Texas Railroad History - Tower 95 - Brenham

A Crossing of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad and the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway

Above: This photo of Tower 95 was taken by George W. La Lumiere, a photographer based in Houston hired by Southern Pacific. Based on city directories and census records, La Lumiere appears to have been active in the 1915 - 1920 timeframe. Although some of his photos have dates noted on the back, this one does not. (Ken Stavinoha collection)

Left: The signs on the side of Tower 95 appear to say 'Brenham' without the tower number. The assumption is that these photos were taken before the use of white, rectangular placards with black numerals became the standard. Whether this standard was actually mandated by regulation has not been determined, but it was certainly followed. Because of the dearth of tower photos prior to the 1930s, it is difficult to estimate when this standard was first used, but it is seen on virtually every tower photo taken in the 1930s or later. The horizontal, rounded-end style of the sign in this photo appears to be the standard that Southern Pacific used (e.g. Tower 41) before it began using the rectangular white placard. (Russell Crump archives, Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum) 

The town of Brenham dates to the days of the Republic of Texas in 1843 when the settlement changed its name from Hickory Grove. Within a year, Brenham had become the county seat of Washington County. In 1856, local businessmen chartered the Washington County Rail Road Co. to build a railroad to Hempstead, which was expected to become a stop on the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad coming north out of Houston. The H&TC reached Hempstead in 1858 and continued construction north toward Navasota. That same year, the Washington County Rail Road started at Hempstead and built west toward Brenham. With a delay in bridging the Brazos River, it was not until 1861 that Brenham saw its first train. After the Civil War, the Washington County Rail Road was acquired by the H&TC. H&TC extended the line west to Austin using tracks of 5 1/2 ft. gauge, driving the last spike there on Christmas Day, 1871. The spikes were driven a second time when H&TC converted the line to standard gauge in 1877. The H&TC was acquired by Southern Pacific (SP) in 1883, and eventually leased (1927) and merged (1934) into SP's operating railroad for Texas and Louisiana, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad.

The second railroad into Brenham was the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway. It was founded because of Galveston civic leaders' desire to have a railroad to Galveston Island that did not pass through Houston; they accused Houston authorities of periodically interfering with Galveston trains to create business for Houston shippers. With a new bridge over Galveston Bay, Santa Fe built out of Galveston well south of Houston and reached Arcola in 1877. Richmond was next, in 1879, but since Richmond was already a stop on the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) railroad, city leaders decided to ignore Santa Fe's request for a separate right-of-way through town. With no other choice, Santa Fe paralleled the existing GH&SA tracks through Richmond but stopped beyond the west city limits to found the new town of Rosenberg. In 1880, Santa Fe resumed construction, crossing over the GH&SA at Rosenberg and continuing northwest to Brenham. The following year, they crossed the H&TC in Brenham and built a hundred miles to Belton. The GC&SF line through Brenham was their original main track, and it remains an important route for Santa Fe's successor, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).

In July, 1901, a new state law mandated interlockers for busy railroad crossings, and in May, 1902, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) issued regulations governing the interlocker approval process. Without an interlocker, trains could not cross another railroad at grade without coming to a complete stop, adding delay and wasting the energy stored in a train's momentum. The state also mandated the use of manual gates as an interim safety measure until a crossing could be interlocked. For new crossings, the railroad initiating the crossing was responsible for funding the interlocker and any associated tower or cabin facilities. For existing crossings, these capital expenses would be shared by the participating railroads. Operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses were also to be shared, generally on a weighted function basis. Brenham was not on RCT's initial priority list of crossings to be interlocked, but that did not excuse the railroads from taking action to initiate an interlocker installation. Yet, SP and Santa Fe waited more than a decade before finally installing a 21-function electric interlocker at the Brenham crossing, commissioned as Tower 95 by RCT on June 29, 1914.

SP used an internal form "D-205" to record interlocker functions and O&M expense allocations for each interlocker with which it was involved. The original D-205 drawing for Tower 95 was dated July 29, 1913, exactly eleven months prior to the date the tower was commissioned. Typically, a tower number was assigned by RCT when they created a file for correspondence associated with a planned interlocker installation, usually as a result of a notification letter from the railroad responsible for implementing the interlocker. In most cases, the chronological order of tower commissioning dates did not deviate substantially from their numerical order, but there were exceptions such as Tower 95. The original D-205 drawing reflects a design plan dated February 26, 1913, suggesting that the planning effort for the tower began more than a year before its commissioning. But considering other evidence, there was apparently a large delay just to create the initial design. The next tower that was numbered higher than Tower 95 and also commissioned after Tower 95 was Tower 101 on December 1, 1914. Towers 96 through 100 all received RCT approval before Tower 95 did despite higher tower number assignments by RCT due to later notifications. In particular, the intent to interlock the Island crossing on the Galveston Causeway (assigned as Tower 96) must have been passed to RCT by early 1912 since it was able to be commissioned by September -- a nine month process would be reasonably expeditious. Thus, SP had notified RCT of the intent to interlock the Brenham crossing at least by early 1912 (and more likely in 1911) which resulted in Brenham's tower number preceding that of the Island interlocker. For unknown reasons, it took at least 30 months to design, build, install and commission Tower 95.

