Two Towers on the Dallas Belt Line
Above Left: This undated photo of Tower 118 at Belt Junction shows it to be a standard Southern Pacific (SP) design, architecturally similar to many other SP towers in Texas, particularly Tower 115. (Robbie Patterson photo, hat tip, Mark St. Aubin) Above Right: This photograph of Tower 119 at T&P Junction was taken by Myron Malone on December 28, 1981. Records of the Railroad Commission of Texas indicate that it was operated, at least in the early years, by Texas & Pacific (T&P) personnel. This suggests that the tower was also designed and built under T&P supervision. It doesn't particularly resemble an SP tower, but the photos of it date from 1981, so how it looked in 1926 and the unknown extent of any modifications over the decades leave this an open question. The T&P was the only other railroad at the junction and unfortunately, among all of the Texas towers for which photos are extant, the handful known to have been operated by the T&P and thus, potentially designed by them, do not exhibit any common architectural themes that would shed light on the origin of Tower 119, e.g. Towers 20, 28, 42, 55, 62 and 79. SP and the T&P shared the tower's capital and recurring expenses, but the definition of how those expenses were split has not been uncovered.
In the aftermath of the Great Flood of
1908 on the Trinity River through Dallas, government and business leaders
scrambled to develop a plan to mitigate devastation from the inevitable next
flood. The water level had reached 52 ft. above normal, resulting in
loss of lives and homes, a city-wide failure of electric power, drinking water and
communications links, and the destruction of numerous highway and railroad bridges. Renowned city planner
(and former Dallas resident) George Kessler was hired to create
a plan for Dallas' physical infrastructure to make the city more livable while
improving the city's flood preparedness. Among many elements of the Kessler Plan was the
establishment of a new Union Station at the
west end of downtown Dallas for the convenience of the traveling public.
Exercising authority under a new state law, the Railroad Commission of Texas
(RCT) issued an order in December, 1909 requiring the City of Dallas to
plan and build a union passenger station. This had been the subject of a
long-simmering dispute among Dallas' railroads, but RCT's order provided the
legal impetus to solve the problem. Kessler's work on a comprehensive plan for
Dallas had just begun, but he was able to provide his concept and guidance to
government, business and railroad officials for a new Dallas Union Station.
In addition to building a new passenger station, Kessler wanted to improve pedestrian and vehicle safety in the central business district by eliminating the main line railroad crossings in downtown, either by grade separation or by establishing alternate routes. The Dallas City Commission hired a consulting engineer, J. F. Wallace of Chicago, to study the problem. As reported by Railway Review on December 18, 1915, Wallace recommended "...the construction of a belt line railroad around the city with interchange and terminal facilities for the joint use of all lines entering the city. Estimated cost of construction is $900,000 as compared with an estimate of about $5,000,000 to elevate tracks now existing."
Moving forward with the belt line concept, the first need was to establish alternate routes so the tracks through downtown could be relegated to secondary status. The plan that evolved called for the main lines of the Texas & Pacific (T&P) Railway and the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railway, a Southern Pacific (SP) subsidiary, to be rerouted south and east of downtown on a new Dallas Belt Line to be constructed by SP. For the T&P, this meant eventually removing their east/west tracks on Pacific Ave. that crossed the center of downtown. The T&P main line could not be completely eliminated from the west end of downtown because its bridge over the Trinity River began at the western terminus of Pacific Ave. For SP, it meant abandoning the H&TC's tracks through the east end of downtown. It would take decades to complete these track removals because both railroads served businesses in and near downtown that could not simply be abandoned. Construction of the Dallas Belt Line began in 1919.
Four years before the Belt Line construction began, this 1915 track
chart for Dallas (hat tip Ed Chambers) was created by the Missouri,
Kansas & Texas (MK&T, "Katy") Railroad. The interlocking tower
locations and major
tracks have been highlighted. Notably, the downtown crossing of the H&TC and
T&P main lines was not interlocked despite an order to do so issued by
RCT in 1902. The railroads likely prevailed in rescinding the
order due to the proximity of Union Depot ("Depot"), where trains on
both tracks frequently stopped anyway (as required by state law for
uncontrolled grade crossings of two railroads.) Despite the name or the presence of the Union Depot
Hotel across the SP tracks, it was not
a union passenger station since none of the other railroads used it. The
new Union Station would open at the far west end of downtown on
October 14, 1916 preceded by Towers 106 and 107 two weeks earlier, replacing Tower 57.
