Texas Railroad History - Towers 96, 97 and 98 - the Galveston Island Causeway

Three Interlockers Controlling the Galveston Island Causeway and Gulf Intra-Coastal Waterway

Historic Photos, Galveston Causeway Towers, John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library

Above: Railroad executive John W. Barriger III was northbound off of Galveston Island when he snapped this photo from the back of his private railcar, most likely in the mid 1930s. His photographic impulse was spurred by spotting Tower 96, the "Island" side interlocking tower, as he sped past it. Barriger is looking southeast towards the island as his train has just left dry land and ventured onto the Galveston Island Causeway for the trip to the mainland. This photo is hand-marked "MKT 142" (presumably by Barriger), consistent with the fact that Barriger's train is on the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) tracks which were owned by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad. The electrified catenary of the interurban, the Galveston - Houston Electric (GHE) Railway, extends over the two tracks farthest to the right, a main track and a passing track. The tracks to Barriger's immediate right belong to Santa Fe. Below: Having just passed over the railroad drawbridge in the center of the causeway, Barriger's next photo target is Tower 97, the interlocking tower to the right of the Welcome sign. This photo is hand-marked "ATSF 245", associating it with Barriger's collection of Santa Fe photos. But all of the other photos in that series before and after this one were taken in Kansas, and for this photo, Barriger is clearly on the GH&H tracks. The marking appears to be a mistake, and there's a strong likelihood that this photo was actually "next" after the one above, i.e. taken a mile farther up the causeway on the same trip. Tower 97 controlled the raising and lowering of the drawbridge, de-conflicting railroad and maritime traffic. Barriger's view is down the causeway toward Galveston Island. The vehicle roadway is behind the second barrier wall to the right. The track to Barriger's immediate right is the Santa Fe track, and the track beside that one is the GHE. Although not readily apparent from this photo, the catenary for the GHE track is directly above it. Designing the catenary to allow the drawbridge to be raised no doubt presented an interesting engineering problem since the wiring would need to retain electrical contact with the opposite side of the bridge at all times.

Below: Heading toward Galveston Island, obviously on a different trip, Barriger snapped a photo as his private car sped past Tower 98, the "mainland side" tower at Virginia Point. The view is to the northwest and the track to Barriger's left is the GHE with overhead electrification. The vehicle roadway is farther left. Barriger's train is on the Santa Fe tracks, which just crossed the GHE at the tower. The tracks to the right are shared by the GH&H and Southern Pacific's Texas & New Orleans Railroad.

Galveston Island was a major port and commercial center in 19th century Texas, so it is not surprising that railroads sought to provide service to the island. The first railroad bridge was completed in 1860, owned by the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad. The GH&H bridge was two miles long, departing the mainland at Virginia Point. After multiple corporate restructurings over 30 years, the GH&H became owned by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad under the control of rail baron Jay Gould. As the MKT did not have tracks as far south as Houston, Gould leased the GH&H to another railroad he controlled, the International - Great Northern (I-GN), in 1883. Gould eventually lost control of the MKT. When MKT tracks reached Houston in the 1890s, they demanded the return of their leased property but I-GN refused. After lengthy litigation, MKT regained full possession of the GH&H but I-GN gained permanent trackage rights onto the island.

By 1873, it had become apparent to Galveston civic and commercial leaders that they needed a second railroad onto the island, one that did not pass through Houston. For a variety of reasons (including Houston health officials occasionally declaring a "yellow fever quarantine" against Galveston Island), freight bound for Galveston did not always reach Galveston, sometimes being off-loaded in Houston instead. To be fair, Houston leaders were attempting to turn Buffalo Bayou into an ocean-navigable channel to the Gulf of Mexico in part to overcome restrictive policies practiced by the Galveston Wharf Company that were detrimental to Houston's interests. Galveston's desire to have a railroad onto the island that bypassed Houston led to the founding of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway. With a new bridge over Galveston Bay, construction reached Arcola in 1877 and Richmond in 1879. By 1887, the GC&SF had become part of the vast Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail network, strengthening Galveston as a major commercial port.

