Texas Railroad History - Tower 85 and Tower 189 - Houston (East Belt)

Tower 85: Crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal Railway and the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad

Tower 189: "Magnolia Junction", Crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal Railway and the International & Great Northern Railroad

Above Left: Kenneth Anthony took this photo of the Tower 85 crossing in 1986. The view is south along the East Belt. Above Right: The reason the Railroad Commission of Texas began to list the location of Tower 85 (green circle) as "Houston (Baker St.)" in 1927 was to distinguish all of the towers generically assigned as "Houston". Tower 85 got the Baker Street postscript because Baker was the closest street (blue oval) to the tower, as illustrated by this annotated image from a 1913 Houston street map (courtesy, Texas State Library & Archives.) Later, Baker St. was renamed 65th St. and it no longer crosses the tracks (if it ever did - maps of this nature were often prospective based on a town's plat.)

Tower 85 has controlled a major rail junction in Houston for more than a century, a crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway and the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad southeast of downtown. The Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) initially listed Tower 85's location as "Houston", but beginning with RCT's 1928 Annual Report issued in January of that year, the site was updated to "Houston (Baker St.)". Files in the RCT archives at DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University contain only one reference to "Baker Street", a letter dated December 8, 1910 from HB&T to the RCT submitting the original interlocking proposal. The letter states that the interlocker would protect "the East Belt Line tracks of this company and the tracks of the GH&H railroad at Baker Street, Houston."

The GH&H was one of the first railroads in Texas, chartered in 1853 to build between Houston and Galveston, with plans to build north to Henderson in deep east Texas. Construction was delayed, but eventually began at Virginia Point; rails reached Houston in 1859. The trestle from Virginia Point onto Galveston Island was completed the following year, just in time time to be used by both sides during the Civil War. After a post-war foreclosure and restructuring, the GH&H was acquired by rail baron Jay Gould who again reorganized it and then sold it to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas ("Katy") railroad which he controlled. Since the Katy had no tracks near Houston or Galveston at the time, the GH&H was then leased by the Katy to the International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad, another company controlled by Gould. In 1888, Gould lost control of the Katy. Five years later, Katy's tracks reached Houston and they filed a lawsuit to revoke the lease to the I-GN. In a final settlement reached in 1895, the Katy sold a half interest in the GH&H to the I-GN and both railroads gained permanent rights on the GH&H. Both railroads eventually became part of Missouri Pacific (MP) and ultimately, Union Pacific (UP), which continues to operate the former GH&H line.

The other railroad at Tower 85 was the HB&T which had the responsibility for establishing the interlocker (as the "junior" railroad at the crossing.) The HB&T was formed in 1905 by four railroads to provide switching services, including building a "belt line" around Houston to facilitate interchange and constructing a union passenger station downtown. The railroads each had a quarter interest in the company and each contributed other assets such as existing tracks. One of the four railroads was the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway (the other three, all run by B. F. Yoakum, were the Trinity & Brazos Valley, the Beaumont, Sour Lake & Western, and the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexican.) It's ironic that Santa Fe was one of HB&T's owners because their initial main line route out of Galveston had specifically avoided the city of Houston. Galveston investors blamed Houston officials for unwarranted service disruptions on the GH&H; Santa Fe avoided Houston to ensure they would not suffer the same fate. Yet, by 1883, the Houston economy had become so important that Santa Fe could no longer ignore it. They built a branch that year departing their main line at Alvin and running 26 miles north into downtown Houston. They also built a yard (eventually known as "South Yard") along this branch approximately two miles south of downtown. About 25 years later, access to HB&T's East Belt began near the south end of this yard. HB&T took over yard operations from Santa Fe and then built a "New South Yard" (Tower 117) directly south of the East Belt connection.

RCT records attribute two construction activities to the HB&T: 8.13 miles in 1907 and 9.74 miles in 1912. This construction produced a semi-circular belt line around the east side of Houston along with new tracks north and south out of downtown. While RCT construction records do not provide dates for specific track segments, RCT's interlocker records show that Tower 76 was commissioned in 1908. This was a crossing of the Houston East & West Texas Railway and the HB&T on the north side of Houston implying that HB&T's 1907 construction included the northern part of the belt line. This is consistent with the fact that HB&T made a direct connection to meet the Trinity & Brazos Valley (T&BV) Railway which was building into Houston on a southeast heading in 1907. Nearing Houston, the T&BV line curved due east, becoming HB&T tracks at some point near, but west of, Tower 80. This completed T&BV's Dallas-Houston main line which became an important link for overhead traffic but lacked the local traffic necessary to become profitable. T&BV commenced a long receivership in 1914 that ended in 1930 when its assets were transferred to the newly organized Burlington-Rock Island (B-RI), a joint venture of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (through its Ft. Worth & Denver subsidiary) and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroads.