SP's tracks were in the east end of downtown, hence its passenger trains would need to use the Katy to access Union Station, going north via Tower 35 and south via the new Belt Line connection at Forest Ave. SP's line to Briggs was its southeast route to Beaumont, officially owned by a subsidiary, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad.
The Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway main line between Cleburne and Paris crossed diagonally past the south side of the central business district. A spur to the north was built to reach Santa Fe's passenger station (Commerce at Murphy St.) and a warehouse downtown. The main line's three crossings of other railroads were controlled by Tower 19 (Katy), Tower 10 (H&TC) and Tower 22 (T&P); all had been commissioned before the end of 1903.
Below: The "Depot" on the map above may not have lived
up to its "Union Depot" name, but as this c.1908 northwest-facing photo shows,
it could be a busy place. The crowd in the plaza and the fully loaded streetcars
on Elm St. in the foreground suggest that a SP passenger train is making a stop.
A passenger car is also visible (at right) on the "depot lead" on the other side
of the station facing the T&P tracks which SP also used, for its Beaumont trains
via the T&NO line through Briggs. The T&P
did not use this station initially; its passenger depot was farther west on Pacific Ave.
at Lamar St. It appears that T&P moved its operations here at
some point, resulting in the name change to Union Depot. The Union Depot Hotel is the large building across the SP
tracks, although at the time of this photo, it was called the Conerty Hotel
under Charles Connerty's short-lived ownership. The hotel resumed its original
name when Conerty
sold it, perhaps to pay for legal assistance, having been charged in 1909 with
selling liquor on a Sunday. With the opening of the new Union Station facility
in 1916, the hotel's profitable business selling convenient accommodations to
railroad passengers was eliminated and it went into a lengthy decline. The
building nonetheless avoided the wrecking ball until 1968, but had been vacant for many
years. With passenger traffic gone, Union Depot remained in use as a freight
station through 1933 and then was razed in January, 1935. Google Street View
provides a ground level view in the same direction from approximately the same
location, but it's truly
hard to imagine. (DeGolyer Library collection, Southern Methodist
The first phase of the Belt Line construction in 1919-20 was to build the bypass south of downtown. There were existing Katy tracks that ran southeast from Union Station to Forest Ave. (about 0.6 miles southeast of Tower 19) where they turned south to cross the Trinity River toward Waxahachie. Under SP ownership, the Belt Line construction laid 1.9 miles of new track southeast from the Katy main line at Forest Ave., staying on the north/east side of the river. These tracks connected with the H&TC main line about four miles southeast of downtown. Where the Belt Line crossed the H&TC, two new control points were established: Metzger and Belt Junction.
Above: Although the T&P main line bypass south of downtown was in place by 1921, it would still take many years to remove the tracks from Pacific Ave. as evidenced by these photos (courtesy John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library) taken by railroad executive John W. Barriger III in the mid 1930s. The views are down Pacific Ave facing west (left, from N. Houston St.) and east (right, from N. Record St.). The west view shows the T&P bridge over the Trinity River in the distance; Tower 106 sits to the left of the signal bridge. The east view shows the B. F. Avery building on the right and a building at 301 N. Market St. in the foreground on the left, both of which still stand. Below: The equivalent Google Maps views from May, 2022 show how much has changed. Ironically, rails were put back onto Pacific Ave. for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail system in the 1990s. Tower 106 now has a red roof, and the B. F. Avery building has been painted white and acquired new lower story windows -- the arched upper story windows remain intact.
From Belt Jct., the new construction continued
approximately three miles northeast to intersect the T&P main line at what
became known as T&P Junction. About 0.75 miles south of T&P Jct., the
Belt Line crossed SP's main line from Dallas to Beaumont at grade, a location
called Briggs. The track from Briggs into downtown would be abandoned
because it terminated into the T&P main line already planned for removal. In
1926, Belt Line construction resumed north from T&P Jct. and reconnected to SP's
main line about eight miles north of downtown, a location SP called
Gifford. Between T&P Jct. and Gifford, the Belt Line's crossings of
the Santa Fe and the Katy were grade separated.
Left: area map depicting main tracks and planned abandonments Above: This image ((c) historicaerials.com) shows the Belt Line (orange) toward the Katy at Forest Ave. SP passenger trains used a connector (purple) on/off the SP main line (yellow) while freight trains took a connector (pink) on/off the Belt Line (red) to T&P Jct. and Gifford. Trains between downtown and Briggs or T&P Jct. continued (green) across the old SP main (blue) which appears still intact in this image; it was gone by 1956. Tower 118 (yellow dot) opened in 1926. The visible north / south roadway is S. Lamar Blvd.
