Texas Railroad History - Tower 111 - Trinity

A Crossing of the International - Great Northern Railroad and the Rock Creek Lumber Co.

The Houston and Great Northern (H&GN) railroad was one of the early railroads of Texas. Construction moved north out of Houston in 1871, and in 1872, it passed through the new town of Trinity, named for its county and the Trinity River nearby. The following year, the International - Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad was formed by the merger of the H&GN with the International Railroad, whose main line ran from Longview to Hearne, later extended through Austin and San Antonio to Laredo. The two railroads intersected at Palestine which became the location of I-GN's headquarters and shops. I-GN was acquired by Missouri Pacific (MP) on January 1, 1925; MP continued to operate I-GN's lines with few changes for many years. The surviving routes are now owned by Union Pacific (UP).

I-GN's presence in the forests of east Texas gave them significant traffic moving logs, lumber and related products. Much of this business centered in Trinity, the largest town in Trinity County. The Thompson Brothers established a mill there in 1910. The Thompson family was a major player in Texas lumber for multiple generations and was one of the first to recognize the wisdom in separating their land ownership from their lumber production. This allowed independent decision-making by the land owners and lumber producers, usually resulting in better long term success for both during the frequent boom and bust economic cycles. To implement this strategy, the Thompson Brothers converted their existing lumber companies into land-holding companies and founded two new lumber companies, Texas Long Leaf Lumber Co. and Rock Creek Lumber Co., in which they retained only a minority stake. The August 10, 1917 edition of Lumber World Review reported that Rock Creek Lumber Co. was formed with $500,000 of initial capital by J. W. Ferguson , J. W. Reynolds and H. H. Thompson (who is listed as a resident of Trinity). The Thompson Brothers mill at Trinity and various timber rights were then sold to Rock Creek Lumber Co. for "in excess of $2,000,000" according to the September 1, 1917 issue of The Lumber Trade Journal. On November 13, 1919, an 8-function mechanical cabin interlocker designated Tower 111 by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) was established at Trinity for a crossing of the I-GN by the Rock Creek Lumber Co. The Texas Forestry Museum Tram and Railroad Database notes that "...The company was operating an eleven-mile logging tram in 1928".

A more recent reference to the Rock Creek Lumber Co. appears in an article from the Trinity Standard newspaper of June 2, 2016.

The Texas Historical Society held an event May 29 at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church to unveil and dedicate a new historical marker awarded to the Texas Long Leaf Lumber Company. The marker will be placed at the site of “The Old Mill,” with a base constructed out of bricks from the building itself. Built in 1910 by the Thompson Brothers Lumber Company, the mill was of moderate size. It stood until 1919, when a fire broke out and the building had to be rebuilt. For six months, as the construction went on, the flames in the slab pit burned continuously. In 1922, the mill exchanged ownership and was renamed to Rock Creek Lumber Company. A few short years later, after the closing of the nearby Oakhurst Lumber Company mill, corporate resources were consolidated to form a single mill under the Texas Long Leaf Lumber Company name.

This article has a somewhat different chronology of the Rock Creek Lumber Co. history, and it appears to be based on a National Register of Historic Places application submitted in 2001 to the Dept. of Interior by the staff archaeologist for the Angelina National Forest. It is clear that Rock Creek Lumber Co. already existed by 1917 based on the contemporary news reports in the Lumber World Review and The Lumber Trade Journal, and it obviously existed in 1919 when RCT authorized the Tower 111 interlocker. Since the article states that the "building had to be rebuilt", it is fair to infer that the entire mill was not relocated as a result of the 1919 fire. Hence, the location of the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church pinpoints the site of the "Old Mill" close to and west of the former I-GN tracks on the north side of Trinity.

Above Left: Details of the Rock Creek Lumber Co. are shown in this image from the 1925 Sanborn Insurance Co. map of Trinity. The main tracks that serve the mill come from the bottom of the image (south) and split into two tracks going north. Magnification of the lettering between the tracks shows "WBT&S RR", the Waco, Beaumont, Trinity & Sabine (WBT&S) Railroad. There's no evidence from Sanborn maps that the I-GN directly served the sawmill. Above Right: This image from the 1943 update to the 1925 Sanborn map shows WBT&S (blue) had lines coming into Trinity from three directions. The mill was located about a 1/2 mile north of the top of the image, served by a WBT&S spur. The WBT&S crossed the I-GN (yellow) on the south side of Trinity, but RCT annual reports do not show this crossing ever being interlocked.

The WBT&S story begins with a different railroad, the Trinity & Sabine (T&S) Railway, which was chartered in 1881. As the Handbook of Texas explains, the T&S "...was planned by local lumber interests to connect Trinity in Trinity County on the International and Great Northern railroad with a point seventy-five miles to the east, at or near the junction of the Neches and Angelina rivers." But after only 38 miles had been built, the railroad was bought by the Missouri Kansas Texas ("Katy") Railway, passing briefly (a few hours!) through the ownership of railroad baron Jay Gould. The T&S line was extended east to Colmesneil, and in 1891, the T&S was formally integrated into the Katy railroad as Katy's Sabine Division. The Sabine Division had connections with three major railroads: at Trinity, with the I-GN; at Corrigan, with the narrow gauge Houston East and West Texas Railway (converted to standard gauge in 1894 and acquired by Southern Pacific in 1899); and at Colmesneil, with the Texas & New Orleans Railway, a Southern Pacific property. Unfortunately, none of them were connections to the Katy's route network! Hence the Sabine Division became known as the Orphan Branch of the Katy.

