 is an old mechanical plant which we feel should be replaced with an electric installation...placed under control of operators at Tower 80 so that when the route is lined up, a train may proceed uninterrupted over both crossings at Tower 80 and Tower 76." It is interesting that this letter is dated nearly a year after the last published RCT list which had already footnoted that Tower 76 was "consolidated" with Tower 80. Perhaps that list anticipated a consolidation that was under consideration but not yet implemented? The most likely answer is that the date of the letter is simply wrong, for unexplained reasons. The 1935 edition of Railway Signaling and Communications has a comprehensive article describing how several Houston area interlockers on the north side of town were combined into two control points: Tower 26 and Tower 80. This article, written by an MP signals engineer, discusses what happened to Tower 76.
|Left: This excerpt from the 1935 edition of Railway Signaling and Communications explains why, in 1930, Tower 76 was replaced by remote control from Tower 80 rather than using an automatic interlocker.|
It is likely that Tower 71 was similar to Tower 76. Both interlockers had 12 functions when first listed, usually indicative of a minimum function set for an interlocker consisting of four home signals, four distant signals and four derails. (The function count dropped to 11 for Tower 71 in 1923.) And while Sanborn maps did not extend far enough north to cover Tower 76 before it's demise, Tower 71 is shown (in the Sanborn map snippet at the top of this page) as a one-story structure with a door facing the crossing. There's also a reference to Tower 71 in the DeGolyer Library archives as a "square tower". These clues combine to suggest that Tower 71 (and by extension, Tower 76) was little more than a small one-story office with levers for a manual interlocker. It is perhaps a bit surprising that Towers 71 and 76 are both listed as being manned "continuously" in T&NO's Lufkin Subdivision timetable dated September 7, 1930. There was apparently sufficient traffic to justify the labor expense of continuous staffing, but the physical tower seems more like a train order office or an unmanned cabin interlocker.
|Left: These special instructions pertaining to Towers 71 and 76 were published in SP's T&NO Houston Division Timetable dated April 29, 1951, confirming that after twenty years, Towers 71 and 76 were still remotely controlled by Towers 26 and 80, respectively. The "telephone connected with loud speaker in Tower 26" was an annunciator circuit (hat tip, Tom Kline, for the term "annunciator") by which a telephone at Tower 71 was used to send ambient noise to speakers inside Tower 26 for the operators to hear. As explained by the aforementioned article in Railway Signaling and Communications, "When a train passes one of these telephone stations, the transmitter is cut in and the noise of the passing train and the whistle signals are brought into the towers over the loud speakers." The article explains that this capability was driven by MP operating rules, and implies that the telephone circuit could also be used for normal 2-way voice communications.|
|Left: This map snippet from a 1975 HB&T timetable shows that MP's former I-GN route north from downtown had become HB&T's Freight Subdivision. For reference to the maps above, the "BRDG." symbol at the bottom of the map is the I-GN bridge over Buffalo Bayou. Tower numbers are not used, replaced with HB&T's "XX" nomenclature, where AX is Tower 71, RX is Tower 210, IX is Tower 76, NX is Tower 80, CX is Tower 26, TX is Tower 139, and SX is the former Tower 25 interlocking. There are no references to "Freight Subdivision" in an HB&T 1968 timetable, so presumably this operation was instituted in the early 1970s. By the late 1980s, "East Main" and "West Main" were in use as names for the Freight Subdivision and North Belt Subdivision, respectively.|
As noted above, MP became half-owner of the HB&T in
1925, acquiring the I-GN at the same time. The I-GN route had been built in 1871 by predecessor Houston & Great
Northern and was crossed at grade by the HE&WT in 1877, yet it remained
uncontrolled for decades. The most likely
reason is that the crossing was affected by the presence of Percival Yard a
half mile north of the diamond, and SP's North Yard (originally "East Yard"
in the pre-T&NO days) about 600 ft. east of the diamond. Trains on both lines would be
moving slowly anyway in the vicinity of a yard, thus there was little time
penalty for stopping at the diamond as required by state law for uncontrolled crossings. It's also worth noting that SP
timetables of the 1950s (e.g., T&NO Houston Division Timetable dated April 21, 1959)
marked the entire Houston portion of the Lufkin Subdivision (from 4.9 miles north of
Tower 76 to downtown Houston) as "Houston Yard" wherein special rules applied
regarding train movements. SP's crossing of the former I-GN finally became protected in 1961 with
an electric interlocker, Tower 210, that was remote-controlled from Tower 26.
