A Crossing of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA), the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP), and the Cane Belt railroads
Jim King photos, November 1996
|Above: Tower 115 sits silently abandoned as an eastbound freight rumbles by on the Sunset Route headed for Houston. The tower was razed shortly after this photo was taken.||Above: Looking west on the SA&AP right-of-way, the rails formerly passed along side the tower. When the SA&AP line was abandoned west from Tower 115, a connection to the westbound Sunset Route was retained.|
In the early 1900s, sand and gravel operations began to establish mines along the Colorado River near Eagle Lake and many of them were served directly by rail. About 7 miles west of Eagle Lake near the community of Altair on the ex-SA&AP line, a 7-mile spur was built north to Helms by the Colorado River Western Railroad in 1955 to serve a large sand and gravel mine. This spur was purchased three years later by SP and then abandoned in 1975. At some point, a spur existed off the SA&AP near downtown that ran west and then south, passing along the west side of the lake but remaining east of the Colorado River. A nearby "Parker Rd." suggests that this line served a sand and gravel operation owned by the Parker Brothers of Houston who were known to have mining interests in Eagle Lake. As SP began to abandon various SA&AP tracks, service to Altair from Eagle Lake was preserved to support these sand and gravel operations. Past Altair, 11 miles of the ex-SA&AP line was abandoned to Sheridan in 1964. At that time, the former SA&AP main line west from Eagle Lake essentially became a lengthy gravel spur starting at Tower 115. Sometime prior to 1969, a 2.7-mile track to Skull Creek south of Altair was built to serve another sand and gravel operation. Later, this track was extended five miles further south to yet another sand and gravel operation. To reach these mines more efficiently, SP built a new connection from the Sunset Route to the former SA&AP line on the north side of Eagle Lake. This allowed the SA&AP tracks through downtown to be removed. This entire branch remains in service, now known as the Arenal Industrial Lead, departing the Sunset Route about one mile north of Tower 115.
With respect to the establishment of the Arenal Industrial Lead, Matthew Dittert provides the following information:
In regards to the line built in the 1970's to reach new rock pits (including Arenal) south of the SA&AP west of the Colorado River, here are some clues as to when the line was built. "Arenal" does not appear in SP San Antonio and Houston Division ETT #2 which went into effect June 13, 1971 but does appear in SP Houston Division ETT #201 which went into effect June 11, 1972. Arenal appears as a station at MP 67.9 on the Bellaire Branch 2.3 miles west of Stallings. There is an asterisk next to "Arenal" directing attention to a note that reads "Arenal is on spur track 6.16 miles from Lead Switch." The latest ETT that I have listing Arenal in similar fashion is SP/SSW Eastern Region ETT #2 which went into effect November 20, 1985. I do not have the three ETT's that followed #2, but I have #6 (effective date: May 15, 1988), which no longer has the Bellaire Branch extending west of Eagle Lake. Instead, ETT #6 has the Arenal Industrial Lead with "River Junction" at MP 0, located 2.2 miles west of MP 65.6, the location of Stallings. Arenal is shown to be at MP 5.0.
To the east, the SA&AP "Bellaire Line" to Houston was officially abandoned in 1993 so that it could be conveyed to an entity that was not a common carrier, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County ("Metro"). However, SP retained an operating easement on the line to continue service to fulfill its common carrier obligations. UP inherited this obligation in 1996 and planned to continue service until 2001. Meanwhile, a request to "railbank" the right-of-way was made by Metro, and the Surface Transportation Board granted a Certificate of Interim Trail Use in November, 2000 covering the right-of-way from Milepost 3.48 near Bellaire Junction to Milepost 52.9 located 8.3 miles east of Eagle Lake. The remaining 8.3 miles of track east of Tower 115 became the Chesterville Industrial Lead. In 2001, Metro and UP agreed to railbank the right-of-way, and that Metro would have title to the rights to reopen service on this right-of-way, except for the Chesterville Industrial Lead. In 2008, UP sought to abandon the Chesterville Industrial Lead, and again, UP and Metro agreed to a transfer of rights to restore service on this final segment into Eagle Lake. It was then formally abandoned and the connection to the UP main line was cut, but the Chesterville Industrial Lead tracks were not removed. In 2014, Metro officially acquired restoration rights on this final segment of right-of-way from UP.