Noted Texas rail historian David Bernstein explains how operations began on the new Dallas Belt Line...
The first SP timetable to
include this line was Dallas Division No. 181, effective October 1, 1920. There
was no signal system nor interlockings in service on the Belt Line. The switches at Forest Avenue
were handled by a switch tender; the switches at Metzger, Belt Junction and
Briggs were handled by trainmen. The railroad crossings at grade with the
Denison Subdivision (H&TC main line) at Belt Junction and the Beaumont-Galveston
Division at Briggs were not interlocked. Effective with timetable No. 181,
Beaumont-Galveston Division passenger trains 147-148-155-156 began accessing
Union Station via the Belt Line. The only regular trains crossing the diamond at
Briggs were Beaumont-Galveston Division freight trains 165-166-167-168 which
began using the Belt Line in 1926.
Effective with issuance of Dallas Division Timetable No. 183 on July 31, 1921, the T&P began using the Belt Line to T&P Junction. An interlocking office was established at Metzger, 0.34 miles west of Belt Junction at the east end of double track from Forest Avenue. The operator controlled four power switches. At this time the switches at Forest Avenue, Briggs and T&P Junction were hand operated and the crossings at Belt Junction and Briggs were not interlocked. Train order offices were established at Metzger, Briggs and T&P Junction. Regular trains between Belt Junction and T&P Junction consisted of four T&NO Beaumont-Galveston Division passenger trains (via Briggs) and eight T&P passenger trains (via T&P Junction). Freight trains and switch engines operated as extra trains.
The 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Dallas shows two
parallel tracks between Metzger and Forest Ave. The north track is labeled "SP"
and the south track is labeled "CRI&G" (Chicago, Rock Island & Gulf), neither of
which appears on the next earlier map (1905). The SP tracks reflect the Belt
Line construction, and they end at Forest Ave. where they connect to the Katy.
The Rock Island tracks extend all the way to Union Station. Whether Rock
Island's tracks were laid as a component of the initial Belt Line construction
is undetermined, but the result was a double track between Union Station and
Metzger. It also gave Rock Island access to a growing industrial area south of
downtown which they had probably been prohibited from serving under their existing trackage
rights on the Katy between Dallas and Waxahachie.
The diamond at Briggs was soon eliminated, replaced by connector tracks in the southeast and southwest quadrants, with signals controlled by the Tower 119 operator. David Bernstein explains...
SP Dallas Division Timetable No. 196 issued
April 4, 1926, was the first with the entire Dallas Belt completed from Forest
Avenue to Gifford. Fox siding was now in service. At this time, regular trains
were four SP Beaumont Division passenger trains between Forest Avenue and
Briggs, eight T&P passenger trains between Forest Avenue and T&P
Junction, and two SP Dallas Division freight trains between Belt Junction and
Gifford. During 1926, automatic block signals were installed between Belt Jct.
and T&P Jct. and the two interlocking towers were constructed at a cost of
approximately $100,000. Tower 118 (Belt
Junction) was in service September 24, 1926, a 40-lever electric machine
controlling Metzger, Belt Junction, the crossing of the original H&TC mainline with
the Belt Line, and both ends of Fox siding. Tower 118 was established as a train
order office replacing Metzger. Technically, Belt Junction was south of Tower
118 at the bottom of the inverted triangle where the west leg (to Metzger/Forest
Avenue) and the east leg (to Briggs/T&P Junction) joined the original H&TC
Metzger no longer appeared in timetables beginning with No. 198 in November,
Tower 119 (T&P Junction) was in service May 18, 1926 with a 48-lever electric machine controlling signals and switches at T&P Jct. and Briggs. The crossing at Briggs was retired and the southeast connection to the Beaumont Division was interlocked. The southwest connection to the former Beaumont Division main track to Dallas was a hand operated switch with an absolute signal controlled by Tower 119. Tower 119 and Briggs continued as train order offices. In later years T&P Junction was renamed MP (Missouri Pacific) Jct. and later UP (Union Pacific) Jct.