In the 1880s, Southern Pacific (SP) had begun to expand aggressively into Texas as their line from California to Houston was completed, in part through arrangements with (and a financial interest in) the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway. The GH&SA ran west from Harrisburg to San Antonio and beyond, and they were soon acquired by SP. What SP did not have was a bridge onto Galveston Island. The third rail bridge onto the island was not built until 1896, by the Galveston, La Porte and Houston Railway. GH&SA made arrangements to access the new bridge, but this didn't last long -- the bridge was wiped out by the massive hurricane of 1900. Only the GC&SF bridge survived that storm and it proved to be a critical asset in the rebuilding of Galveston.

In 1912, a 2-mile reinforced concrete causeway opened between the island and Virginia Point providing access for railroads, highway vehicles and an electrified interurban, the Galveston - Houston Electric (GHE) Railway. This original causeway has remained in use for rail traffic, but portions of it were substantially rebuilt after the hurricane of 1915, with the work mostly complete by 1922. Since the causeway tracks were shared by several railroad companies, interlocking towers had to be located at each end of the causeway to manage access to the bridge. And because the causeway was not significantly elevated above the surface of the waterway, a drawbridge section was incorporated into the causeway to enable maritime traffic to pass. This required an additional interlocker on the bridge to manage the controls and approach signals, and to communicate with maritime traffic requesting the bridge be raised. The three towers were numbered (east to west) 96, 97 and 98 by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT). According to RCT Annual Reports, all three officially controlled junctions of the same four railroads: the GH&H, the GC&SF, the GH&SA, and the "Interurban" (the GHE). The "Interurban" was dropped from the list beginning with the 1924 RCT Annual Report and there was a corresponding decrease in the number of functions listed for each of the interlockers. Since the GHE remained in service until 1936, the reason for this change is unclear.

Above: Vol. 21 (1928) of
Railway Signaling and Communications carried an article about the consolidation of the Tower 96, 97 and 98 interlockers into a single control system. The article explains that the work was done under the supervision of the GC&SF during a period commencing January, 1927 when they were responsible for operating and maintaining the interlockers. The article noted that these responsibilities rotated among the participating railroads every five years. As part of its assessment of the feasibility of consolidation, Santa Fe had determined that on average, the causeway was seeing 50 steam and 45 electric train movements per day, and that a maximum of 75 steam and 60 electric movements had been observed in a single day. The span of interlocker control among the three towers included signals as far as 5.5 miles apart. A technology breakthrough that allowed tower operators to control signals and switches for trains they could not see was the incorporation of train detector circuits. This led to the design of an illuminated track diagram (2 feet high by 23 feet long!) that showed precise locations of all trains over the 5.5 mile span of control. Choosing to base all of the interlocking plants at Tower 97 minimized the number of wires that needed to be carried in a new submarine cable under the channel. All three interlockers used electro-pneumatic actions to move switches and signals, and this required compressed air. Towers 96 and 98 were left in place to house air compressors, relays and other electronics. The consolidation reduced operating expenses by approximately $14,000 per year. The article also explains that the existing Tower 97 structure had to be enlarged to house all of the new equipment.

The railroads that served Galveston were gradually acquired and merged into larger rail systems. Union Pacific (UP) became the successor to the MKT and the I-GN, which shared the GH&H tracks, and the GH&SA, which had been integrated into SP's system. The Santa Fe tracks became the property of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Much of the GHE right-of-way from Houston to Virginia Point now hosts power lines.

Tower 96 (Island - Causeway)
RCT reports list the location of Tower 96 as "Island - Causeway". Island was actually the name of a small community on the peninsula of land between Offatts Bayou and Galveston Bay. Island had its own school and retained a separate identity until eventually being consumed by growth of the city of Galveston. Tower 96 was built on the peninsula at Island and was the first of the three interlockers authorized for service. It was commissioned on September 6, 1912 with a 67-function electrical interlocker. The 1930 Annual Report lists Tower 96 as no longer in service, having been "consolidated with No. 97", due to the interlocking plant relocations discussed above. At the time of its decommissioning, the number of interlocker functions had dropped to 61, and the "Interurban" was no longer listed as one of the interlocked railroads. Despite losing the interlocker function, the Tower 96 structure remained standing to house air compressors and other electronics for many decades. It was eventually abandoned and remained derelict for many years. It has since been razed.

