Texas Railroad History - Tower 130 - Grand Saline

A Crossing of the Texas Short Line Railroad and the Texas & Pacific Railway

Above Left: This caboose on static display in Grand Saline is of Union Pacific (UP) heritage, but it is painted to commemorate the role of the Texas Short Line (TSL) Railroad in the history of Grand Saline. (Google Street View 2013) Above Right: The original TSL depot in Grand Saline featured a two-story bay window. (Grace Museum collection, Abilene)

With a name like Grand Saline, salt must be part of the story. A salt water marsh in this area of Van Zandt County had long been used by the Caddo and Cherokee tribes to create salt by evaporation. By 1845, a commercial salt works had been built by John Jordon at a site he called Jordan's Saline. Salt was a major trading commodity because it was the only practical means of preserving meat. Jordan's land changed hands, and ended up owned by Samuel Richardson prior to the Civil War. Richardson donated acreage to the Texas & Pacific (T&P) Railway for a townsite and water stop as it built west from Marshall toward Dallas in 1872. The T&P's chief engineer, Grenville M. Dodge, laid out much of the town and named the station Grand Saline. Jordan's Saline lost its post office and was soon overtaken as Grand Saline expanded.

Salt production increased at Grand Saline, and it eventually included direct mining of the rock salt in the enormous salt dome that sits beneath the area. Transportation provided by the T&P helped to foster salt commerce which led to investments for improved salt production methods, further increasing shipments of finished salt. Producing salt required substantial amounts of energy, so the discovery of lignite deposits near the community of Alba was a potential boon for the salt industry. Alba was located on the Missouri, Kansas & Texas (MK&T, "Katy") Railway about nine miles northeast of Grand Saline. The Katy tracks had been built on a northwest / southeast alignment between Greenville and Mineola in 1881, and the line intersected the T&P at Mineola, thirteen miles east of Grand Saline. Rather than ship coal from Alba to Mineola and then back west to Grand Saline, J. B. Seeger and others saw the opportunity for a direct rail line between Alba and Grand Saline. Seeger owned coal mines at Alba and he envisioned a beneficial flow of commodities in both directions: coal moving south to Grand Saline to power salt production, finished salt moving north to Alba for direct shipment to Midwest markets on the Katy. To effect this opportunity, the Texas Short Line (TSL) Railway was chartered on February 28, 1901 by Seeger and other investors to build between Alba and Grand Saline.

Left: Railway Age, March 21, 1902. The first 4.5 miles of track north from Grand Saline was completed in 1902, and the remaining 4.9 miles was completed in 1903. The TSL did not build into Alba; instead, the Katy connection was made a half mile southeast of Alba at Hoyt. Nor did the TSL connect with the T&P in Grand Saline; there was simply no need, thus its tracks remained north of the T&P.

Right: Railway & Engineering Review, December 26, 1908. Besides salt, coal and occasional carloads of cotton, the TSL carried passengers via the Katy connection at Hoyt, but little else. Business was acceptable for a few years, but in 1908, the TSL went into receivership. The bankruptcy court announced that the TSL would be put up for sale by auction on January 5, 1909 at Canton, the county seat of Van Zandt County.

Prior to the auction, a Grand Saline general store merchant, T. B. Meeks, gathered additional investors and was able to settle all of the liens against the TSL. It was released from receivership without being sold. What was behind this sudden largesse that was able to keep the TSL solvent?

Left: Sulphur Springs Gazette, January 22, 1909, quoting the Quitman Democrat

Before the end of January, the receivership was formally dismissed at Canton and one of the participants at the county courthouse was "J. W. Smart, cashier of the First State Bank of Quitman".  It seems likely that a major portion of the new money that Meeks had rounded up to save the TSL came from the town of Quitman, county seat of Wood County. Alba and Mineola were both in Wood County and both had rail service, but Quitman did not. Quitman was only ten miles due east of Hoyt, so the idea of extending the TSL to Quitman was plausible, and a survey was apparently well underway.

Sulphur Springs Gazette, February 19, 1909

The TSL made no secret of their intent to build beyond Alba, but they were less forthcoming with a precise plan. In response to an inquiry from the Board of Trade at Cooper, Texas, Meeks penned a letter stating "We have not fully decided as to where we will build. Whether on to Quitman, in the direction of Cooper and Paris, or whether we go direct to Sulphur Springs. It greatly depends on the rights of ways and donations that we receive from points along the line..."

Ultimately, the TSL was never extended beyond Alba.

