Texas Railroad History - Tower 117 - Houston (New South Yard)

A Tower at Houston Belt & Terminal Railway's New South Yard

Above: undated photo of New South Yard and Tower 117 (R. H. Carlson photo, courtesy Jernigan Library, South Texas Archives, Texas A&M University - Kingsville)

By magnifying and rescanning his original slide (above left) of Santa Fe F7 254C at New South Yard in Houston, Ralph Back was able to establish conclusively that when he took the photo on September 29, 1973, the concrete yard tower (above right) at New South Yard was officially Tower 117. Thanks, Ralph! Below Left: While Ralph's photo above is facing northwest, this January, 2020 Google Street View of the Tower 117 site is facing northeast from an adjacent street. It confirms the concrete tower is no longer standing. Note that in Ralph's photo, the power line towers that are immediately behind Tower 117 continue north in the distance and connect to other similar power line towers along the west side of HB&T's tracks. Long before 2020 (but apparently after 1973), the power lines north of Tower 117 were rerouted to connect to new power line towers on the east side of the tracks. Below Right: The approximate site of Tower 117 in Ralph's photo is marked in this Google Earth satellite image. This location appears to be approximately 100 ft. north of where the original Tower 117 sat.

The Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway was founded in 1905 as a switching railroad by four companies serving Houston, specifically the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway and three railroads controlled by native Texan B. F. Yoakum (the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico, the Beaumont, Sour Lake & Western, and the Trinity & Brazos Valley.) HB&T's charter included constructing a "Union Station" downtown to support passenger service for the founding railroads, and building a "belt line" around the city to facilitate freight exchange among multiple yards. As part of this effort, HB&T built a new freight yard, "New South Yard", immediately south of Santa Fe's original "South Yard" which HB&T had begun to operate. In between the two yards, immediately north of a rail bridge over Brays Bayou, HB&T began its East Belt line in 1908 which branched off to the northeast toward major freight yards north of Buffalo Bayou. According to archives of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) at DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, HB&T built a tower between the two yards, south of the Brays Bayou bridge, that was formally numbered and approved as Tower 117. There is a document in the DeGolyer Library files from HB&T to RCT requesting a number for the tower that was built to house "...an interlocking plant controlling operations between New and Old South Yards." The document is dated March 14, 1924, which happens to be the exact same approval date that RCT's 1924 Annual Report assigned to Tower 117. Apparently Tower 117 was approved without inspection.

RCT's published approval date for Tower 117 is very strange, and not merely because it appears there was no inspection required. The 1924 date was at least 13 years after New South Yard had become operational. Tower 85, about two miles away on the East Belt, was (along with Tower 84, Tower 86 and Tower 87) among four consecutive HB&T towers commissioned by RCT generally in the 1911 timeframe. Another HB&T tower, Tower 80 on the north side of Houston, appears to have been assigned a number in 1910. Tower 81 was approved in May, 1910 to control the Santa Fe/Southern Pacific crossing at the south end of New South Yard. It seems unusual that the numbering and approval of the New South Yard tower was delayed to 1924 when, at least by 1911, numbers had been assigned to all other HB&T towers. All except one.

HB&T's Tower 116 was officially commissioned at Houston Union Station on precisely the same day, March 14, 1924, as Tower 117. It is very likely that the delay in commissioning these two towers was simply due to HB&T electing not to request tower numbers and interlocker approvals from RCT. Presumably, HB&T believed that both towers were exempt from RCT oversight because, in both cases, all of the tracks involved belonged to HB&T. RCT's rules required approvals for interlockers controlling crossings of two railroad companies at grade. For the passenger and freight yards at Towers 116 and 117, respectively, the tracks belonged to only one railroad, HB&T.

Despite specific state law language granting RCT rulemaking authority for grade crossings of two railroads, RCT eventually decided they had the power to approve all interlockers, regardless of the number of railroads involved. The extent to which HB&T had to be coerced into agreeing with this policy is unknown. Whatever the case, as explained in more detail for Tower 116, the policy came into force in the 1920s. It was followed for SP's yard tower at San Antonio (Tower 121) in 1925, Santa Fe's yard interlockers at Canyon and Pampa in 1927, and all future similar situations (including several that were merely rural crossings of tracks of the same railroad, e.g. Tower 200, Tower 215, as examples.)

Tower 117 was located at the north end of New South Yard where the yard tracks merged to cross Brays Bayou. Track drawings in the Tower 117 file at DeGolyer Library place the tower structure 1,913 ft. south of the north edge of the Brays Bayou bridge. The original tower, presumably built sometime around 1910, would likely have been constructed of wood and probably resembled Tower 116, but no photos of it have been located. The date of construction of the newer, concrete Tower 117 in these photos is unknown, but the Tower 117 file at DeGolyer Library has references to tower changes occurring April 19, 1956, which would appear to be a reasonable estimate. The fate of the original tower is unknown.

Below Left: a Tom Kline photo of Tower 117 from 1986  Below Right: a February, 2020 Google Street View of the Tower 117 site from across the tracks

Overview Map

Above: historic interlocking towers south and east of downtown Houston

Last Revised: 1/29/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Website