Texas Railroad History - Tower 100 - Elgin

A Crossing of the Houston & Texas Central Railway and the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway


Above: Southern Pacific #894 obscures the Elgin Union Depot in the background as it passes Tower 100 eastbound in this undated photo. (Bruce Wilson collection) Below: John W. Barriger III took this photo of Tower 100 from the rear platform of his business car sometime in the 1930s or perhaps the early 1940s. His camera is facing north as his train proceeds south on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway main line toward Smithville. The tower sat in the southeast quadrant of the crossing, diagonally across from Elgin Union Depot. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library)

The Galveston & Red River (G&RR) Railway was chartered in 1848 with a grand plan to connect the port of Galveston with the Red River. Railroads from the Midwest were anticipated to bridge the river and enter Texas from Indian Territory (Oklahoma) creating an important export route for grain and other commodities. Unable to raise sufficient capital, the project languished until an unrelated opportunity arose: farming interests in Chappell Hill needed better transportation to the Houston market. Chappell Hill was only sixty miles northwest of Houston but it was west of the flood-prone Brazos River, a wide and formidable obstacle. A meeting was held in 1852 to discuss Chappell Hill's transportation issues; Paul Bremond, one of the founders of the G&RR, attended. He suggested that in exchange for financial backing from Chappell Hill investors, the G&RR could be re-chartered to start construction in Houston and pass near Chappell Hill, remaining east of the Brazos. A branch line would be needed since crossing the Brazos was unnecessary for the G&RR to reach the Red River. Bremond's proposal was accepted and the Legislature approved the change in 1853.

In 1856, the G&RR completed its first 25 miles out of Houston to Cypress, arriving there just as the Legislature approved another charter amendment granting the railroad a new name, the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railway. Much to the chagrin of Chappell Hill's resident investors, the amendment prohibited H&TC from building branch lines until the tracks to the Red River were completed. But the outlook was not completely bleak for Chappell Hill because a plan was being developed by businessmen in the nearby town of Brenham to build a railroad to connect to the H&TC. The Washington County Rail Road (WCRR) would pass through Chappell Hill as it headed toward a bridge to be built over the Brazos River. The WCRR charter was granted by the Legislature in February, 1856. By the end of that year, the Hempstead Town Co. was being organized to sell lots at a town site chosen to be the connecting point for the WCRR.

In 1858, the H&TC reached Hempstead from Cypress and continued construction north toward Navasota. The WCRR began construction westward from Hempstead in June, 1858 -- starting there allowed construction materials to be shipped from Galveston by rail on the H&TC. Seven miles of track reaching the east bank of the Brazos River was in place by early 1859. Bridging the Brazos took two years; the first train from Hempstead to Chappell Hill ran in early 1861. The WCRR line was finished soon thereafter with service into Brenham in April, 1861.

Houston Weekly Telegraph, February 5, 1861

As the Civil War heated up, the H&TC terminated northward construction at Millican, ten rail miles north of Navasota.

The WCRR continued operating during the War. Author S. G. Reed, in his classic reference A History of the Texas Railroads (St. Clair Publishing, 1941), explained that ultimately ...

"... it could not meet its obligations and on June 2, 1868, was sold under foreclosure. The Sheriff happened to be W. M. Sledge, the man who had built the road as a contractor, and who owned three-fifths of the stock. He was the purchaser. The roadbed needed repairs and the equipment was almost worn out, and the Washington County people wanted it extended to the Capital at Austin. Sledge was not able to do so himself, so on March 11, 1869, he sold it to the H. & T. C."

This was not Sledge's first rodeo ... railroad. In 1867, he had been awarded the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado (BBB&C) Railway in a court judgment for non-payment of his construction contract (see Tower 17.) Sledge tried to operate the BBB&C before selling it to Thomas Peirce in 1870. Peirce renamed it the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway and extended it to San Antonio and El Paso. Southern Pacific (SP) provided funding for the El Paso extension and in 1883, leased and then acquired the GH&SA.