Instead of building beyond Alba, the TSL's attention turned in the other direction. In 1890, direct mining of the rock salt in the dome beneath Grand Saline had begun, yielding some of the purest salt to be found anywhere. By 1910, rock salt mining had become a major operation, the primary source of salt production in Grand Saline. The mine also supported evaporative production methods wherein water was pumped underground to dissolve the salt and then pumped back to the surface to be boiled to produce a salt slurry that was then dried to create finished salt. Unfortunately for the TSL, the mine was located south of the T&P tracks, hence the TSL did not serve the mine directly. To rectify this situation, the TSL applied to the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) for permission to build across the T&P tracks in Grand Saline with a spur track leading into the mine. At least one of the coal mines near Alba had come under ownership of the salt company, so the ability to ship coal directly to the mine had gained in importance.

Austin Statesman, April 5, 1910

Austin Statesman, May 7, 1910

Austin Statesman, May 14, 1910
Above: The TSL appeared before RCT to argue its case for a grade crossing of the T&P at Grand Saline. The T&P opposed the TSL's application, although the basis of their opposition is undetermined. The fact that the T&P did not already have a spur to the mine may have weighed against their case, depending on whether the mine had sought such service. RCT granted the TSL application and a spur track across the T&P was built.

Left: This 1915 track chart (courtesy Ed Chambers) from the Katy's Office of the Chief Engineer shows the TSL spur track crossing the T&P main line. The chart does not show that the track continued south and back to the east to reach the mine which was (and still is) located about a mile south of the T&P main line.

The track chart also shows the T&P connecting to the mine spur, but that connection does not appear on the 1923 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Grand Saline (below). This was most likely a simple oversight on the part of the cartographer as the T&P would have had no incentive to remove an existing connection to the mine spur.

Note that the "Morton" annotation on the map reads in full "Morton Salt Cos Salt Field". Around 1920, Morton Salt Co. acquired the salt mine and all of the salt works in Grand Saline, and it continues to operate the mine today. Lignite was phased out by Morton in 1941 and replaced by natural gas as the principal energy source for the salt works.

  from Sheet 6, Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Grand Saline, April, 1923

RCT construction and abandonment records published by Charles Zlatkovich in 1980 contain two 1922 entries for abandonments by the TSL. One is for 1.4 miles between Grand Saline and "Salt Works". The other is for 1.41 miles between Alba and "Coal Mine". The precise circumstances that produced these records are undetermined. It is not surprising that tracks near the coal mines would be abandoned; lignite mines depended on relatively inexpensive surface mining, so mines would close when the easily accessed surface vein had played out. The abandonment to "Salt Works" is much harder to understand, especially since the only known spur continues to exist.

RCT had approved the TSL crossing of the T&P at grade in 1910, but the crossing was uncontrolled, hence all trains had to stop before passing over the diamond. The crossing was most likely gated per RCT regulations, and the gate would normally have been positioned against the TSL. While the presence of a gate did not eliminate the legal requirement to stop for trains approaching an open gate, there is evidence that this rule was not enforced for gated crossings located near a depot, as the Grand Saline crossing was. Trains were generally stopping at the depot anyway, hence they were already operating at a restricted speed near the gated crossing.

The T&P had by far the most to gain from the installation of an interlocker to control the crossing, and on February 20, 1926, RCT commissioned an eleven-function mechanical interlocker housed in a trackside cabin at the Grand Saline crossing. The interlocker was formally designated Tower 130 by RCT. The impetus behind the establishment of this interlocker was most likely a decision by the T&P to improve train speeds through Grand Saline. By the mid 1920s, T&P trains could travel longer distances without a water stop, so a regular stop at Grand Saline had become unnecessary for many trains. Similarly, express passenger trains would not normally stop at a small town like Grand Saline.

Left: Railway Signaling, October, 1925 

Cabin interlockers did not become common in Texas until the mid 1920s. They were used in situations where a heavily used line crossed a lightly used line, the Grand Saline crossing being a classic example. Such crossings could not justify the operating expense of a manned tower since the signals were almost always lined to allow continuous movements on the busier line. There would literally have been nothing for the operators to do except on the relatively rare occasions that a train on the lightly used line needed to cross. For the Tower 130 cabin interlocker, the signals would always have been lined to allow continuous movements on the T&P. They would be reversed only during the period that a TSL train was actually crossing the diamond, and thus, it was a crewmember of the TSL train that operated the controls in the cabin. Once the crossing was complete, the signals would be returned to the normal position for continuous movements on the T&P.

