Texas Railroad History - Tower 116 - Houston (Union Station)

The Houston Belt & Terminal Railway interlocking tower at Houston Union Station


Above: John W. Barriger III snapped this photo from the rear platform of his business car as it crossed Texas Ave., probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s (the model year of the truck has not been determined.) Barriger's train approached the entrance tracks to Union Station from the northeast, and it was most likely slowing onto an alignment that would allow it to back into the Union Station passenger terminal. The camera's view is to the north past Tower 116 toward the Cheek Neal Coffee Building. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library image IGN068) Below Left: In this pictorial explanation of the above image, the corner of the Cheek Neal Coffee Building would be located about where the orange oval appears at top of the diagram. Although the 1962 aerial imagery used in the diagram dates to least twenty years after Barriger's photo, the tower remained in place and there had been little or no change to the nearby tracks. Below Right: The Cheek Neal Coffee Building was built in 1917 and housed a Maxwell House Coffee facility for many decades. It still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Google Street View, Jan. 2020)


Above: Barriger took this photo as his train was departing Union Station. The vehicles date the photo to 1940 or later. The train is curving northeast, but the camera is facing south-southeast. Barriger took it from the rear platform of his business car shooting off the right side with the camera aimed slightly forward (i.e., to the left in the photo, the direction his train was moving.) The one-story building beside Tower 116 appears to be a maintenance hut or a storage barn. The photos in the Library numbered between the one at the top of the page and this one do not reveal any clues as to whether they were taken on the same trip. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library photo IGN081) Below: Likely taken a few seconds after the above photo, Barriger is now looking to the southwest down the track that ran along the southeast side of Tower 116. Barriger's train has come onto the main line heading north where it will soon cross Buffalo Bayou, most likely on the bridge of the International & Great Northern Railway. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library photo IGN083)

Below Left: pictorial explanation of the scene in the image second above (IGN081) Below Right: pictorial explanation of the scene in the image immediately above (IGN083)

Houston was served by numerous railroads as it overtook Galveston to become the principal city of commerce in Texas. Houston's growth era of railroading was roughly the half-century from 1875 to 1925. The various railroads that arrived during that period can be generally segregated into four groups: Southern Pacific (SP) operating through its Texas-based subsidiaries; the Gulf Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway, a Texas subsidiary of the well-known Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway; the railroads associated with native Texan B. F. Yoakum, principally the Trinity & Brazos Valley (T&BV) and several others known collectively as the Gulf Coast Lines; and the railroads associated with Jay Gould which were eventually consolidated into the Missouri Pacific (MP) family. All four groups had a significant presence in Houston and they understood the potential benefit of a metropolitan switching railroad to facilitate freight interchange. This recognition culminated in the creation of the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway in 1905.

Four railroads founded HB&T, specifically the GC&SF and three of Yoakum's railroads (the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico, the Beaumont, Sour Lake & Western, and the T&BV.) SP's four Houston area railroads did not participate in HB&T's ownership nor did any of the Gould railroads even though Houston was served at the time by three of them. HB&T's charter included constructing "Union Station" downtown to support passenger service for the founding railroads (plus any other railroads that could be lured to use it.) With HB&T's ownership lacking direct participation of the Gould and SP railroad groups, Houston became the rare city that hosted rail passengers at both "Union Station" and "Grand Central Station" (used by Southern Pacific), not to mention at least two other passenger stations that remained active for awhile.

HB&T proceeded with Union Station's design, employing the American Construction Company of St. Louis and the New York architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore. To accommodate the passenger terminal, Railway Express facility, coach yard, and access tracks, Union Station required a sizable footprint. HB&T had planned a one million dollar budget to complete the entire project, but they consumed all of it just to acquire the land! (The price was inflated by a synagogue and several expensive homes that sat on the parcel.) Trains began using Union Station in August, 1910 and it was formally dedicated on March 2, 1911, the 75th anniversary of Texas Independence Day (and Sam Houston's 118th birthday.)

Below Left: a 1913 illustration of the front of Union Station  Below Right: a similar Google Street View from January 2020

In 1903, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) began publishing a list of commissioned interlocking towers each year in its Annual Report. These lists show that HB&T constructed multiple towers around Houston over many years. Surprisingly, none of those towers was known to provide interlocker controls for Union Station until Tower 116 appeared in the list dated December 31, 1923, more than thirteen years after passenger operations had commenced! This seems odd (listing Tower 116's official commissioning date as March 14, 1924, more than two months in the future, just makes it extra odd!) Normally, tower numbers were assigned by RCT as soon as the requesting railroad provided notice of a planned interlocker installation. RCT appeared to have corrected the record somewhat when its list dated December 31, 1925 adjusted Tower 116's commissioning to a date more than a decade earlier, September 4, 1910. This 1910 date was at least consistent with the approximate commencement of passenger operations at Union Station. But an interlocker approval in 1910 should have corresponded to a tower number in the low 80's (e.g. Tower 83, commissioned July, 1910.) Tower 116's initial commissioning date in 1924 is consistent with similar tower numbers issued about the same time (e.g. Tower 115 approved December, 1923.) Why would there be a 13-year mismatch between a tower number and the adjusted approval date for its interlocker?