Historic Photos of Tower 96
Above: Two photos of the abandoned Tower 96 showing the north side (left) and northwest corner (right) of the tower. Note the small phone shanty located behind (south of) the tower. (Photos from the Galveston Railroad Museum collection)

Tower 97 (Lift Bridge - Causeway)
Tower 97's location was listed in RCT reports as "Lift Bridge - Causeway", authorized for operation on October 23, 1912 as a 34-function electrical interlocker. It was the last of the three causeway interlockers to begin service, located adjacent to the drawbridge span in the middle of the causeway. It provided the safety system for the bridge by arbitrating access between the railroads and maritime traffic. The original Tower 97 structure was replaced with a modern building to control the drawbridge, signal lights and switches on both approaches. As discussed above, the Tower 96 and 98 interlockers were relocated to Tower 97 in 1928 which required expanding the upper floor of the facility. The retirement of Tower 17 in Rosenberg in 2004 left Tower 97 as the last manned interlocking tower in Texas.

The original drawbridge was replaced in 1987 with a bascule bridge that pivoted from the island side, not the mainland side as the original had (...because, to widen the waterway, the causeway needed to be shortened from the middle; this was much easier to accomplish by removing a portion of the causeway on the island side since it did not have the existing bridge pivot assembly and tower structures that sat on the mainland side.) In 2012, the 1987 bascule bridge was replaced by a much longer vertical lift bridge to satisfy Coast Guard Intra-Coastal Waterway safety requirements. Presumably, some kind of interlocking system has been retained for rail operations over the lift bridge, but whether it retains the "Tower 97" nomenclature has not been determined. Stuart L. Schroeder reports... "At the time of my retirement in November 2016, there was still an operator at the Galveston lift bridge but the BNSF Galveston Subdivision train dispatcher in Spring had a role in the operation of the bridge."

Photos of Tower 97

Above: This Library of Congress photo was possibly taken at the commissioning of Tower 97. With boats, rail cars and automobiles, something special appears to be happening. Note that the upper floor of the Tower 97 building houses the tower structure and nothing else. The building was later modified as discussed below. Also note that the counterweight of the drawbridge is adjacent to the tower, which is on the mainland side of the waterway. This changed when the drawbridge was replaced.

Below Left: Don Harper took this photo that shows both Tower 97 structures: the original (left) and the new one (right). The original building was modified so that the upper floor occupied the full extent of the building. This was done as part of the 1928 consolidation of all three interlocking machines into Tower 97 so that Towers 96 and 98 were no longer manned. The new building was constructed when the drawbridge was replaced by a larger bascule bridge in 1987. Like the prior bridge, the counter-weight of the new bridge is adjacent to the tower, but both are now on the island side of the waterway. Below Right: Daniel Walford took this close-up of the abandoned structure.

Above: Galveston civic leaders wanted to make sure that visitors knew they were welcome in Galveston. (Galveston Historical Foundation photo)

Message from Don Harper, 9/3/2002:
The tower at the causeway bridge IS an interlocking tower. I watched while signals and switches were aligned several times. All pushbutton operation. I did learn that the present bridge is scheduled to be replaced by a vertical lift bridge by 2007. Not sure what the advantage of that move is, as it has to be expensive, and the current bridge is only about 13 years old. The tower is noisy. There are at least 3 radios in there, one BNSF, one UP, and one on channel 16 for boat traffic. The operator was kept hopping much of the time I was there. Several vessels passed through, the Gulfliner went through 3 times and a BNSF outbound passed by. ...An interesting sideline: the tower operator records the names of tow boats passing the tower, what their load is, and the direction they are heading...at the request of the Coast Guard. If a vessel is reported missing or sinking, the Coast Guard has a general frame of reference as to where the vessel might be."

Message from Don Harper, 9/13/2002
On page B8 of this morning's Galveston County Daily News is an article entitled " Railroad causeway due for work." The article says that the causeway, built in 1909, has a 110 foot opening to allow passage of vessel traffic using the Gulf Intra-Coastal Waterway. The plan is to widen the opening to 250 to 300 feet. Maybe that is why a new vertical lift bridge is being planned. There must be some limit to the length of a bascule bridge after which the bridge would buckle as it was in a near horizontal position during lifting or dropping. The cost of this widening project is $33.3 million. ...Something I did not know - the County owns the bridge, but under agreements between all interested parties, the railroads pay 80% of maintenance costs of the draw bridge and 66% of the causeway bridge."