The WCRR had been supplying steady traffic at Hempstead, enough that the H&TC had been willing to loan the WCRR $80,000 for repair work. Sledge extinguished this debt by selling the WCRR. Although the H&TC charter prevented the railroad from building branch lines until the main line to the Red River was complete, the charter did not prevent the H&TC from investing in branch lines being built under other railroad charters. The H&TC's founders had long been projecting two major branch lines to the west, one of which would go through Austin continuing northwest to the Texas Panhandle. The purchase of the WCRR allowed the H&TC to get a head start on this branch (which ultimately stopped at Llano and went no further.) The construction to Austin began in 1870 when the H&TC built 42 miles from Brenham to Hills (a community six miles west of Giddings.) The remaining 51 miles to Austin was built in 1871. The first train into Austin arrived on Christmas Day, about a year before the H&TC's northward construction reached Denison at the Red River.

The WCRR and the extension to Austin were built at state gauge, 5 ft. 6 in., as required by state law (narrow gauge, 3 ft., was also permitted.) Many states (and the Transcontinental Railroad) used standard gauge, 4 ft. 8.5 in., thus interstate traffic exchange was problematic for Texas railroads. In the early 1870s, state gauge fell into disfavor, and exceptions were already being permitted, e.g. the H&TC main line north of Corsicana was built c.1871 at standard gauge. By 1874, most Texas railroads were looking to switch to standard gauge, and the law was changed in 1875.

Right: The Denison Daily News of September 9, 1874 quotes the Houston Telegraph celebrating the news that the H&TC was changing the Corsicana - Hearne tracks to standard gauge. The Telegraph also noted that the Hearne - Hempstead tracks needed to be changed. A "third rail" from Hempstead to Houston would then allow operations at both gauges, i.e. for Austin trains at state gauge and for trains north of Hempstead at standard gauge. H&TC's branch to Austin was converted to standard gauge in 1877.

As the H&TC had built toward Austin in 1871, a new settlement, Glasscock, became a flag stop in Bastrop County. When the town was platted in 1872, the name was changed to Elgin in honor of Robert Elgin, the land commissioner and surveyor for the H&TC. Elgin was fifteen miles north of the county seat, Bastrop, which did not have rail service despite years of trying to interest investors in building a line to Austin. Elgin, like most small towns in east central Texas, had an economy based on farming. In 1884, a brick manufacturing facility opened and Elgin soon became widely known as a brick-making center, an industry ideally served by rail transportation. Elgin's economy was further stimulated when a second railroad began construction at Elgin in June, 1886.

Left: The Austin Weekly Statesman of March 19, 1885 carried this story discussing a VIP meeting about a potential railroad to run from Taylor to Bastrop, a 35-mile straight line with Elgin at the midpoint. The reporter correctly surmised that the presence of Herbert M. "Hub" Hoxie, General Superintendent of the International & Great Northern (I&GN) Railroad, meant that rail baron Jay Gould was backing the plan. The "Huntington" reference was to SP President C. P. Huntington. SP had acquired the H&TC in 1883, making the line through Elgin part of SP's route network.

The Missouri, Kansas & Texas (MK&T, "Katy") Railroad built a bridge over the Red River and entered Denison in 1872. For several years it built no further, handing its traffic to the H&TC for delivery to points south. In 1879, Jay Gould was elected President of the Katy, an outcome attributable to loyalists sent by Gould to infiltrate Katy management over a period of several years. Gould began a southward expansion in 1880 by leasing the Katy to Missouri Pacific (MP), a major Midwest railroad in which he had significant ownership. The lease had onerous terms, siphoning Katy profits into MP for Gould's financial gain while Katy stockholders fared poorly. MP did not have a Texas railroad charter nor was it headquartered in state (as required by Texas law for track ownership.) Thus, for legal reasons, Gould's southward construction was credited officially to the Katy, but Gould ensured that the press conveyed it to the public as an MP activity. Going south from Denison via Fort Worth and Waco, the MP / Katy line reached Taylor in 1882 and connected with tracks of the I&GN that ran from Longview to Laredo via Austin and San Antonio. In 1881, Gould had acquired the I&GN using Katy stock in a swap for I&GN stock. Since the I&GN was well-known as Texas' largest railroad, it was allowed to continue to operate under its own name, even as Gould leased it to the Katy.