Left: This map appeared in the March, 1952 edition of Railway Signaling and Communications in an article discussing recent interlocking changes in Houston. It has been annotated to illustrate the semi-circular belt line constructed by the HB&T around the east side of Houston. Note that the published map did not include all rail lines and towers that would otherwise be visible, e.g. the tracks of the Houston East & West Texas Railroad, which crossed the HB&T at Tower 76, were not shown. Towers 76 and 86 have been annotated but were not marked on the original map. Numerous other lines and towers that were active in 1952 were also omitted.

The following railroad abbreviations are used on the map:

B. - R. I. (Burlington - Rock Island)
B. S. L. & W. (Beaumont, Sour Lake & Western)
Ft. W. & D. (Fort Worth & Denver)
G. H. & H. (Galveston, Houston & Henderson)
H. B. & T. (Houston Belt & Terminal)
I - G. N. (International & Great Northern)
M - K - T (Missouri - Kansas - Texas)
M. P. (Missouri Pacific)
S. P. (Southern Pacific)
St. L. B. & M. (St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexican)

Tower 85 was commissioned by RCT on May 3, 1911 as a 12-function mechanical interlocker controlling a junction of the HB&T and the GH&H. Presumably, part of HB&T's 1907 construction included the section of the East Belt where Tower 85 was located since its commissioning date precedes the HB&T construction accomplished in 1912. RCT's list of interlockers dated December 31, 1923 reduced the number of functions at Tower 85 to 11, and, suspiciously, changed the commissioning year to 1919 (with the month and day remaining May 3.) This error was corrected in the list published three years later at which time the number of interlocker functions increased to 19 and the date reverted to 1911. This was merely a swap of the 2-digit year and the number of interlocker functions, i.e. the original error was just a typesetting mistake. RCT's interlocker list dated December 31, 1927 revised the tower's location to "Houston (Baker St.)" and inexplicably changed the commissioning date to February 10, 1911. A year later, the number of functions increased to 21 and the commissioning date reverted to May 3, 1911.

The RCT archives at DeGolyer Library contain correspondence that indicate the original Tower 85 interlocking proposal engendered technical concerns on the part of an RCT engineer named "Parker". On December 12, 1910, Parker penned a handwritten memo to RCT management questioning whether the interlocking plan should be approved. His main issue centered on its proximity to HB&T's crossings of an electric rail line and I-GN's Magnolia Belt branch. Parker wrote "There is another steam line that should be taken into the plant I think and an interurban line as well." An expert on Houston's electric lines, Steve Baron, explains that Parker was slightly mistaken... "The electric line on Harrisburg Road was a streetcar line, not an interurban. The steam road people may have referred to it as an interurban but it was just a long suburban streetcar line, built and operated by the Houston Electric Co. which was the local streetcar operator. This track was used by two routes, the Harrisburg line and the Central Park (later called Port Houston) line. Service on the Harrisburg line ended in 1928 and on the Port Houston line in 1936, at which point the crossing was most likely removed. As was the case with virtually all crossings between city streetcars and steam roads, the crossing was uncontrolled and the railroad trains had priority." Parker eventually signed off on the proposal. Notations on the interlocker documentation imply that inclusion of spare levers in the interlocking machine, presumably for future use to control these nearby crossings, was sufficient to overcome Parker's objections.

As the map below shows, Parker's concerns were well founded. The diamond at Tower 85 was only about 700 ft. from the streetcar crossing at Harrisburg Blvd, and I-GN's Magnolia Belt was approximately 300 ft. beyond. All trains stopped at the uncontrolled Magnolia Belt diamond; this was the law for uncontrolled crossings of two railroads at grade and it was also explicitly stated on a 1934 drawing of the Tower 85 interlocking plant. Although Tower 85 benefitted GH&H trains by allowing them to maintain track speed (if the diamond was unoccupied), HB&T trains passing through Tower 85 were either slowing down (northbound) for the stop at the Magnolia Belt, or attempting to gain speed (southbound) from having stopped there already. Tower 85 would never maximize operational benefits for HB&T until the Magnolia Belt diamond was interlocked. RCT held a hearing on October 30, 1942 to approve an automatic interlocker for the Magnolia Belt crossing and the interlocker was commissioned as Tower 189 shortly thereafter.

