Texas Railroad History - Tower 86 - Houston (Magers)

Crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway and the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway 

Tower 86 Equipment Huts

Above Left: Until a photo of the original Tower 86 manned structure can be located, photos of the Tower 86 equipment cabin will have to suffice. Just like manned towers, equipment cabins changed designs over time. (Jim King, December 2006) Above Right: This cabin sits in the northeast corner of the Tower 86 diamond (off the image to the far left.) The UP locomotive in the distance is on a spur track out of Basin Yard. (Abel Garcia, November, 2020)

Tower 86 is located at a crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway and the former Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway in east Houston. The GH&SA tracks arrived first, built by the Texas Transportation Co. (TTC) in 1876. The TTC had been founded ten years earlier by John T. Brady as part of a plan to develop his property along the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. Slow economic recovery after the Civil War resulted in the TTC accomplishing very little. By 1876, controlling interest in the TTC had been obtained by Charles Morgan, the owner of a large steamship business that dominated shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. Morgan wanted the TTC for its state charter because it could be modified easily and he was in a hurry. Instead of the south bank, the TTC line would run along the north bank of Buffalo Bayou from near downtown Houston to Morgan's newly established port of Clinton, a distance of eight miles. Morgan needed rail service as quickly as possible so that shippers would be enticed to use Clinton, from which he had already dredged a channel to the Gulf deep enough for his ocean-going steamships. (In fact, the first use of Clinton was to bring in materials for the rail line's construction.) Shortly after the TTC line was completed, Morgan established a holding company for his various steamship and railroad properties including the TTC. Morgan died in 1878 and his holding company was subsequently acquired by Southern Pacific (SP) Railroad. SP later assigned the TTC rail line to one of its Houston-area subsidiaries, the GH&SA.

The GH&SA had been chartered in 1850 as the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado (BBB&C) Railway, the first railroad in Texas. With plans to build to San Antonio, the BBB&C proceeded west in 1853 from Harrisburg on Buffalo Bayou. By the start of the Civil War, the BBB&C had built 80 miles of track, reaching Alleyton, about 12 miles beyond Eagle Lake, on the banks of the Colorado River opposite Columbus. After the War, the BBB&C was acquired out of receivership, rehabilitated and renamed the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway. Construction continued west to San Antonio and then was extended farther into west Texas through collaboration with SP. SP was building a southern transcontinental line from Los Angeles and wanted the GH&SA tracks to help fill a major track segment across Texas. By funding the GH&SA's construction west of San Antonio, SP gained a financial interest through which they ultimately acquired the GH&SA. Like SP's other Texas railroads, the GH&SA continued to operate under its own name until it was transferred by lease to SP's primary operating railroad in Texas, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad, in 1927.

The other tracks at Tower 86 belonged to the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway. The HB&T had been founded in 1905 as a switching and terminal railroad by four companies: the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway and three railroads controlled by 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). In addition to constructing a Union Station to support passenger service, HB&T's charter included building a belt line around the city to facilitate freight exchange among multiple yards. Records of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) attribute construction activities to the HB&T in 1907 and 1912, but it is likely that there was additional construction in the intervening years. The result was a semi-circular belt line around the east side of Houston along with new tracks north and south out of downtown. The track segments in east Houston became known as the East Belt. The southern endpoint of the East Belt was on Santa Fe's branch line into Houston, just north of a new freight yard, "New South Yard", built by HB&T. Santa Fe's branch line was also used by the SLB&M to reach Houston from its northern terminus at Algoa.

Left: This map appeared in a Railway Signaling and Communications (March, 1952) article about recent interlocking changes in Houston. It's been annotated to illustrate HB&T's semi-circular belt line around the east side of Houston. The published map omitted many 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; several other lines and towers that were active in 1952 were also omitted. Note the track location immediately north of Tower 86 was known as "Basin Siding", but it has since been expanded significantly to become Basin Yard.

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)

Below: drone view of the quad-diamond at Tower 86; east is up and the white cabinet at upper left is the same one as in the photo at the top right of this page (Abel Garcia, Nov. 2020)