The plan was to build to Houston, but Gould paused the MP / Katy construction at Taylor due to the political climate in the Texas Legislature. In 1882, it had repealed the land grant law and lowered authorized passenger fares while pondering additional railroad regulation. By 1885, Gould had decided to resume construction out of Taylor. He would cross the H&TC tracks at Elgin and continue farther south to Bastrop before turning southeast toward Houston. The route would be comfortably south of SP's H&TC (Austin - Houston) line but well north of SP's GH&SA (San Antonio - Houston) line. The new railroad materialized as the Bastrop & Taylor (B&T) Railway, chartered in April, 1886. The charter was amended on October 27, 1886 to increase its capitalization and change the name to the Taylor, Bastrop & Houston (TB&H) Railway. Gould had sent his close associate Hub Hoxie to make it all happen, but Hoxie's tenure as a TB&H Director was brief; he died in New York less than a month later on November 23, 1886.

The press in Austin was apoplectic about the prospect of a Taylor - Houston route via Bastrop. Like Austin, Bastrop was on the Colorado River, 28 miles southeast. It had no railroad but it was a county seat with 2,000 residents and was a major cotton producing area. The anxiety among Austin businessmen came from the realization that Gould's railroad would capture Bastrop commerce for Elgin, Taylor and Houston, whereas Bastrop had long been dependent on Austin for many commercial activities. As plans for a railroad into Bastrop solidified, the Bastrop Advertiser roundly criticized the Austin Statesman for suddenly promoting the idea of a Taylor - Bastrop - Austin alternative routing after years of failing to advocate for an Austin - Bastrop railroad. The Advertiser described the Statesman as  "...suddenly waking up from a long Rip Van Winkle sleep ... and discern[ing] ... the thousands of bales of Bastrop cotton and hundreds of thousands of dollars of Bastrop patronage which will be annually lost to Austin..."

Austin business leaders also feared that the new line would reduce freight traffic through Austin. As long as the MP / Katy tracks terminated at Taylor, trains coming south through Waco and Temple could only proceed farther south via the I&GN through Austin. But Bastrop and Smithville were both within fifty miles of San Marcos which was on the I&GN between Austin and San Antonio. A branch to connect San Marcos with Bastrop or Smithville would be an obvious move for Gould. Indeed, Smithville was ultimately selected for the branch line based on where Gould chose to cross the Colorado River. Gould freight between the Red River and San Antonio could opt to bypass the tracks through downtown Austin by using a Taylor - Smithville - San Marcos - San Antonio routing. As an added plus, a branch line between Smithville and San Marcos would pass through Lockhart, the county seat of Caldwell County, another source of passengers and commerce.

Left:  The Galveston Daily News of June 4, 1886 reported on a ceremony at Elgin signifying the start of construction on the B&T. Elgin was chosen because rail and other materials arriving at the Port of Galveston could be shipped to Elgin on the H&TC. The article calls the railroad the "Bastrop, Elgin and Taylor", perhaps an aspirational name but never an official one. The TB&H name was formally adopted four months later when the charter was amended.

Right: The
Fort Worth Daily Gazette of June 17, 1887 reported completion of the Colorado River bridge at Bastrop. As noted, Smithville got the branch line to Lockhart continuing to San Marcos, but the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) was not involved. By the end of 1887, the TB&H had been acquired by the Katy. As rumored, the MP / Katy shops were built in Smithville.

The TB&H construction had continued beyond Bastrop during the remainder of 1887, reaching Smithville and La Grange. Gould also initiated construction on the branch line between San Marcos and Smithville. Track-laying started at San Marcos and went east to Lockhart, but it stopped there, 36 miles shy of Smithville, as dark financial clouds began to impair Gould's activities. One of his railroads, the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railway, had entered receivership. It was indirectly leased to MP thereby affecting MP's operations and cash flow. On top of his problems outside of Texas, Gould was under attack by new Texas Attorney General James S. (Jim) Hogg. Hogg had been elected in November, 1886 on a campaign to go after railroads for poor service, poor facilities and price-fixing.