Above: Looking west on the SA&AP line, November 1976. Compare this view with the 1996 photo above and the 2013 Google Street View further below. (Doug Woods photo, courtesy of David Bernstein)
Location Map - Tower 115
Above: The tower sat immediately south of the SA&AP tracks between the GH&SA Sunset Route main line and a Cane Belt spur to the downtown Santa Fe depot. The solid yellow line is the Chesterville Industrial Lead. Although its tracks remain in place as of February 2017, its connection to the Sunset Route was severed when the spur was officially abandoned in 2008.
Below: This screen capture from a YouTube video taken from the rear of an Amtrak train shows the severed connection to the Chesterville Industrial Lead. The former Santa Fe depot is the brown building to the left which now houses the Eagle Lake Depot Museum.
Historic Maps, Tower 115 Location
Above: A 1932 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Eagle Lake shows Tower 115 sitting adjacent to the crossing at lower left in the image, between the main line of the GH&SA and the parallel Cane Belt spur, with the SA&AP crossing both at a 45 degree angle. The Cane Belt spur allowed the Santa Fe depot to be downtown. Under magnification, the map (below) shows Tower 115 documented as a 2-story "R R Signal Tower".
Tom Kline comments on the above photos he took of the Tower 115 Model Board..."If you look closely on the lower left side of the model board, it looks as if there was some diagram editing done to reflect the removal of tracks to the east (top) of the mainline and the siding on the west side (bottom). I don't know the history or have the data to prove that, I'm just going off similar changes I've seen to other boards over the years."
Eagle Lake, 1989 (photos by Tom Kline)
Tom explains: "In both photos you are looking south-southwest [along the Cane Belt] with Sealy being behind the camera. The photo above left shows a stack train crossing the Cane Belt in the distance on the SP Glidden Sub as it heads to Houston. The photo above right shows a westbound crossing the Cane Belt on the SP Bellaire Line headed towards Tower 115 right after the eastbound stack cleared the interlocker. This train is arriving from Houston on the Bellaire Line back when it was used as the high speed shortcut to Eagle Lake."
Eagle Lake, 1991 and 2009 (photos by Tom Kline)
Tom returned to Eagle Lake in September, 1991. What he found was the Santa Fe yard being scrapped (above left) and weeds overtaking the Cane Belt route at Rayner Junction (above right.) Tom explains..."Rayner Junction was located about 2 miles S/SW of Eagle Lake on FM 102. Here the line branched off to the west to Matthews and Garwood. To the left in the photo you can see FM 102 and the crossing warning sign for the spur. If you are familiar with the area and the historical roadside marker about the Lakeside Sugar Refinery just south of Eagle Lake, this view is not far from it. Farmers have reclaimed the right of way south of town by fencing over the rails. This view (below left) is north towards Eagle Lake and Egypt. Wharton and Bay City are behind us; Rayner Jct. is ahead of us." Below right: west side of the UP main looking east with the main in the background and the former transfer track curving to the south.
Google Maps Images, January 2013
Above Left: Looking west on the SA&AP toward the Tower 115 junction. Compare this photo with Doug Woods' 1976 photo. Above Right: Looking south from Highway 102 at the UP main line grade crossing, an industry spur can be seen in the distance curving from the UP main onto the former Cane Belt right of way to the southwest. This serves the A&K Railroad Materials sales yard that now occupies the former Santa Fe yards (see Tom Kline's photo.) Below: area satellite map of Eagle Lake rail line right-of-way heritage