Texas Railroad History - Tower 127 - Tenaha

Crossing of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway and the Houston East & West Texas Railroad


                     Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo and Blair

On that H and a TC line, Old east Texas a-sure looks fine 
Drop me off just a-anywhere, Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair

Hear those drivers a-pound the rails, Takin’ me back to Texas trails,
Bought my ticket, I paid my fare, Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair

Woo oo oo, waitin' for the whistle, Woo oo oo, longin' for the whistle
It means the station's not so far from where we are

Let’er highball, engineer, Pull that throttle, track is clear,
There’s a gal a-waitin’ there, Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair.

by Woodward Maurice "Tex" Ritter
recorded December 30, 1947, Capitol Records, Hollywood, California

Left: The cabin for the Tower 127 interlocker at Tenaha used a common, concrete construction design, intended to be occupied briefly and infrequently. Similar brick and concrete huts built by Santa Fe to house cabin interlockers were located at Wharton and Tuscola (photo by Bill King, 1999.)

It was a marching and gambling chant coined by east Texas soldiers that Tex Ritter adapted into a song title in the late 1940s, and it probably didn't take him long to fill out the lyrics. Ritter understood the phrase; he was from Panola County, north of Shelby County where Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo and Blair were located. He took liberties with the first verse, opting to sing "H and a TC", as in "H&TC", Houston & Texas Central Railroad, which fit the beat of his simple melody much better than "H E and a W T" as in "HE&WT", Houston East & West Texas Railroad, the railroad that actually passed through the four "communities" (Tenaha and Timpson were and still are legitimate "towns"; Bobo and Blair, not so much.) Ritter's railroad choice wasn't too far off -- the H&TC and HE&WT were both owned by Southern Pacific (SP), and both had been merged into SP's operating company for Texas and Louisiana lines, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad, in 1934; by then, Ritter was nearly thirty years old. The theory that the chant originated with railroad conductors strolling through passenger cars and calling out the names is suspect as the correct order would have been "Tenaha, Bobo, Timpson and Blair" for a southbound train from Shreveport heading for Houston.

Ritter's deep east Texas accent gives "Ten-ee-haw" a sound perhaps similar to its original pronunciation which derives from "Tenehaw", the name under which the future Shelby County was first organized by the Mexican government in 1824. The Republic of Texas renamed it Shelby County in 1836 for Isaac Shelby, a war hero and governor of Kentucky. The town of Tenaha was founded by the HE&WT as a water stop and a shipping point for east Texas agriculture. The tracks through Tenaha were part of the final HE&WT segment of narrow gauge construction from Houston to Shreveport in 1885. Nearly a decade later, the entire 191-mile railroad was converted to standard gauge on a single day, July 29, 1894, making it a more attractive target for SP, which acquired the HE&WT in 1899.

In 1894, lumber baron John H. Kirby founded the Gulf, Beaumont & Kansas City (GB&KC) Railway to provide port access for his east Texas lumber mills and to reach additional forest areas where he held timber leases. By 1899, 63 miles of track had been laid between Beaumont and Roganville. Kirby sold out to the vast Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway which leased it to the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway, its main operating subsidiary in Texas. In 1898, Kirby had also invested in the Gulf, Beaumont & Great Northern (GB&GN) Railroad which laid tracks north out of Roganville. It reached Center in 1904 and was then leased to the GC&SF. Other investors chartered the Texas & Gulf (T&G) Railway to purchase three smaller east Texas railroads south of Longview and construct additional tracks, planning to complete a 150-mile line from Longview to the Gulf of Mexico. Ambitious but underfunded, the T&G investors sold out to Santa Fe in 1906; the T&G was promptly leased to the GC&SF. Under the T&G charter, the GC&SF built the final 21 miles between Center and Gary, crossing the HE&WT at Tenaha to complete a Santa Fe line between Longview and Beaumont.

Top Left: Quoting the
Center News, the Timpson Times of May 7, 1909 announced that the first Santa Fe excursion train from Center to Tenaha ran on Sunday, May 2, 1909.

Bottom Left: Santa Fe's crew built across the HE&WT at Tenaha as track-laying began toward Gary. The Post Office had changed the name from Zuber to Gary in 1899, but old names die hard.
(Panola Watchman, May 12, 1909, quoting the Tenaha Messenger)

Right: With the new tracks into Gary finished, the
Galveston Tribune of July 5, 1909 announced service between Longview and Galveston via Beaumont. South of Beaumont, the Gulf & Inter-State Railway, a Santa Fe property, would carry the train to Port Bolivar from which a rail ferry to Galveston operated. Despite the T&G claim, the "inaugural excursion" was a Santa Fe train.