The simple answer appears to be this: HB&T built an interlocking tower at Union Station that most likely became operational on September 4, 1910, but they did not request approval from RCT for the interlocker design nor did they request authority to commence operations. They simply ignored RCT entirely. And why did HB&T believe this was a reasonable course of action? Because HB&T assumed that its Union Station tower was exempt from RCT's approval authority. This exemption issue pertained to the 1901 state law that gave RCT the responsibility to issue regulations regarding safety systems for railroad grade crossings. The law specifically granted RCT the authority "...to ascertain and define by its decree, the mode of crossing to be made, when one railroad company seeks to cross with its track or tracks the track or tracks of another railroad company." RCT dutifully followed state law and issued rules and regulations governing approvals for interlockers as provided by state law, that is...when the tracks of one railroad company crossed the tracks of another railroad company at grade. Although trains of many different railroads accessed Union Station, the tracks were all owned by HB&T. Regardless of how complex the switching and signaling system might have been, the tower at Union Station was arguably exempt from state law. There was, literally, no other railroad associated with the tracks of any grade crossings at Union Station; they were all HB&T tracks.

Whether Union Station should have been exempt was a policy issue that RCT had to resolve based on their interpretation of their own rules and state law. Was there a legal way for RCT to enforce an approval requirement for interlocking systems that only controlled tracks of a single railroad? And as public policy, should there be a requirement for RCT approval of single-railroad interlocking systems? How RCT chose to address these legal issues was particularly critical for large freight yards where railroads managed complex switching and signaling as they processed and interchanged freight cars, often under customized "Yard Limits" rules of their own design. Railroads saw no need for RCT approval of any yard control system they might choose to implement since there was simply no other company involved. As all of Union Station's tracks belonged to HB&T, they saw no conflict with state law or RCT regulations, hence the interlocker wasn't submitted to RCT for approval. RCT is fully aware of the existence of HB&T's tower and interlocker (after all, their own personnel see it when they travel through Houston periodically by train.) Whether RCT agreed that this HB&T tower was exempt is unknown, but there is no evidence thus far uncovered that they ever attempted to invoke authority to regulate, modify or terminate its operation. HB&T's Tower 117 apparently got precisely the same treatment, right down to being listed with the exact same initial approval date and the exact same revised approval date. Tower 117 was HB&T's yard tower at New South Yard, a freight yard more than three miles from Tower 116. Although vastly different operationally (passengers vs. freight), the only published difference between Towers 116 and 117 in RCT's lists was the initial number of interlocker functions, 77 for Tower 116 and 22 for Tower 117. Even their listed locations, generically described as "H.B.T. Yards", was the same.

There is other evidence of RCT's policy issue with respect to single-railroad interlocker approvals. The first example is Tower 121, an SP yard tower in San Antonio authorized in April, 1925, approximately one year after the reported formal commissioning of Towers 116 and 117 in March, 1924. For Tower 121, SP wrote a letter to RCT dated April 8, 1925 requesting interlocker design approval and a tower number assignment. The letter states "This plant does not serve railroad crossings at grade but is being constructed for our convenience and improvement in operation." RCT approval was granted two days later. Obviously, SP had learned of (and proactively elected to comply with) RCT's interpretation of the rules. Santa Fe, on the other hand, did not. As they upgraded their yard operations at Canyon in 1927, RCT learned of it and wrote a letter to Santa Fe inquiring as to when they could expect to see the plans. Santa Fe responded with a letter explaining that with no other railroad involved, they believed their yard interlocker was exempt from RCT approval. RCT quickly set them straight! Santa Fe promptly complied at both Canyon and Pampa.

The Tower 116 file at DeGolyer Library does not provide any obvious clues to explain why the tower was commissioned by RCT in 1924, but other evidence shows it to be related to construction of a new tower. The rapid growth of Houston between 1910 and 1924 undoubtedly caused expanded operations at Union Station with additional tracks supporting ingress and egress. It's reasonable to assume that the tower HB&T built in 1910 to house the interlocker for Union Station was significantly undersized for the interlocking plant expansion required for the magnitude of passenger traffic being realized by the early 1920s. The Tower 116 file has correspondence dated March 14, 1924 stating that the Union Station tower is located at "Texas Ave. at Hutchins St." The date of this letter became the listed commissioning date for the new tower, officially designated by RCT to be Tower 116. The subsequent revision of the official commissioning date to September 4, 1910 seems like an RCT Engineering Department decision to account for the prior tower's successful operation for more than a decade, i.e. the date it would have been approved by RCT had they been given the opportunity (most likely its first day of operational use.) It may also indicate that the original interlocking plant hardware was still in use, most likely with expanded functionality. RCT's later lists reverted back to the March, 1924 date for the official commissioning of Tower 116; the 1910 commissioning date only appeared in the two lists dated December 31 of years 1925 and 1926. It made more sense to recognize the March, 1924 commissioning date since the newly assigned Tower 116 nomenclature was being applied to a newly constructed tower (perhaps with a "used" interlocker), one that undoubtedly had been designed and built with RCT approval.