By November 1927, the Belt Line was handling an average of 68 through train movements and 35 switch engine movements daily. All T&P movements had been shifted off the original main line which was partly retained as an industry lead. SP had moved all traffic from the original H&TC mainline between Dallas and Gifford to the Belt Line except switch engines. Passenger trains 19 and 20, the Central Express operating between Houston and Denison, were operated over the Katy between Dallas Union Station and Tower 35 (H&TC MP 268.5), then on the original main line 4.5 miles to Gifford.
table of interlocking towers dated December 31,
1926 identifies Tower 118 as
Junction" and Tower 119 as "East Dallas". It also lists the
railroads involved at Tower 118 as "H&TC -- Belt Line" whereas for Tower 119, it
lists "T&P -- H&TC -- Belt Line" (but there was no Belt Line railroad; the
notation was simply a geographic descriptor.) No other railroad being listed for
Tower 118 implies that the T&P did not participate in sharing the recurring
operating and maintenance costs. This is likely due to the fact that all of the
tracks at Belt Jct. were owned by SP -- the T&P was simply exercising trackage
rights granted as part of the Dallas Belt Line plan that the railroads
collectively negotiated. The T&P being listed first for Tower 119 indicates that
that T&P had the staffing responsibility, at least for operations and most
likely for maintenance. This would not, however, preclude joint staffing as the
railroads were free to negotiate their own arrangements (e.g. maintenance at
Briggs was likely SP's responsibility -- they were the only railroad there --
even though the signals and switches were controlled from Tower 119.) Beginning
with the table published December 31, 1927, Tower 119's location was changed to "Dallas", and this persisted
(along with Tower 118's
"Dallas, Metzger Jct." listing) through the final published table dated December
The H&TC main line north of Belt Jct. was relegated to spur status, leading to a substantial reduction in traffic at Tower 10. It was closed as a manned facility in 1933 (but its interlocking plant remained in use, controlled by Tower 19.) As more of the planned track removals were implemented, traffic reductions at Tower 22 and Tower 35 resulted in downgrades, closures and conversions to automatic operation in later years. As freeway development began to seek available rights-of-way, most of the remainder of the H&TC and T&P tracks into and through downtown were finally removed in the 1950s.
It took decades to accomplish the abandonments envisioned by the Dallas Belt Line plan, and there have been many other modifications to the Dallas rail landscape since then. A major change occurred in the mid 1960s when the Cotton Belt right-of-way (ROW) was converted to host freeway traffic, becoming the Dallas North Tollway. Then, in the 1980s and 90s, two complementary trends occurred that greatly affected the topology of Dallas' rail network. Union Pacific (UP) acquired Missouri Pacific (MP), the Katy and SP while Burlington Northern merged with Santa Fe creating BNSF. These mergers and acquisitions occurred during the time that the DART light rail system was being planned. DART needed rights-of-way while UP and BNSF had excess rights-of-way due to various route alternatives created by their acquisitions. DART was able to acquire various excess railroad ROWs from UP and BNSF and use them for its new light rail system. For example, UP made operational changes that deprecated the former SP main line north from Dallas to Sherman and Denison. DART built light rail on this ROW from approximately Tower 35 north through Gifford to Plano.
Kansas City Southern (KCS) also entered the Dallas market from Greenville by purchasing Santa Fe and SP (ex-Cotton Belt) trackage. The Belt Line / Santa Fe crossing north of T&P Jct. was reworked into a single direct connection between the Belt Line to the south and the Santa Fe tracks to the northeast (by then owned by KCS.) The result was a route for KCS to reach downtown Dallas from Garland via this new Belt Line connection. The Santa Fe ROW southwest of the crossing was abandoned and became a recreational trail. The Belt Line north to Gifford was sold to DART, but it is now a recreational trail as DART never used it.