As all of this was happening, Gould was trying to prevent Katy stockholders from summoning a quorum for a stockholders' meeting where they would undoubtedly fire him for the detrimental impact of MP's lease. Gould had very little ownership in the Katy; its stock was widely diluted and there were few large blocks available for private purchase. This left Gould vulnerable to Katy stockholders, but only if they could gather a quorum for an official meeting. Combined with the Wabash bankruptcy and multiple lawsuits filed by Hogg, the situation in 1887 evolved to the point where Gould ordered all MP construction to cease immediately. The San Marcos - Smithville branch stopped at Lockhart, and the TB&H tracks stopped eleven miles east of La Grange, a location christened Boggy Tank. A turntable and siding tracks were installed so that passenger trains could serve the small population in the vicinity.

Katy stockholders were finally able to hold an official meeting in May, 1888 and they fired Gould for malfeasance associated with MP's lease. New Katy management promptly sought bankruptcy protection and a declaration that MP's lease was void. Eventually, the Texas Supreme Court terminated MP's lease of the Katy while also declaring the Katy to be a "foreign" railroad because it lacked a Texas charter and headquarters. An 1870 Texas law had granted the Katy permission to build into Denison from Indian Territory under the authority of its Kansas railroad charter. The Supreme Court concluded that the Katy should not have built further into Texas without a Texas charter and a Texas headquarters. The Katy would operate under a court-appointed Receiver until a proper Texas charter could be granted by the Legislature.

Gould wanted to prevent the Katy from being allowed to retain ownership of the I&GN. He was, ironically, still President of the I&GN. He had taken a risk using the Katy for his expansion plans; it was no secret that the Katy lacked a Texas charter and headquarters. Gould's argument was that the Kansas charter accepted for building into Denison also called for the Katy to build south to Mexico, a plan he was basically following. Texas legislators looked the other way; they enjoyed giving speeches to constituents when towns celebrated the arrival of new MP / Katy tracks. In receivership, Katy management was in no position to evict Gould from the I&GN, and it would have had difficulty proving its ownership anyway. Gould had been sufficiently concerned about the Katy's "foreign railroad" status that he had finessed the actual ownership of the I&GN. Having acquired all of its stock certificates in the swap for Katy stock, he placed them with his close friend, Gen. Grenville Dodge, ostensibly a Texas resident at the time (in Fort Worth), hence the stock was held at a Texas headquarters, if you could call it that. Dodge was currently the Chief Engineer for the Texas & Pacific Railway of which Gould was President, but he was most famously known as the Chief Engineer for the Transcontinental Railroad. Since Gould was focused on retaining the I&GN, he decided to admit to Hogg that the Katy really was the I&GN's owner. By law, a foreign railroad could not own a Texas railroad directly; it had to use an in-state subsidiary which the Katy had not done. Hogg took the bait and jumped into the legal fray to try to force the Katy to divest the I&GN. Gould engineered additional legal delay by putting the I&GN into bankruptcy over a minor debt owed to himself that, as I&GN President, he had refused to repay! Gould was ruthless but brilliant...

Left: This overview map shows the railroads in the vicinity of Elgin c.1904.

It is apparent that Gould's initial TB&H planning included the branch to San Marcos because he otherwise could have avoided the expense of bridging the Colorado River twice. Remaining north of the river straight from Bastrop to La Grange was a simpler alternative. Both town centers were east and north of the river, hence no river crossing was needed to proceed to Houston. The tracks would have passed along the river bank across from Smithville and would likely have induced residents to shift the town center to the north side of the river (it's only a quarter mile south of the river today.) But crossing the Colorado River once -- necessary for a branch to San Marcos -- meant crossing it twice -- because the river turns south at La Grange.

Ultimately, there were numbered interlocking plants at Elgin, Austin, San Marcos, West Point, Taylor, Rockdale and McNeil. Giddings never had a numbered interlocker despite gaining an additional rail line in 1914 when SP built the "Dalsa Cutoff" northeast from Giddings to Hearne. There was no interlocker at Round Rock because the I&GN / Katy crossing there was grade separated.

