Texas Railroad History - Tower 85 and Tower 189 - Houston

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

Tower 189: Crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal Railway and the International - Great Northern Railroad

The Tower 85 interlocker has controlled a major rail junction in Houston for nearly 100 years. Commissioned for operation on March 3, 1911 with a 12-function mechanical interlocker, it was located at the crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway and the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad southeast of downtown. The files of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) initially listed Tower 85's location as "Houston", but beginning with the 1928 Annual Report, the location was listed as "Houston (Baker St.)". The "Baker St." reference is problematic because Baker Street is located near downtown, north of Buffalo Bayou, approximately three miles straight-line distance from Tower 85. The Tower 85 file at DeGolyer Library contains 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." Unless there was an unknown Baker Street in the vicinity (and none appears on Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of this era), this seems to have simply been a mistake on the part of whomever composed the letter (which could not be determined because the letter did not indicate the author and was signed illegibly). The choice of "Baker St." for this mistake is somewhat ironic; the correct reference would likely have been "Hughes St." which paralleled the HB&T, so named because of the large Hughes Tool Co. facility located adjacent to the Tower 85 junction. In 1928, the year that the "Baker St." reference first appears in the RCT annual report, Baker Oil Tools was established as a new company by Carl Baker, consolidating his existing oil tool businesses to compete more effectively with Hughes Tool Co., with which it merged 60 years later to form Baker-Hughes in 1987. But the "Baker St." reference could not have been related to the oil tool business because the original company that became Baker Tools did not exist until 1913, three years after the "Baker St." reference first appeared in HB&T correspondence.

Despite the inexplicable "Baker St." reference, we know precisely where Tower 85 was located thanks to maps of Houston prepared for the Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. The tower is easily identified on the 1925 map near the intersection of Capitol Ave. and Hughes St. on the northeast corner of the GH&H/HB&T crossing diamond. The DeGolyer file contains correspondence indicating there was some concern with the original interlocking proposal on the part of an RCT engineer named "Parker". On December 12, 1910, Parker penned a handwritten memo to RCT management questioning whether the Tower 85 interlocking should be approved. His concerns centered on its proximity to the I-GN line paralleling the GH&H to the north, and its proximity to an electric rail line that crossed the HB&T nearby. Parker wrote "There is another steam line that should be taken into the plant I think and an interurban line as well."

As Steve Baron explained in an email to our website, Parker was slightly mistaken; it was a streetcar line, not an interurban:

"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."

Subsequently, Parker signed off on the proposal; notations indicate that the inclusion of spare levers in the interlocking machine, presumably for future use to control these nearby junctions, was sufficient to overcome Parker's objections. As the map below shows, Parker's concerns were well founded. The diamond at Tower 85 was less than 1,100 ft. from the diamond at HB&T's crossing of I-GN's Magnolia Belt line, and crossed the streetcar line on Harrisburg Blvd. All trains had to stop at the uncontrolled Magnolia Belt crossing; this is stated explicitly on a 1934 drawing of the Tower 85 interlocking plant. Since HB&T trains passing through Tower 85 were either slowing down (northbound) for the stop at the I-GN crossing, or attempting to gain speed from having stopped there already (southbound), Tower 85 would never maximize operational benefits for HB&T until the Magnolia Belt junction was interlocked, which did not occur until 1942. RCT held a hearing on October 30, 1942 to approve an automatic interlocker for the Magnolia Belt crossing, and the interlocker was designated Tower 189.

Location Map, Tower 85 and Tower 189

Above: The proximity of the towers is apparent from this map. Today, the Tower 85 crossing is still in use with the GH&H line now operated by Union Pacific. The former Magnolia Belt is abandoned west of Tower 189, but is apparently intact to the east to reach industries along the Houston Ship Channel near Magnolia Park.

The Tower 85 file at DeGolyer Library contains RCT correspondence dated March 16, 1934 authorizing the Tower 85 interlocker to be remotely controlled from Tower 86. This would explain why we have been unable to locate a photo or a personal recollection of Tower 85 -- the manned tower was probably dismantled in the middle 1930s, replaced by an equipment cabinet to house the remote controlled interlocker. If you have any information regarding Tower 85 and its operations, please contact us.

Historical Map of Tower 85

Above: Tower 85 is identified on the 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Houston at the crossing of the GH&H and HB&T along Hughes St.
Below: Magnification of the map reveals the tower to be a 2-story structure with an external staircase.

Historical Map of Tower 189

Above: The 1950 update to the 1925 Sanborn map shows an equipment cabinet located at the Tower 189 junction.
Below: Magnification of the above map shows a one-story structure, probably the equipment cabinet that housed the automatic interlocker.

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

Google Street View, Tower 85, January 2017 (facing south and north, respectively, from Hughes St.)

Google Street View, Tower 189, January 2017 (facing north from 65th St.)

Satellite Image, Tower 85 and Tower 189 Vicinity

Last Revised: 1/21/2019 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.