Location Map, Tower 85 and Tower 189 (Google Earth)

Above: The proximity of the two interlockers is apparent from this map. Today, the Tower 85 crossing is still in use with the GH&H line now operated by UP. The former Magnolia Branch is abandoned west of Tower 189, but remains intact to the east for HB&T to reach industries along the Houston Ship Channel. Where the Houston Electric streetcar line formerly occupied Harrisburg Blvd. a century ago, Houston's light rail METRORail Green Line now uses the right-of-way. The final step in opening the Green Line was completion of a bridge over HB&T's East Belt. In the image above, METRORail's shops and storage tracks can be seen above the light blue "GH&H" label.

Below Left: The 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Houston shows the precise location of Tower 85 in the northeast quadrant of the diamond west of Hughes St. Magnification of the map (below right) identifies it as a 2-story structure with an external staircase on the east side.


Files at DeGolyer Library contain RCT correspondence dated March 16, 1934 authorizing the Tower 85 interlocker to be remotely controlled from Tower 86. This presumably led to the demise of the Tower 85 structure and likely explains why no photos of it have been located. However, there is documented evidence (below) that some sort of Tower 85 structure was reestablished in later years.

Left: A case published in 1953 from the National Railroad Adjustment Board involved a union complaint about loss of telegraph operator jobs due to a terminal consolidation agreement between I-GN and HB&T. The agreement specified that "telegraphing that was being performed at Congress Avenue would be moved to Tower 85." Clearly, some kind of manned Tower 85 structure existed when the agreement was made in 1949. The passage states that Tower 85 was "three miles from Congress Ave. yard office" which is reasonably close to the actual distance, i.e. presumably this new Tower 85 was at the traditional Tower 85 junction. Was there a reason that operations personnel needed to be at this specific location? Or...was it merely convenient real estate owned by HB&T, i.e. a place to put a new building that could just as easily have been located somewhere else? The answer has not been determined.

The passage at left also has a mysterious reference to "Tower 1", apparently some sort of Houston-area control point, not the Tower 1 located in Bowie, Texas.

Above Left: The March, 1950 update to the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of Houston shows a one-story "Railroad Signal & Switch House" located in the northeast quadrant of the Tower 85 crossing. This concrete ("Conc.") structure was east of Hughes St. whereas the original tower was west of Hughes St. (see 1925 Sanborn map further above). Above Center: This image is taken from a 1966 aerial photo ((c)historicaerials.com) of the Tower 85 crossing showing a building in the northeast quadrant consistent with the structure shown on the Sanborn map. A light gravel parking area surrounds the building and connects to Hughes St. The size of the building's shadow is similar to those of others nearby implying a one-story structure as expected. The building also appears on a 1953 image, the earliest historic aerial available, and can be seen on imagery as late as 1982. It does not appear on 1995 or later imagery. Other smaller structures are also visible including one known to be an equipment cabinet, perhaps even the same one (above right) that remains intact as of December, 2019. (Google Street View) Below: This 2019 east-facing simulated 3-D image of the northeast quadrant of Tower 85 shows the equipment cabinet remains, but not much else! (Google Maps)

Tower 85 Site Photos by Tom Kline (click to enlarge)

Magnolia Junction (Tower 189)

In 1890, John T. Brady established the Magnolia Park community on 1,374 acres he owned east of Houston and built a large amusement area along the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. Brady chartered the Houston Belt & Magnolia Park (HB&MP) Railway in 1889 to develop freight business on his waterfront land and ferry passengers between downtown Houston and his amusement park. The HB&MP lasted only a year before entering receivership, but it managed to stay afloat during the 1890s by leasing parts of its tracks to other railroads. The HB&MP was sold to Herbert F. Fuller in November, 1898, and six months later, Fuller transferred the property to the newly chartered Houston, Oak Lawn & Magnolia Park (HOL&MP) Railway. Shortly thereafter, the HOL&MP was sold to the I-GN. Plans for the Houston Ship Channel were in work and I-GN had the same vision that motivated Brady to charter the HB∓ ocean-going ships would soon traverse Buffalo Bayou and industries would populate the new port. The city of Houston owned some of this land and established the Port of Houston, served by I-GN. When HB&T's East Belt was constructed, it crossed the I-GN Magnolia Branch a thousand feet north of the Tower 85 crossing. The Magnolia Branch crossing was interlocked in 1942 as Tower 189 and by 1947, and perhaps much earlier, a connecting track was added in the northwest quadrant. At some point after 1950, ownership of the branch was conveyed to the HB&T.