The Legislature passed the Katy charter law on October 28, 1891 granting rights to the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway of Texas, a newly created subsidiary of the parent Katy corporation. It would be headquartered in Denison and would own most of the Katy's current Texas rail lines, but not the I&GN; Gould's delaying tactics had worked. The Legislature had soured on the idea of allowing the out-of-state Katy corporation to own Texas' largest railroad through an artificial Texas subsidiary that existed solely on paper. The Katy had little choice but to sell the I&GN back to Gould for a paltry sum. The end result was that Gould had financial control of the I&GN but no involvement with the Katy. Unfortunately, Gould did not have much time to adjust to this new reality; he died in New York in December, 1892. His son George replaced him as President of the I&GN.

Newly freed from MP's yoke, t
he Katy resumed construction east from Boggy Tank in 1892 and reached Houston in 1893. There, it filed suit against the I&GN, claiming ownership of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad which had the shortest and most direct rail line between Houston and Galveston. Gould had bought the GH&H in 1882 and assigned it to the I&GN since the two railroads had worked cooperatively in Houston for more than a decade. The Katy argued that since it had owned the I&GN at the time, it was the rightful owner of the GH&H. George Gould negotiated a settlement wherein the Katy and the I&GN would each have 50% ownership of the GH&H and unlimited rights to operate over it.

The Katy also completed the San Marcos - Smithville branch line in 1892 by finishing the 36-mile track segment between Lockhart and Smithville. Since the Katy was no longer a Gould railroad, it had to negotiate a trackage rights agreement with the I&GN south from San Marcos to reach San Antonio, a major population center the Katy wanted to serve. Several years later, the Katy was forced by the Legislature to build its own set of tracks between San Marcos and San Antonio. Legislators wanted to improve rail competition in the San Antonio market so they added this construction requirement when the Katy sought an unrelated charter amendment in 1899; the new track segment was completed in 1901. Three years later, the Katy built a line into Austin that departed its main at Granger, eleven miles north of Taylor, and proceeded southwest through Georgetown and Round Rock. The Katy negotiated rights to use the I&GN main line from Austin to San Marcos where it connected with the Katy's Smithville branch and the new tracks to San Antonio.

Above: In 1903, the two railroads collaborated to build Elgin Union Depot in the northwest quadrant of the crossing, replacing an earlier wood structure. After passenger service to Elgin ended in 1957, the depot sat vacant and then was converted for use by the Elgin Police Department for thirty years ending in 1990. After another vacant period, the building reopened in 2002 hosting the Elgin Depot Museum operated by the Elgin Historical Association. This view looks north along the Katy. (Dave Ingles photo, 2012)

The 1886-1887 TB&H construction at Elgin had crossed the H&TC at grade. By law, all trains were required to stop before proceeding over any crossing diamond. This didn't have much impact on trains through Elgin since the passenger and freight depots were located close to the crossing, i.e. virtually all trains would be stopping anyway. In 1901, a new law tasked the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) to begin regulating safety systems for crossings of two or more railroads. RCT had been created ten years earlier at the insistence of the new Governor, Jim Hogg! Jay Gould's nemesis had been elected to a higher office in 1890. Regulations issued pursuant to the 1901 law required railroads to employ RCT-approved interlocking systems at crossings so that trains could operate safely while avoiding unnecessary stops. On June 5, 1902, RCT ordered 57 specific crossings to be interlocked within a year, but Elgin was not among them.