The crossing at Tenaha that was created in May, 1909 remained uncontrolled until May 22, 1928. On that date, Tower 127 was authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) as a cabin interlocker with an 8-function mechanical plant. Cabin interlockers were typically used where a lightly used branch line of one railroad crossed the main line of another railroad, providing an efficient option for such crossings. The alternatives were to incur the capital, labor and maintenance expenses of building and staffing a manned tower at a crossing where operators would change the signals only infrequently, or ... suffer the delays (and increased fuel consumption) of forcing all main line trains to come to a complete stop before crossing the diamond, as required by state law for uncontrolled crossings. Instead, the signals controlled by a cabin interlocker would be lined to allow unrestricted movements on the busier track, to be reversed only when a crewmember from a train on the lightly used track entered the cabin to change the signals so his train could cross. When the crossing was complete, the signals would be returned to their normal position by the crewmember, who would then re-board his train to continue its journey, leaving the interlocker controls as he had found them upon arrival.

For Tower 127, the signals were set to allow unrestricted operations on SP's line, and Santa Fe crews would use the controls in the cabin when they needed to cross. Santa Fe built and maintained the cabin, and had responsibility for maintenance of the interlocking plant, signals and derails. The eight interlocker functions were most likely a home signal in each of the four directions, and a distant signal and derail in both directions on the SP tracks. The Santa Fe tracks did not need distant signals and derails -- fixed signs were sufficient to warn trains they were approaching a crossing where they were always required to stop. The home signal was needed for Santa Fe trains because even though its crewmember reversed the controls, the interlocking plant would not immediately grant the signal to proceed if the SP tracks were occupied within the span of its distant signals.


Left: This late 1970's photo of the Santa Fe depot at Tenaha was taken by John Treadgold. The station was located east and slightly south of the diamond, across the SP tracks from the Tower 127 cabin visible in the photo. The depot appears to have been removed in the 1984-85 timeframe based on historic aerial imagery.

The Tenaha crossing remains active today, with the former SP tracks owned by Union Pacific (UP) and the former Santa Fe tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).


Left: The crossing at Tenaha is an 'X-'pattern, with UP rails running northeast / southwest and the BNSF line running northwest / southeast. The only connecting track is in the north quadrant. (Google Earth, March, 2022)

Right: This 1956 aerial image shows there was formerly a connecting track in the eastern quadrant behind the Santa Fe depot. ((c)historicaerials.com)


Right: Tower 127 was the last interlocking in Texas to be guarded by semaphores. The photo at far right faces northwest along the BNSF tracks toward Longview. The near photo faces southwest down UP's line toward Timpson and Nacogdoches. The original cabin sat north of the diamond. In the satellite image above, its replacement is visible in the west quadrant casting a shadow to the northwest. (Mark St. Aubin photos, c.1994)

Below: an SP train crosses the Tenaha diamond (Tom Kline, March 3, 1994)


Above Left: The cabinet that replaced Tower 127's brick hut sits in the west quadrant of the crossing as photographed by Mark St. Aubin on November 9, 2006. Above Right: The brick hut had been removed by the time Mark photographed the crossing again on April 10, 2007.

: In an email dated November 10, 2006, Mark St. Aubin comments on this photo...

"On my way to Texarkana yesterday I stopped by the BNSF/TIBR - UP crossing in Tenaha. The UP has 3-color block signals in place turned away from the main line out of service. The BNSF's 2-color signals have been replaced by newer 2-color signals which are in service. The brick cabin style Tower 127 is being replaced by a metal cabin that the UP has put onto the northwest corner of the diamond. The ATSF Tenaha station sign has been replaced by a newer BNSF station sign."

Mark's view is northwest along the BNSF tracks toward Longview. His reference to "BNSF/TIBR" reflects the fact that at the time, the BNSF line had been leased to the Timber Rock ("TIBR") Railroad. TIBR's lease on this BNSF route is no longer in place.


Above Left: Tower 127 was converted to an automatic interlocker in 1982, but the interlocker retained externally-mounted controls to facilitate the occasional situation where overrides were necessary by train crews. A close-up of the control box in 1994 shows two buttons. The left button reads "PUSH TO CLEAR SANTA FE NORTHWARD SIGNALS"; the right button reads "PUSH TO PUT SANTA FE SIGNALS TO STOP". The operating instructions were posted on the interior face of the control box door (Tom Kline photo.) Above Right: The new cabinet that replaced the brick hut has override controls for the automatic interlocker mounted on the side (Mark St. Aubin, April, 2007.)

As there are two grade crossings at right angles adjacent to the Tenaha diamond, Google Street View captured views in all four directions in September, 2013. Clockwise from upper left: northwest on BNSF, northeast on UP, southeast on BNSF, southwest on UP.

Above: Cafe mural on N. Center St., Tenaha (Google Street View, April, 2021)

Last Revised: 3/4/2023 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.