Above Left: This photo of Tower 119 at T&P Jct. is the view that a westbound T&P locomotive would have had when approaching the Belt Line tracks (behind the tower) to proceed south to Belt Jct. The tower was within the acute angle near the switch. This track is now the main line; the original T&P main track that passed north of the tower was removed, no longer crossing the Belt Line. Above Center: This photo was taken standing on the Belt Line looking north toward T&P Jct. The track departing to the right passes beside Tower 119 (see left image) and connects to the original T&P main line. When this photo was taken, the Belt Line straight ahead beyond the tower continued to Gifford and was seeing regular SP freight trains. Now this track continues north to Garland operated by the switching railroad Dallas, Garland & Northeastern (DG&NO). Above Right: This view of the northwest corner of the tower was taken from the connector off the Belt Line that led to the T&P tracks west of the junction. This connector now becomes the west track from the junction since there is no longer a crossing over the Belt Line. This trackage was initially preserved to serve industry spurs and to provide access to the former Age of Steam Railroad Museum at Fair Park. The museum is no longer at Fair Park, and the tracks now end about a half mile west of where they reach the original ROW. Tower 119 closed in 1989 followed by Tower 118 in 1994. (Myron Malone photos, December 28, 1981)
Below Left and Center: These two views of Tower 118 were taken by Myron Malone on December 28, 1981. The east side of Tower 118 had a footbridge that allowed operators to cross a creek to reach the tracks and hand paper orders up to passing train crews. Below Right: A westbound Southern Pacific (SP) SW1500 switcher takes the south connector at Tower 118 toward SP's Miller Yard. The track in the foreground is the bypass built by SP in 1920 as part of the Belt Line construction. Tower 118 did not last long after it was closed. The abandoned building was damaged by fire, presumably set by vandals, and it was razed by Union Pacific c.1997. (Myron Malone photo, May 15, 1982)
Summary of Key Dates (courtesy
1926 - Train order office Briggs closed late in year (prior to November).
1930 - Crossing frog removed at Belt Junction (Dallas Belt Line crossing old H&TC main track).
1943 - Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) was installed between Miller Yard (south of Belt Jct.) and T&P Junction. Tower 118 controlled from Miller to Briggs, but not including Briggs. Tower 119 controlled T&P Junction to Briggs, including Briggs. Tower 119 interlocking was extended to control west end of T&P Orphans Home siding in 1943.
1989 - Tower 119 (MP Jct.) closed. UP and Tower 118 jointly controlled MP Jct.; Tower 118 assumed control of CTC between Briggs and MP Jct.
1990 - Tower 118 (Belt Jct.) assumed control of Tower 15 (Hearne) and Tower 72 (Corsicana).
1992 - UP assumed maintenance and operation between Forest Avenue and T&P Jct. (SP retained ownership).
1994 - May 26th Tower 118 (Belt Jct.) operator positions were abolished. SP Train Dispatchers in Houston assumed control of the Hearne and Corsicana interlockings. UP Train Dispatcher in Omaha assumed control of CTC between Forest Avenue and UP Jct. (formerly T&P Jct.) and between Miller and Belt Junction. Fox siding was retired.
1996 - September 11th, UP and SP merger takes effect; UP subsequently consolidates all subsidiary rail operations under the UP name; December 31st, the BNSF merger takes effect
Above Left: This bird's eye view of the site of Tower 118 c.2008 (Microsoft Virtual Earth) faces generally west. The concrete pad for the tower is still intact, located beside the "bypass" track that leads to Forest Ave. and Union Station beyond the freeway. The bottom track is the main line south toward Miller Yard (to the left.) The footbridge is gone, but the small ravine it spanned is visible adjacent to the track. Above Right: In this north-facing bird's eye view of T&P Junction c.2008 (Microsoft Virtual Earth), the right lead becomes the UP main line to the east on the original T&P ROW. The center track is the Dallas Belt Line heading north, originally to Gifford but now to KCS' operations in Garland via the revised interchange at the former Santa Fe crossing. The left hand track goes to the original T&P main line ROW to turn west to reach industry tracks. Below Left: In the Google Street View image looking southeast from the Forest Ave. grade crossing, the double track at left goes to Belt Jct., essentially the SP and Rock Island tracks from c.1920. Dating from the 1880s, the former Katy line branches off to the right, curves to the south, crosses the Trinity River and proceeds to Waxahachie. Originally it continued southwest to Hillsboro, but those tracks have been abandoned. The tracks to Waxahachie are now used primarily by BNSF to reach the connection to its main line to Teague and Houston. BNSF is the current successor to the Trinity & Brazos Valley (T&BV), which negotiated the Dallas - Waxahachie rights with the Katy c.1906 so they would not need to build their new line from Teague all the way into Dallas. Below Right: Where the north/south Belt Line formerly went over the east/west Santa Fe tracks north of T&P Jct., this Google Earth satellite view shows how the crossing has been reconfigured. The two rail lines now connect to form a route for KCS (operated by DG&NO) from Garland to downtown via T&P Jct. and Belt Jct. The other two legs now form a right angle turn on the Santa Fe Trail. To the left, the trail goes toward downtown as far as the site of Tower 22. To the north, the trail runs beside White Rock Lake and becomes the SoPac Trail extending up the Belt Line ROW nearly to Gifford.