Left: The
Houston Daily Post of June 6, 1902 carried RCT's order in full, including this paragraph requiring gates installed at all grade crossings. Oddly, the order instructs that gates were to be designed primarily as a tool for investigating which railroad crashed into a gate! The order plainly required that, despite the presence of gates, "...all trains shall be brought to a full stop before proceeding..." Hence, there was little incentive for railroads to spend money to install gates other than fear of RCT action for non-compliance. Since all trains stopped anyway, gates had limited positive impact on crossing safety. Railroads complied, albeit slowly in many cases. When necessary, train crewmembers would disembark to swing a gate across the other track and latch it to the opposite gatepost. Where a track with infrequent traffic crossed a busy one, the gate would be opened to allow passage and then returned to its normal position against the lightly used line. At some point, trains began to approach gated crossings at restricted speeds such that a full stop could be made if a gate was observed to be closed, but the train could otherwise proceed without stopping. It is unclear whether RCT ever authorized "restricted speed" approaches. Permission may have evolved after the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) gained greater responsibility for railroad regulation in 1920.

The objective of the 1901 law was to foster widespread deployment of electromechanical interlocking technology incorporating trackside signals and derails, devices that had long been used in other states. The new regulations required RCT approval of the interlocking design at each crossing, including a final inspection by RCT before the installed system could become operational. RCT decided to adopt a numbering scheme for interlocking plants. A number typically was assigned when a railroad began corresponding with RCT during the design phase. Thus, interlocker numbers generally followed the chronology of when tower plans were instigated, but they do not precisely reflect the timing of when interlockers were commissioned for operation; some towers simply took longer to implement. The first to follow this process, Tower 1 at Bowie, was commissioned for operation on April 17, 1902.

Over the years, RCT continued to order specific crossings interlocked. Railroads could request a hearing to discuss or dispute the need and offer pertinent testimony. Railroads sometimes solicited permission to interlock a crossing, but they often just waited for RCT to act.

Left: RCT's order for an interlocker at Elgin was announced verbally at a morning hearing on December 10, 1912 and reported that same evening in the Galveston Tribune.

Right: RCT's order (issued 12-12-12) allowed six months for the interlocker at Elgin to be installed. It ultimately took fourteen months for Tower 100 to open, on February 7, 1914. (RCT 1913 Annual Report)

According to a table published annually by RCT, the interlocking plant at Tower 100 was a mechanical type that initially hosted 29 functions. This was substantially more than the normal minimum (twelve functions) indicating that the tower controlled additional signals, derails and switches for sidings and exchange tracks. The number of functions implemented by the Tower 100 interlocker varied somewhat over the years, culminating with a function count of 35 in the table published at the end of 1930 (after which RCT ceased publishing an annual comprehensive interlocker table.) Beginning in 1915 (and in subsequent years), RCT's table reported that SP had the responsibility for operating Tower 100. SP probably had the additional responsibility for tower and interlocker maintenance, as this was commonly coupled with operational staffing. Recurring operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, e.g. labor, materials and utilities, would have been shared with the Katy using an agreed formula, typically the ratio of each railroad's assigned interlocker functions compared to the total function count. At simple crossings, this was usually 50 / 50, but an interlocker with 29 functions was not simple; the precise expense split for Tower 100 is undetermined. It did not take long for Elgin residents to learn which company employed the tower operators, hence it was known as "the SP tower" around town. The Elgin Courier of May 28, 1942 reported on the opening of a new Western Union office downtown by reminding its readers that ... "After 5:30 pm each day messages are taken at the S. P. tower as here-to-fore."

That SP had staffing responsibility is no surprise because in the vast majority of cases, the company that took the lead on designing and erecting a tower also took responsibility for O&M staffing. And there is no doubt that Tower 100 was designed by SP. The exterior architecture matches that of virtually all SP-designed towers in Texas, e.g. Tower 81, Tower 95, Tower 115 and many others. A railroad would typically stay with a common architecture and interior arrangement for the towers it designed. This reduced non-recurring design expense by reusing specific features, with the added bonus that tower familiarity facilitated easier movement of personnel among multiple sites for temporary staffing support. Since the tracks at Elgin existed prior to 1901, RCT regulations required the two railroads to share equally the capital cost of the tower and its interlocking plant.