Below Left: The 1950 update to the 1925 Sanborn map shows an equipment cabinet located at Tower 189 Magnolia Junction. Below Right: Magnification reveals a one-story "Signal Control House" structure with 8-inch tile walls, presumably the equipment cabinet that housed the automatic interlocker.

Above Left: View to the west-northwest toward Magnolia Junction from 65th St. Sometime prior to 1984, the Magnolia Belt tracks west of the East Belt were abandoned. (Google Street View, 2017) Above Right: Kenneth Anthony explains this 1991 photo he took looking west on Avenue C, the street where he lived as a kid: "In the 1950s into the 1990s, SW diesel switchers were seen on nearly all HB&T jobs. All were black when I was kid, then black with yellow tiger safety stripes on the corners, and finally yellow. This HBT switcher is going south on the East Belt line, with the Magnolia Junction northeast quadrant curve in the foreground." The northeast quadrant curve that Kenneth references is the right-hand track in the image above left.

Kenneth Anthony grew up in a house located on the southwest corner of Avenue C and 65th St., literally a stone's throw from Magnolia Junction. Below are some of Kenneth's recollections of Magnolia Junction and the trains that passed through it:

A little about Magnolia Junction in Houston, where I grew up. In the baby book my mom kept for me, she recorded that the 9th word I spoke was "choo choo." My childhood bedroom had a window about 100 feet from the former Houston Belt & Magnolia Park Railway, a branch line of the Houston Belt & Terminal, and 500 feet from the East Belt of the Houston Belt & Terminal. ... I didn't know it as an infant, but there was a connection on the northwest quadrant of the crossing of the East Belt and the Magnolia Branch. No connections existed then on the other quadrants. There were major railroad changes “in my backyard” when I was three years old, about 1947. The railroad bought and tore down two houses at the west end of Avenue C, to clear right-of-way to build a curve to connect the East Belt and the Magnolia line on the north-EAST quadrant of the crossing. This formed a wye which allowed turning locomotives or short cuts of cars. It also allowed continuous running between the north end of East Belt with either west or east on the Magnolia Branch. Whenever a train went around curve nearest my house, the wheels went SKREEEEEEEE! ...

An incident from before I started taking pictures of railroads.  It was between 1953 and 1956 because those were the years I walked home afternoons from Burnet Elementary School on Canal Street.  A train derailed at Sherman Street, right at the turnout where the northeast interchange curve from Magnolia Branch connects to HB&T East Belt.  A boxcar overturned and went through the side of a house. I saw the aftermath. The house, south side of Sherman and just east of HB&T East Belt was torn down and the property remains vacant to this day.

I never saw any passenger trains as such on the Magnolia Branch or the East Belt of the HB&T, but I clearly remember one unusual sighting from my back driveway when I was three years old, just after the new curve was laid on the back side of the block where I lived. The squeal of a train around the curve got my attention in time to see a flat car with seats mounted on it for people to ride. There weren’t any riders, but it was so unusual I remembered it clearly. Never saw it again until FIFTY YEARS LATER when I found archived copies of a Port of Houston promotional magazine, and there was a photo of that car. The issue was dated May 1948, the year I was 3 years old. An article said there had been an inspection train for officials to view new railroad facilities at the port. The observation flatcar may have been on a “shakedown cruise” or “dry run” before the bigwigs took their tour when I saw it crossing 65th Street. The new curve built at Magnolia Junction may have been one of the new railroad facilities to serve the port. It was some two miles from the port, but it certainly made the south side of the port more accessible to traffic on the HB&T.

As for everyday trains: I regularly saw 2 or 3 short trains a day on the Magnolia Branch. Just about the time of the curve construction, the locomotives changed from steam (“choo choo”) to diesel. My dad described the diesels as going “boogedy boogedy boogedy” instead of “choo choo.” Black switchers with white lettering, what I now know as Roman font, pulling five or ten cars. And never a caboose on the Belt. As I grew a little older and began looking farther, I saw quite a bit more traffic going up and down the East Belt. Usually Belt switchers with a few cars. But sometimes Missouri Pacific trains with blue F-units and blue GEEPs.