1981 Barge Collision
In a Railspot post dated February 22, 2017, Rollin Bredenberg recounted this story...
"SP operated the bridge until the infamous incident in 1981 when the SP operator told a northbound tow of barges to proceed into the old bascule structure. The tow boat captain was running in dense fog and asked her if the bridge was open.  She said "no, but I'll raise it up for you." Turns out she had been doing a good bit of weed smoking that night, and instead of raising the bridge she went downstairs to the rest room. When the captain saw that the bridge was still down (10 min. after the initial radio conversation) he immediately sounded his horn in short rapid bursts, at which point the 24 year old SP operator ran as fast as she could away from the control house. The inevitable collision compromised the barges causing the butadiene to bleed. After the initial explosions the product burned for over a day. The bascule span was useless scrap metal. The incident did not affect SP greatly except for sulphur trains that could not get onto the island. ATSF, on the other hand, was severely impacted and incensed that they were separated from the island for IIRC three weeks. ATSF asked that SP allow ATSF to take over control and maintenance of the bridge. SP gladly agreed and that is why BNSF now controls the bridge. There were no injuries resulting from this accident. The operator did not show up for her formal investigation and her short railroad career ended that night."

Tower 98 (Virginia Point - Causeway)
Tower 98 was a 71-function electric-pneumatic interlocker located at Virginia Point on the mainland end of the causeway. It was commissioned for operation on October 14, 1912 and decommissioned in 1928 when its interlocking functions were transferred to Tower 97. Virginia Point dates back to at least 1840 when a community was organized at the site of a ferry operation. Virginia Point was intended to become the founding site of Texas City, but that town was laid out farther north after the hurricane of 1900. Virginia Point expanded as a result of the completion of the new causeway in 1912, but the community was wiped out again by a major hurricane in 1915. Some portions of the community were rebuilt, but it remained underdeveloped and was annexed by Texas City in 1952. Despite decommissioning in 1929, Tower 98 remained standing into the 1980s.

Left: Northwest corner of Tower 98 (Galveston Railroad Museum collection)

Right: Southwest corner of Tower 98 (Tom Kline, 1978)

A highway bridge built onto the island in 1938 carried lanes in both directions and incorporated a drawbridge. This allowed vehicular traffic to be removed from the 1912 causeway. By the mid-1950s, the 1938 bridge was inadequate for the higher traffic levels being experienced, so a new bridge was built that was high enough to not require a drawbridge. Traffic was relocated to this new bridge in 1961 while the old bridge was substantially modified to raise its height so that its drawbridge could be eliminated. When it reopened in 1964, the two bridges were used to carry traffic in opposite directions. In 2003, construction began on new bridges for Interstate 45 traffic to replace the older ones. The new northbound bridge opened in 2005; the southbound bridge opened in 2008. This new I-45 causeway was rededicated as the George and Cynthia Mitchell Memorial Causeway in 2016.

Additional Tower 97 and Causeway Photos by Don Harper (click to enlarge)

lift bridge counter-weight old tower (left) and new tower (right) plant panel and bridge controls interior view causeway, November 1957
Gulfliner northbound Gulfliner southbound past old tower merging onto causeway (cab view) lift bridge approach (cab view)  

Images from the Post Card Collection of Bruce Blalock (click to enlarge)

Additional Photos of Tower 96 (click to enlarge)

Bob Nicholson, Sept 1970 Carl Codney, undated Ralph Back, Nov. 14, 1971 east (left) and north (right) sides (Galveston RR Museum collection)

Additional Photos of Tower 98 from the collection of the Galveston Railroad Museum (click to enlarge)

east side southwest corner west side interior

Additional Photos of Tower 98 from the Tom Kline collection (click to enlarge)

GC&SF/GH&H split west approach east approach north side

Additional Photos of Tower 98 by Mark Nerren in 1980

west side northeast corner section house  

Photos from the Steven M. Baron Collection

Interurban crossing lift bridge Interurban viaduct Interurban on causeway Tower 98 at Virginia Point after the Hurricane of 1915  

Google Earth Satellite Images of the Locations of Towers 98, 97 and 96

Virginia Point (Tower 98) 2012 Lift Bridge "Island" (Tower 96)  
Last Revised: 7/31/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.