Right: The January, 1928 edition of Railway Signaling reported the Katy's plan to install a "table lever interlocking" at Elgin. This type of interlocker was based entirely on electric relays, avoiding the need for large "armstrong" levers that mechanical interlockers used for manipulating trackside devices. The frame for the control machine would be small enough to be installed on a table where the operator sat. The Katy taking the lead for this modification may indicate that it had instigated the upgrade or ... perhaps the Katy was responsible for Tower 100 maintenance and engineering, at least as of 1928. RCT listed SP as responsible for tower operations through its final report in 1930, but a split arrangement to staff operations and maintenance was certainly allowable, though uncommon.

Left: SP's employee timetable for its Dallas and Austin Divisions dated September 3, 1944 contained this table of whistle codes applicable to Tower 100. Whistle codes provided a means for locomotives to signal the tower to request specific switch and signal alignments.

The July 20, 1958 Katy employee timetable lists the Tower 100 interlocker as automatic, but the preceding March 1, 1957 Katy timetable does not. This suggests that the conversion to an automatic interlocker occurred between those dates. Manual override controls for the Elgin automatic interlocker are located in the boxes atop the white trackside post to the far right in the Union Depot photo above.

This excerpt from an article by Lisa Johnson (hat tip Ann Helgeson) in the Bastrop County Times of May 4, 1978 recounts an interview with Mrs. W. M. Griffin of Elgin who provided her recollections of tower operations. Her family had moved to Elgin in 1908 and she recalled seeing gates at the crossing as a young child.

Mrs. W M Griffin, wife of the telegraph operator Bill Griffin, remembers those early days. "We moved into town when I was a little girl, in 1908, and I remember the big red depot as being brand new. My father was with the cotton oil mill, and like a lot of families, we moved to Elgin because the railroads made it a center of activity and business." Mrs. Griffin's late husband operated the semaphore for the Southern Pacific out of the little telegraph tower which was moved to Avenue F from its original site adjacent to the Union Station. She remembers that before the telegraph came, crossing gates were used to regulate the trains where the KATY and SP lines crossed. There were always three shifts or "tricks" for the telegraph operators so that someone was always looking there to give signals to the switchmen and avoid a collision. Griffin was first trick (7 am to 3 pm), H G Davis whose wife, Sadie Bell still lives in Elgin, was second trick (3-11 pm) and N R Radtke was third trick, the night shift (11 pm - 7 am). Radtke started with the SP in 1930 as a telegraph operator and retired in 1963 as a freight agent, a job that he took in 1957. "When I first came to Elgin we had a switching tower and we worked for both trains. During the War years, there was a great shortage of men who could do the job that had to be done, so we trained young men who hadn't gone to the service as telegraph operators. I guess I must've trained 50 or so during that time." Radtke said that for most of his working years, it was a "...24-hour job, seven days a week. There was not time off, someone always had to be there." When Radtke started, there were no diesels. He remembered the changeover. "It was a gradual transition to diesel about 30 years ago. I remember General Electric, out of Philadelphia, loaned the Katy two diesels, and they wore them slap-dab out running them so much." Asked if he had ever experienced a train wreck in his years with the railroad he indicated there were many collisions for a variety of reasons. Once a freight train coming south and an empty train coming north from Camp Swift collided. Another particularly bad wreck he remembered occurred between some gravel cars that had rolled three miles out of a side track onto the main track. The engineer of the oncoming train and his son were killed. Radtke estimated he has seen 50 or more wrecks.

In 1915, the Katy entered a receivership that lasted until 1923. It emerged from bankruptcy with a slight name change, the Missouri - Kansas - Texas Railroad, hence M-K-T, MKT and MK&T have all been used as acronyms for the Katy. The Katy remained independent into the 1980s, but by then it had been struggling to sustain its existence for many years. In 1989, it was acquired by Union Pacific (UP) and merged into MP which had become a UP subsidiary in 1982. The merger of the Katy into MP was one hundred years after MP's lease of the Katy had been terminated by the Texas Supreme Court. And as before, all operations were conducted under the MP name.

Right: The Union Depot is clearly visible in this 1959 image ((c)historicaerials.com), but is the tower located across from it? The photo at the top of the page and another below shows that the tower was located close to the diamond and that there were no structures on its east side. But this image shows what appears to be a light color equipment cabinet casting a shadow to the north located a short distance east of the crossing. It's unclear precisely what is visible at the east corner of the diamond. Perhaps it's the tower in a state of being dismantled for relocation? An automatic interlocker was installed to replace the tower sometime between March, 1957 and July, 1958.