Below Left: As changes occurred at interlocked crossings, SP's method was to mark revisions on the original D-205 and then eventually re-write the entire document. The REMARKS column indicates that this form D-205 was last updated on December 23, 1926 to reflect a function count change that had occurred in July, 1925. Previous updates were noted in March and June, 1924. The document was subsequently marked as "Superseded effective June 13, 1927". (Carl Codney collection) Below Right: The June 13, 1927 rewrite of the D-205 for Brenham shows that although the tower was maintained and operated by H&TC, Santa Fe paid nearly 82% of the O&M expenses. This was a 6% increase from the original share. (Carl Codney collection)

According to noted SP historian David Bernstein, Tower 95 closed on September 5, 1931. The interlocker was retained and its controls were relocated to the Union Passenger Station across the street. Presumably razed, the fate of the tower structure has not been determined. In February, 1957, an automatic interlocker design plan was issued for Tower 95, becoming effective on August 22nd of that year. Each railroad had eight signals and two track circuits resulting in a 50/50 split on O&M costs. SP retained staffing and maintenance responsibility.

By 1961, one hundred years after the first train entered Brenham, SP knew that their track segment east of Tower 95 to Hempstead was in physical jeopardy. The Brazos River bridge would not survive the next major flood or hurricane, and building a new bridge was not enough. It was adjacent to a 90-degree turn in the river which caused the last mile of right-of-way east of the bridge to be perilously close to the river bank. Significant erosion with each new flood meant that the grade would be undercut sooner rather than later; at minimum, two miles of track would need to be relocated. Knowing that traffic revenue could not justify the expense of rerouting the line and building a new bridge, SP petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for permission to abandon the Hempstead to Brenham segment, with both towns retaining SP service. Under Finance Docket 21573, the ICC accepted SP's petition on August 17, 1961.

On September 11, 1961, Hurricane Carla hit Texas and SP's Brazos River bridge was heavily damaged. The bridge had probably been in service up to that date as this was only a little over three weeks since the ICC proceeding. With abandonment greatly accelerated by the hurricane, SP reported to RCT that by the end of 1961, it had officially abandoned 10.4 miles of track between Hempstead and Chappell Hill. The remaining 8.1 miles into Brenham was abandoned in 1962. Brenham was still served by SP trains from the west, and Hempstead was still served by SP's route between Houston and Navasota, which remains in use today by successor Union Pacific. In 1979, SP abandoned their line between Giddings and Brenham, 35 miles, with tracks in Brenham sold to Santa Fe to serve local industries.

Above Left: The 1931 Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map of Brenham shows the T&NO/GC&SF crossing in downtown Brenham, with Tower 95 sitting across the Santa Fe tracks from the Union Passenger Station. Above Right: Magnification reveals a 2-story tower with the stairs located on the north side.

Above Left: This historic post card shows Brenham's Union Station, date unknown. The station was across the Santa Fe tracks from Tower 95. SP's track is in the foreground passing along the south side of the station. Tower 95 is off the image to the left, adjacent to the crossing diamond. The rooftop sign says "BRENHAM" in the middle, with "GC&SFRR" to the left and H&TCRR" to the right, each sign angled to face their respective tracks. The station is no longer standing, and the date of its demise remains to be determined. Above Right: West of downtown, the former SP tracks are intact for a couple of blocks, and then out of service. But the rails are still present all the way to Blinn Blvd. where they end in the pavement behind the camera. This view is to the east from Blinn Blvd. (Google Street View, 2019) Below Left: The Santa Fe freight depot still stands in Brenham (repurposed as an office building) at the intersection of Peabody and South Austin St., less than fifty yards north of where Union Station sat. (Google Street View, 2008) Below Right: The former SP line is still in use by BNSF for 1.7 miles east of the diamond. Here, looking east beyond S. Blue Bell Rd., the tracks begin to curve south and end in a half mile. The Blue Bell Creamery appears to be the last industry served. (Google Street View, 2019)

Above: This Google Earth image is annotated with heritage railroads and shows Tower 95's location, but all lines are currently owned by BNSF. Below: In 2019, Tom Kline took these drone photos of BNSF locomotives southbound (left) and northbound (right) across the Tower 95 diamond. The brown building with the manicured lawn occupies the site of Union Station. The building houses Washington County's Chamber of Commerce Information Center, Convention and Visitor's Bureau, and Economic Development Foundation.

Above: Looking west down the former SP line from the Hwy 36 grade crossing in downtown, a block light remains in use protecting the former Tower 95 diamond. In case anyone forgets which two railroads crossed here, the "Santa Fe & S.P. Cafe" provides a sign as a reminder. Below: This view is south from the Peabody Street grade crossing down the Santa Fe main line with the former SP tracks crossing horizontally in the image. The "Brenham Interlocker" sign identifies the cabin where the electronics reside. Although there are many examples of modern interlocker cabins retaining a reference to the original tower number, there's no evidence of that here. (Google Street View images)

Above: One concrete bridge support remains intact at the site of the former SP bridge over the Brazos River. Below: SP's grade was so close to the Brazos River east of the bridge that a new bridge and a line relocation project would have been required to maintain service between Hempstead and Brenham. (Google Earth images, 2019)

Last Revised: 3/1/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.