In the late 1980s, the State of Texas began planning to widen the US 59 freeway through downtown Houston which would necessitate track relocations. The railroads cooperated with the State by using this as an opportunity to restructure rail traffic flow from downtown to Tower 80, sharing selected HB&T tracks and rights-of-way with SP while abandoning others. Essentially, the plan was:
1) Abandon HB&T's West Main from south of Buffalo Bayou to Tower 26, including transferring ownership of HB&T's bascule bridge at Buffalo Bayou (see photos at Tower 139) to the State which agreed to preserve it; the State also took ownership of HB&T's West Main bridge over Interstate 10 so they could fund its removal.
2) Double track HB&T's East Main north from downtown and reroute it onto the West Main at Tower 26, replacing the former I-GN bridge over Buffalo Bayou to support the double track.
3) Abandon the East Main from the former Tower 25 SP crossing north to Campbell Street, retaining the tracks from Campbell Street to Tower 210 for car storage and future industry support.
4) Double track HB&T's new combined Main from Tower 26 to Tower 71, sharing the tracks with SP and removing the Tower 71 crossing.
5) Continue the double track of HB&T's Main from Tower 71 to Tower 210 using SP's ROW, and then veer north, continuing the double track onto the former I-GN ROW from Tower 210 to Tower 80.
The plan was executed over many years beginning with replacement of the former I-GN bridge over Buffalo Bayou in 1991. The project was mostly complete by the time Union Pacific acquired SP in 1996. Although Tower 71's function was eliminated and SP was sharing the new triple track (2 HB&T, 1 SP) from Tower 26 to Tower 210, the remainder of the former HE&WT line from Tower 71 south to SP's main near Tower 207 was kept in place. An existing northwest quadrant connector allowed southbound-to-westbound and eastbound-to-northbound movements; the diamond had already been removed but a southeast connector remained intact. Between April, 2014 and February, 2015, Union Pacific (UP), successor to SP, abandoned this former HE&WT track segment. A new connection was added in the northwest quadrant of the Tower 26 crossing to facilitate the same movements.
The former HB&T North Belt between Tower 71 and Tower 80 remained intact until it was abandoned between October, 2013 and February, 2014 (although isolated tracks still exist in places.) In 2009, the remaining HB&T tracks along the former I-GN ROW south of Tower 210 were removed. In 2018, a new elevated roadway for Collingsworth Street was built directly over the abandoned Tower 210 crossing.
Between 1953 and 1957, the elevated US59 "Eastex Freeway" was built directly over the Tower 76 diamond, and this area has become largely inaccessible since then. Tower 76 was not directly affected by the changes implemented in the 1990s. Although there are no connecting tracks, it remains a busy crossing of UP's Lufkin Subdivision and HB&T's East Belt.
Above: The Tower 210 equipment cabinet was still standing in 2006, presumably no longer functional since the red sign on the former I-GN/HB&T tracks indicates they were officially out of service to the south. The combined UP/HB&T main is in the background. The writing on the electrical box attached to the utility pole says "Out of Service 4/12/02". Below: A different equipment cabinet now occupies the same spot, rotated 90-degrees from before. This 3-D simulated view facing southwest is from December, 2018 Google Earth imagery showing the recently completed Collingsworth Street elevated roadway. (Google Maps)