From 1902 to 1931, each RCT annual report included an updated table of active, approved interlockers listed in order of RCT's assigned number. Tower 86 first appeared in RCT's list dated October 31, 1911, reported to be a 12-function mechanical interlocker. It was commissioned on April 19, 1911, the same day as Tower 87 (at the east end of Englewood Yard), the next HB&T tower north of Tower 86. Tower 86's entry in RCT's lists remained static over the years until the list dated December 31, 1927 was published. In that list, the GH&SA was no longer mentioned as one of the railroads at Tower 86, having been replaced by the T&NO which had officially leased the GH&SA (and would fully merge it in 1934.) This was also the first occasion that RCT identified Tower 86 as being located at "Houston (Magers)"; all previous lists just said "Houston". The term "Magers" is presumably a community or landowner reference. The Handbook of Texas does not have an entry for "Magers" and no other independent references (i.e., outside of the railroad context of Tower 86) have been found thus far. Magers is referenced in two entries in RCT's database of railroad construction and abandonment. In 1900, the Galveston, Houston & Northern built 1.21 miles with endpoints "Between Brady" and "Magers". While Magers was presumably at or near the Tower 86 crossing, Brady was an imprecisely defined location south of Buffalo Bayou, as explained for Tower 102. The other RCT entry is a 1901 abandonment by the same railroad with the same endpoints, but with 2.06 miles of track removed. The origin of the term "Magers" remains a mystery.

A photo of the original Tower 86 has not been located. With HB&T constructing several towers in the 1910-1912 timeframe, it's reasonable to assume that it shared much commonality with the original versions of HB&T's Towers 80, 84, 87 and 116, for which photos have been identified. Tower 86 was approximately two miles north of Tower 85 which took over remote control of the Tower 86 interlocker in 1960. Control of the interlockers for both of these towers was later consolidated into Tower 199 at Settegast Yard. More than a century after its founding, HB&T continues to operate, now owned jointly by Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). As successor to SP, UP now operates the former GH&SA tracks past Tower 86.

Above: It is apparent from these annotated side-by-side aerials ((c)historicaerials.com) that the manned tower structure  (yellow circle) that sat in the northeast quadrant of the "X-pattern" diamond at Tower 86 was removed between 1957(left) and 1962 (right), replaced by a white or silver equipment cabinet. In the 1957 aerial, it is apparent that the tower sat immediately north of Old Clinton Road, whereas SP's tracks were "across the street" south of Old Clinton Road.

Below Left
: Looking northeast from the Clinton Drive overpass, the tracks of Basin Yard are visible in the distance. The horizontal tracks ahead are at the Tower 86 crossing where the original line to Clinton (now UP's Strang Subdivision) crosses the HB&T East Belt. The Tower 86 cabin visible trackside along the HB&T is labeled the same as the one in the photo at top right of this page, but it's not the same cabin (or at least, not in the same location.) This one is well south of the diamond; the other, a more recent photo, is in the northeast quadrant of the diamond. (Google Street View, 2019) Below Right: The T&NO Time Table for the Beaumont and Terminals Divisions dated September 7, 1930 includes whistle codes for signaling the Tower 86 operator along with remote switch information for traversing Baer Junction, which the Tower 86 operator also controlled. Baer Junction, about 0.9 miles west of the Tower 86 diamond, was where SP built a short branch off the Clinton line that ran north to Englewood Yard. This branch was built in 1896, about a year after SP had built Englewood Yard, to provide SP with a way to move trains between the industries along Buffalo Bayou and Englewood Yard without having to transit via downtown Houston.

Above: Eastbound UP #8801 waits to cross the East Belt at Tower 86 on November 7, 2020. (Christof Spieler photo) Below: Abel Garcia took this drone image of Basin Yard and the Tower 86 crossing (at bottom of image) in November, 2020. The view is north along the East Belt. The Port Terminal Rail Association (PTRA) North Yard is visible to the right.

Despite a century of rail operations at the Tower 86 crossing, there was never a connection between the two lines. There has been an industry spur in the southwest quadrant for decades, but it did not provide a connection for the main lines. The need for a connection in this quadrant was identified as a potential improvement to traffic flow in a Houston Region Freight Study conducted in 2007. The study described the issue succinctly:

Strang Subdivision - East Belt Subdivision connection at the SW Quadrant (Tower 86)
Currently, the industrial lead track on the Strang Subdivision near Tower 86 does not permit northbound trains on the East Belt Subdivision to connect to the Strang Subdivision. Traffic destined for Englewood Yard must operate to Tower 87, which is currently constrained during peak periods of train traffic. Adding the connecting track in the SW Quadrant at Tower 86 will provide an alternative route to Englewood Yard via the Strang Subdivision, allowing flexibility in the routing of train traffic which may potentially alleviate congestion not only at Tower 87, but perhaps Tower 26 as well.

The "alternative route to Englewood Yard" would involve northbound East Belt trains transitioning to westbound on the Strang Subdivision and then immediately taking the Baer Junction track north to Englewood Yard.

Below: In response to the 2007 freight study, a connecting track was added on the west side of the Tower 86 diamond as a modification to an existing industry spur. The connection is not visible in this Google Earth image from February 2014 (left), but is clearly in place by July 2015 (right).

Northeast Houston north of Buffalo Bayou

Last Revised: 11/14/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.