I was not sure from childhood memory when the southeast curve was laid at Magnolia Junction, but I found a photo and document which showed it had been done by 1953. The new curve connected with the east track of the East Belt just short of Harrisburg Boulevard and allowed direct runs of trains from the south on the East Belt (such as from New South Yard) to the south side of the Port of Houston. Because the crossing is not at right angles but at 72 degrees, the northeast curves and southeast curves are not the same length, though apparently both are of about the same radius (sharp!) The southeast curve only has to turn 72 degrees and can do it in less distance from the crossing, than the northeast curve which has to navigate 108 degrees of curvature, which puts its east end switch frog right in the east edge of 65th Street. Laying the southeast curve required taking land from the Contractor’s Supply lumberyard. The older lumber sheds at the west end of the site, open to a central courtyard, were torn down and replaced with fully-enclosed cabinetwork and millwork buildings, their walls truncated to fit within the new railroad curve. The west end of the lumberyard’s industrial spur was also re-laid to fit on the inside of the junction connection curve. The lumberyard needed more room for outside lumber storage. But where? The southeast curve left only a sliver of room in a triangle between the curve, the Magnolia Branch and the East Belt. The geometry of the 72 degree diamond crossing of the two rail lines created a somewhat larger triangle of land inside the northeast quadrant, one made unsuitable for residential use by the heavier rail traffic, and cut off from the adjacent neighborhood by the raised grade of the track. Some kind of arrangement was made for the lumberyard to use the area. Fill dirt was trucked in to bring the area up to rail top level to allow an easy private crossing from the lumberyard across the southeast curve and the Magnolia line. It would be used by forklifts carrying long loads of 2x4 studs, some 16 and 18 feet long, so a fairly smooth crossing was needed. During the time before the fill dirt was graded and asphalted over, neighborhood kids played in this area when no construction workers were present. Explored, built forts, etc. That was the occasion in March 1955 for my shooting a picture of my little brother Shelley, neighbor girl Beverly and a “fort” built of scrap lumber. (This photo, below left, was on the first roll of film I ever photographed, at age 10.) In the background beyond the track, the 3 houses on the south side of Avenue C were left after the railroad condemned and demolished two houses for the curve. The nearest house has a horse stable and chicken coops, laid out to fit in the irregular back of the property left after a portion was cut off by the railroad. Farther back, the barn-shaped building is my father’s sheet metal fabrication shop on the ground floor, with a Lionel train layout on the upper floor.

In this photo from 1991 (below right), the “Brady” sign referred to the crossover, located in the block south of Brady Street. Before 1970 or so, the East Belt was mostly single track, but a siding went off to the east of the single main track between Sherman and Brady, and the north-east quadrant of the Magnolia connection was accessed through that siding. The siding rejoined the main track just north of Tower 85, and the siding also accessed the curve from the East Belt to GH&H. Another siding diverged from the HB&T East Belt main track on the west side between Sherman and Brady, paralleling the East Belt northward to provide access to Esperson industrial district between Canal and Navigation.  An HB&T system map from a 1974 Zone Track Spot book seems to label that siding as “Burris.” The Burris siding and the siding to Magnolia Branch overlapped each other. Then when the East Belt was doubled tracked, with a second track continuing the alignment of the Magnolia access siding, it created a crossover, to which the Brady name apparently refers. 

Eventually, the crossing of the East Belt and Magnolia Branch was completely eliminated. Crossing pulled up and Magnolia Branch west to downtown abandoned and pulled up. Now a hike and bike trail. The photo (above left) is taken standing right in the middle of where the Magnolia Branch tracks USED to be, and looking straight west down the alignment of the former track.

This photo (above right) was taken in August 1990 from just south of the dead-end of Avenue C. looking west and it shows what the northeast quadrant connecting curve looked like for most of the period from 1955 to 2005. Contractor's Supply and Lumber Co. had outside lumber storage in the open area inside the wye. In the photo, some kind of track alignment check is being made.

I do not remember ever seeing any traditional manned 2-story tower at Tower 85, but it would have been on the east side of Hughes Street. I almost always walked right along the railroad and saw the tracks and the crossing, and a guardhouse for entering Hughes Tool. It could have been there and I just missed it. I also missed ever seeing the MoPac Galveston section of the Texas Eagle passenger train, even though it was running barely 4 blocks from my home. One thing I DID see, late 1950s or early 60s… crashed diesel locomo
tives from what looked like two trains that got to the crossing at the same time, one eastbound on GH&H and one southbound on HB&T East Belt.  One diesel turned over on its side, and one standing ON END.  At least, that’s my memory as an early teen...

Thanks for the memories, Kenneth!

Last Revised: 9/12/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.