In August, 1961, SP requested permission from the ICC to abandon the tracks between Hempstead and Brenham knowing that the Brazos River bridge would not survive the next flood and that rail traffic on the line was insufficient to justify rebuilding it. The tracks were embargoed the following month due to floodwaters caused by Hurricane Carla and then officially abandoned between Hempstead and Brenham in 1962. The next phase of abandonment was between Brenham and Giddings in 1979. ICC approved the request as there was no traffic moving regularly over the tracks and both endpoints retained rail service on other lines. In 1986, SP sold the tracks between Giddings and Llano to the City of Austin which wanted to preserve the right-of-way for a potential commuter or light rail line. The City leased the line for continued freight operations to RailTex, which established a new Austin & Northwestern to be the operating railroad. In 1996, the Longhorn Railroad took over operations on the line with freight service beginning May 6th. Yet another operating change was made in April, 2000 when the City leased the line to the Austin Area Terminal Railroad. The line has been operated since October 1, 2007 by the Austin & Western Railroad (AWRR), a subsidiary of transportation services company Watco. East of Austin, AWRR serves businesses in Manor, Elgin and Giddings.

Elsewhere, SP had a maintained a robust presence throughout Texas, continuing into the 1990s. Industry-wide consolidations forced SP to acquiesce to a merger with UP in 1996. Within a couple of years, all operations in the UP system were being conducted under the UP name; operationally, MP and SP ceased to exist.

Left: undated photo of Tower 100 and Elgin Union Depot (James E. Hassell collection)

Below: Tower 100 was relocated to Avenue F near Booker T. Washington Elementary School, not far from the Katy tracks and within a half mile of the crossing. Unfortunately, it was allowed to fall into complete disrepair and was ultimately razed, probably in the late 1980s. This photo at its Avenue F location appeared in the Bastrop County Times on May 4, 1978. (courtesy Ann Helgeson, Elgin Historical Association and Elgin Union Depot Museum)

                              Above: two photos of Tower 100 at its Avenue F location (Con Sweet photos, March, 1984)

Above: Tower 100's foundation (Ann Helgeson photo)


Right: R.J. McKay writes:

"Well, here's a latter day picture of Elgin from when I worked on the Austin and Northwestern Railroad. I was the Engineer and Lanny Farley was the Conductor, both known as TranSpecs, or Transportation Specialists on the RailTex properties. Tower 100 was replaced with a signal box and on the opposite side of the track are the time release boxes, one for the AUNW and one for the Katy. Old H&TC Freight depot on the left in the background and the Union Depot on the right."

Above Left: This Google Street View image from June 2016 shows an automatic interlocker cabin in the southeast quadrant of the diamond where Tower 100 once stood. The interlocker override controls are on the post across from it in the northeast quadrant. Above Right: The Tower 100 crossing is near the center of Elgin on the southeast corner of downtown. This 2022 Google Earth satellite view shows the former Katy tracks intact generally north / south and the former SP tracks intact generally east / west, with a connecting track in the northeast quadrant. A track chart of Elgin c.1920 produced by SP (hat tip, Stuart Schroeder) shows there was also a connecting track in the southeast quadrant, but there is no evidence of it in the satellite image above. While both rail lines remain active, Federal Railroad Administration grade crossing records show that in 2019, UP was operating an average of only two trains daily on the former Katy tracks through Elgin which had been relegated to secondary status. Grade crossing information from October, 2023 reported an average of two trains per week on the AWRR through Elgin. Although UP / AWRR traffic exchange is feasible at Elgin, the primary interchange is at McNeil.

Below: These photos of a Tower 100 model built by Jim Zwernemann were taken at the Katy House Bed & Breakfast in Smithville in August, 2006. Credit to Bruce Blalock for making the arrangements. Thanks, Bruce! (Jim King photos)


Last Revised: 7/23/2024 - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers website.