Left: In May, 2021, this photo of the original Union Station tower was posted to the Houston History group on Facebook by Dwight Allbritten. With his post, Dwight provided the caption below:



Below: The Russell Crump Santa Fe Photo Collection contains this low resolution scan of a photo taken in March, 1922 showing an unidentified interlocking tower "near the corner of Texas Ave. & St. Emanuel St.". The tower is actually closer to Hutchins St., but it's essentially in the same location as the "new" Tower 116. The image is too small to make a precise comparison to the photos taken more than a decade later by Barriger, but the March, 1922 date suggests that this is the original tower rather than the new tower. Its appearance is certainly consistent with the tower photo at left. The image is an elevated distant view of the tower taken from the roof (or an upper floor) of the Cheek Neal Coffee Building visible in Barriger's IGN068 photo. The photographer was facing slightly west of due south about 700 ft. from the tower. (Russell Crump photo, courtesy Santa Fe Railway Historical and Modeling Society)

According to rail historian David Bernstein, the Tower 84 and Tower 116 interlockers were consolidated into Tower 117 in June, 1971. Thus, 1971 is a reasonable estimate for the year in which Tower 116 was dismantled. A 1973 image from historicaerials.com shows the side building intact but the tower is no longer beside it.

Left: This glimpse of Tower 116 (and the small building behind it) is in the distance of a larger George Werner photo dated June 16, 1968. The photo appears in Steve Allen Goen's book Santa Fe in the Lone Star State, Volume One - 1949-1969 [Four Ways West Publications, 2000]. Compare it to the same view of the tower in Barriger's photo (right). Other than paint and finish, the tower's short side is unchanged. The long side, however, extends to the right so that the bottom step of the staircase no longer aligns with the far edge of the tower. There are now eight upper floor windows instead of five, and a ground floor door has been added in the new section. What could account for the tower's expansion? On October 17, 1947, Interlocker 116-A was added to Tower 116 to control a nearby I-GN/GH&H crossing. The use of separate interlocker nomenclature implies that an additional plant was installed in the tower. Earlier changes approved on October 15, 1944 to control the HB&T/I-GN crossing at Commerce St. and the HB&T/GH&H crossing on Canal St. might have consumed the spare capacity of the original interlocker. Thus, enlarging the tower to accommodate the additional 116-A interlocker and its operator controls could easily explain the observed changes to Tower 116.

Historic Map, Tower 116
 
Above: This image from the 1924 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Houston shows an interlocking tower (see magnification at right) located near the intersection of Texas Ave. and Hutchins St. at the east edge of Union Station. The map depicts two structures, the 2-story tower and the 1-story building beside it to the west.

At the time that passenger trains were taken over by Amtrak in 1971, there were still two passenger stations being used in Houston. SP's Grand Central Station, built in 1934, had been replaced in 1959 by a new station that continued hosting SP's Los Angeles - New Orleans Sunset Limited, now operated by Amtrak. At the same time, Union Station continued to host Amtrak's version of Santa Fe's Chicago - Galveston Texas Chief passenger service, later renamed the Lone Star. Operating out of two different passenger stations in Houston made no sense (not that it ever did!), and Amtrak's limited budget could not afford to maintain operations at two facilities. The Lone Star was switched to SP's station on July 31, 1974 and as of that date, Union Station was no longer used for scheduled passenger service.

Below Left: Houston Union Station is now part of Minute Maid Park, the home of major league baseball in Houston. It is therefore not surprising that the former site of Tower 116 (now in a stadium parking lot!) no longer appears to correlate with any historic railroad activity. From 1962 historicaerials.com imagery, the precise Lat./Long. of Tower 116 can be determined as 29.75413 degrees North, 95.35231 degrees West. This correlates to the red marker on this Google Maps snippet. Below Right: This Google Street View from June, 2019 shows a tree growing about where the southwest face (short side) of the tower stood adjacent to Texas Ave. Note the Cheek Neal Coffee Building visible in the distance.

 

Below: This uncredited 1938 aerial photo facing west into downtown Houston has been annotated to show Tower 116 and nearby streets.

 
Last Revised: 5/31/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.