In 1905, a new railroad was chartered as the Beaumont and Great Northern (B&GN) with plans to build from Trinity southeast to Livingston. This was accomplished in 1907-08, and the line was extended west from Trinity to Weldon in 1911. Shortly thereafter, the B&GN was sold in several successive transactions and ultimately became owned by the Katy. The sale to the Katy was fought in court by the State and eventually annulled in a 1914 settlement wherein the Katy leased the B&GN for 99 years. This gave the Katy three lines extending out from Trinity: a 15-mile line northwest to Weldon, a 33-mile line southeast to Livingston, and the 67-mile Sabine Division east to Colmesneil via Corrigan. Katy's lease of the B&GN did not last long; the Katy went into receivership and the B&GN reverted to its owners when the lease was cancelled in 1923 as the Katy emerged from bankruptcy. B&GN's owners changed the name to WBT&S at that time, and within a year had acquired Katy's Sabine Division which had been omitted from Katy's reorganization plan. So, by 1924, the WBT&S had essentially reconstituted Katy's routes in the forests of southeast Texas.

The Sanborn map (above left) shows one set of tracks continuing north near the top right corner of the image; this is the best candidate for the sawmill lead of the Rock Creek Lumber Co. tram. The Texas Transportation Archive lists this tram as "Standard-gauge. Operating by 1917 to at least 1928. Length, 11 miles." Hence, the tram was compatible with the WBT&S tracks that served the sawmill. And since the tram is known to have crossed the I-GN at Tower 111, the expected location of the interlocker site would be further north. Notably, Tower 111 is listed as "Near Trinity" in the 1924 RCT Annual Report; the location was simply "Trinity" in all previous reports, but this appears to be merely an accuracy update and does not likely indicate a relocation of the crossing since the tower commission date did not change.

Fortunately, the Missouri Pacific Historical Society has graciously provided a copy of the Missouri Pacific Palestine Division Employee Timetable No. 36 from October, 1932 (below), and it pinpoints the location of Tower 111 at Milepost 63.0, a short distance north of the sawmill.


Annotated Satellite Image, Trinity, Texas
The annotated satellite image below shows an overview of Trinity and the speculated location of the Tower 111 crossing at the top of the map. The former I-GN tracks are in green and the best guess for the route of the abandoned Rock Creek Lumber Co. (RCLC) tram is shown in yellow. The blue rectangle shows the location of the RCLC sawmill. The white structure beneath the blue outline in the lower left corner of the rectangle is the site of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church referenced above. Red dashed lines (all of which are abandoned) are tracks of the WBT&S railroad. At upper right, the Trinity & Sabine tracks that were part of the Katy Orphan Branch proceed northeast and eventually reach Colmesneil via Corrigan. At bottom right, the former Beaumont & Great Northern line entered Trinity from Livingston and proceeded across the I-GN
tracks (at an uncontrolled crossing) before turning north along what is now Maple St. This line split on the north side of Trinity, with the main branch continuing northwest to Weldon while the spur to the RCLC sawmill continued due north and joined the tram line at the mill.

Above: The main line milepost numbering has changed, but the location of Tower 111 can be narrowed down to plus or minus 0.2 miles using the relative distance to existing places identified in the timetable. The next noted location north of Tower 111 is Red Branch, an unincorporated rural community 7.2 miles distant. Red Branch still exists as a rural road that crosses the former I-GN tracks. From there, the location for Tower 111 can be determined using the Google Earth Path Tool to measure 7.2 miles south along the Union Pacific tracks. This results in a location for Tower 111 that appears to match the site of some kind of crossing of the I-GN tracks a short distance north of the sawmill. In the image above, facing east with north to the left, the RCLC Mill Pond appears in the lower right corner. The four red arrows point to telltale signs of a possible tram right of way and the red dashed line shows a curved strand of trees that are located about where the tram would need to begin turning east to reach the projected Tower 111 crossing.

Below: Facing north, this Bing aerial image outlines a road in the upper right corner that crosses the former I-GN tracks at the projected site of Tower 111. The road does not appear to exist but it certainly could have been an abandoned right-of-way that was reused as a road over enough years that historical map databases included it. If Company Store Rd. / Robb St. are accessible to the public, a field examination of the projected crossing site would be very helpful.

There's also a reference in the Texas Forestry Museum Sawmill Database that states the tram's location was "Sequoyah, just north of Trinity, in Trinity County". Sequoyah was a stop on the WBT&S line to Weldon. It was on the north side of Trinity, close to and west of the mill. The Sequoyah reference may indicate only that there was another spur of the Rock Creek Lumber Co. tram that branched off the WBT&S. As such, an interlocker would not have been necessary for two lightly used lines.

It is safe to say that Tower 111 did not remain in operation too much beyond the date of the timetable referenced above. The Texas Forest Museum Sawmill Database has the following reference to the Texas Long Leaf Lumber Co., which took over the Rock Creek Lumber Co. some time between 1928 and 1943.

At a meeting of stockholders, on September 24, 1947, H. H. Thompson noted that all indebtedness...had been paid, and that the company had been in a state of liquidation since 1931. Thompson recommended that the company be dissolved, which was completed by 1952.

It appears that by 1931, the mill was no longer operating. The Tower 111 crossing could have remained in operation for some period after that since the forests that the tram accessed might still hold timber that other lumber companies would want to reach by rail if they could obtain the rights. Unfortunately, December 31, 1930 is the last full list of interlockers published by the RCT. Tower 111 was still officially active at that time and it was presumably still active in October, 1932 when the timetable was published.

Last Revised: 7/29/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.