txrrhistory.com - Towers 96, 97 and 98 - the Galveston Island Causeway

Junctions of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad, Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway,
Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway, Galveston - Houston Electric (GHE) Railway, and the Gulf Intra-Coastal Waterway

Galveston Island was a major port and economic 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, and additional rail bridges were built in 1875 and 1896. When a hurricane struck Galveston in September, 1900, two of the three railroad bridges onto the island were destroyed. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway bridge survived and proved to be a critical asset in the rebuilding of Galveston. In 1911, a reinforced concrete 2-mile causeway opened between the island and Virginia Point on the mainland providing a bridge for both railroads and highway vehicles. 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 lift section was incorporated into the railroad bridge to enable maritime traffic to pass. This required an additional interlocker in the middle of the causeway to manage the lift bridge controls and related approach signals and safety devices for the railroads.

The three interlocking towers associated with the Galveston Island Causeway were numbered Towers 96, 97 and 98 by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT). According to the Annual Reports of the RCT, all three towers officially controlled junctions of the same four railroads: the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad, the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway, and the "Interurban", which was actually the Galveston - Houston Electric Railway. 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 Galveston - Houston Electric Railway remained in service until 1936, the reason for this change is unclear.
 

Tower 96 (Island - Causeway)
RCT reports list the location of Tower 96 as "Island - Causeway". Although the name "Island" could be assumed to result from Tower 96 being located on Galveston Island where the causeway came ashore, 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 the growth of the city of Galveston. Tower 96 was built on the peninsula at Island and authorized for service 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" sometime during 1929. 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 for many decades, perhaps in use by the railroads for storage or some other purpose, but has since been razed.

Historic Photos of Tower 96
 
Above: Two photos of the abandoned Tower 96 showing the north side (left photo) and northwest corner (right photo) 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. This interlocker was located adjacent to the lift bridge in the middle of the causeway. It provided the safety system for the lift bridge by arbitrating access between the railroads and maritime traffic. The original Tower 97 structure was eventually replaced with a modern building which continues today controlling the lift bridge, derails, and signal lights and switches on both approaches to the bridge. The retirement of Tower 17 in Rosenberg leaves Tower 97 as the last manned interlocking tower in Texas.

Photos of Tower 97

Above: A photo of Tower 97 in 1912 (Library of Congress photo), 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.
Below Left: Don Harper took this photo that shows "both" Tower 97 structures: the original (left side) and the new
one (right side). The original building has been modified so that the upper floor occupies the full extent of the building.
The new building, which is still in use, was constructed when the lift bridge was replaced.
Below Right: Daniel Walford took this close-up of the abandoned original 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 at the mainland end of the causeway. It was commissioned for operation on October 14, 1912 and decommissioned in 1929 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. The GH&H railroad began construction at Virginia Point, building north to Houston by 1859 and completing the first railroad bridge to Galveston in 1860. Virginia Point was intended to become the founding site of Texas City, but that town was laid out further north after the hurricane of 1900. Virginia Point expanded as a result of the completion of the new causeway in 1911, but the community was wiped out again by the hurricane of 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.
 

Historic Photos of Tower 98
 
NW corner of Tower 98 (Galveston Railroad Museum collection)                       Southwest corner of Tower 98 (Tom Kline, 1978)
 

Additional Photos by Don Harper (click to enlarge)
                               
lift bridge               Tower 97 old (left) and           Tower 97 interlocker panel and bridge       Interior view, Tower 97        Causeway, November 1957
counter-weight       new (right)                              controls

                   
Gulfliner northbound            Gulfliner southbound past old         merging onto causeway        lift bridge approach
                                              Tower 97 and over the bridge         (photo from cab)                   (photo from cab)

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


Additional Photos of Tower 96 (click to enlarge)

                          
Photo by Bob Nicholson           Carl Codney collection,         Ralph Back photo, 11/14/71    East side of tower    North side of tower
September 1970                        undated                                                                                  Photos from the Galveston Railroad Museum collection
 

Additional Photos of Tower 98 from the collection of the Galveston Railroad Museum (click to enlarge)
                       
Tower 98, east side       Southwest corner         Tower 98, west side                   Virginia Point interior


Additional Photos of Tower 98 from the Tom Kline collection (click to enlarge)
              
GC&SF/GH&H split             Tower 98 approach                              Tower 98 east approach               North side of tower

Additional Photos of Tower 98 by Mark Nerren in 1980
         
West side of tower             Northeast corner               Section house

Photos from the Steven M. Baron Collection and the Houston Streetcars History Pages
         
Interurban crossing lift bridge        Interurban viaduct                   Interurban on causeway

    
     Tower 98 at Virginia Point after the Hurricane of 1915
 

Satellite Images of the Sites of Towers 96, 97 and 98
           

Island (Tower 96 site)       Tower 97 and lift bridge    Virginia Point (Tower 98 site)

 
Last Revised: 1/21/2018 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.