From a maintenance perspective, cabin interlockers were unique in that the railroad that actually operated the controls was from the lightly used line, whereas the railroad that maintained the interlocker was typically the one with the busier line. The busier railroad had the stronger incentive to ensure that the signals, controls and diamond were maintained in excellent condition. Their higher train volume would cause them to experience a more significant negative impact if the crossing became uncontrolled for any period of time due to maintenance issues.

Left: Mount Pleasant Daily Times, January 24, 1929

In early 1929, the T&P purchased the TSL but continued to operate it as a separate subsidiary. It seems highly likely that the purchase was a defensive move related to efforts that occurred throughout the 1920s to consolidate railroads into more efficient "systems." In the Transportation Act of 1920, Congress directed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to promote and plan consolidation of U.S. railroads into a limited number of "systems". The ICC responded by hiring economist William Z. Ripley to develop a plan. The so-called "Ripley Plan" announced several such systems, but there was push-back by the railroads which did not necessarily agree with the allocations made by Ripley. By 1926, Leonor F. Loree, a long time rail executive and head of the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, had gained control of the Katy, the St. Louis Southwestern ("Cotton Belt") and the Kansas City Southern (KCS), all of which operated throughout the southwest, each having a significant presence in east Texas. Loree proposed a Southwest System that would consolidate the Katy, KCS and Cotton Belt into one major railroad system operating in the southwest.

Right: Grand Saline Sun, January 31, 1929

Meeks appeared before the ICC to testify against the Loree plan, asking that the TSL either be included within it or granted better division rates for traffic exchanged at Alba. The American Short Line Association was lobbying the ICC to require major system consolidations to account for the interests of the short line railroads. The T&P's purchase was simply to ensure that no other major railroad system gained a foothold at Grand Saline by acquiring the TSL.

Later in 1929, oil was discovered near Van, a community located eleven miles southeast of Grand Saline. The T&P tracks at Grand Saline were reasonably close to Van, but the International & Great Northern line between Mineola and Lindale was a similar distance northeast of Van. To get there first, the T&P funded the TSL to build 11.5 miles of tracks south from Grand Saline to Van.  

Right: The Van News (published at Wills Point), July 4, 1930

By the spring of 1930, the Van oil field was producing twenty thousand barrels of oil per day. Shipping the oil by rail became an option when the TSL line was completed in early July. But before the end of the year, two pipelines had reached Van and oil shipments by rail declined. While the T&P undoubtedly benefited from the movement of people, supplies and equipment to and from Van, the prompt introduction of pipelines prevented the huge bonanza for the T&P that otherwise might have occurred.

The Van oil field peaked in 1932 with more than seventeen million barrels of oil produced. Production declined into the 1940s, then ramped back up to over ten million barrels per year during World War II. The final decline began in the early 1950s, and production in the Van field ended in 1959. The TSL tracks to Van were abandoned in 1962. Successful secondary production methods revitalized the field in the 1970s, and the Van field continues to produce oil and natural gas at modest levels today. The abandonment of the tracks to Van ended the life of the TSL. The tracks from Grand Saline to Alba had been abandoned in 1959, so there was literally nothing left.

Far Left: TSL depot, 1902 (Chino Chapa coll.)

 Near Left:
Grand Saline Sun, February 27, 1936

 Below: Sanborn Fire Insurance map, Aug. 1909

By 1930, Missouri Pacific (MP) owned 75% of the T&P's stock but did not exercise management control. The two companies worked cooperatively for many years as MP gradually increased its ownership of the T&P, reaching more than 96% by the end of 1974. In 1976, the T&P was fully merged into MP. In 1982, MP was acquired by UP, but it continued to operate under the MP name until it was fully merged in 1997.

Above Left: This map shows the railroads near Grand Saline. Among all of these tracks, only the T&P tracks have fully survived.  Above Center: The TSL depot was located on the west side of the tracks immediately south of the Garland St. grade crossing. The TSL tracks merged into the existing mine spur just off the bottom of the map, which is also where the line to Van continued to the south. Above Right: The mine spur terminates at the Morton Salt mine located about a mile south of the UP main line on the east side of Grand Saline. The white landscape is the vast salt beds that have reached the surface.

Above: These two 2022 Google Street Views from Garland St. look north (left) and south (right) where the TSL tracks from Alba entered Grand Saline. The water tower sits in the swale of the TSL line to Alba which narrowed from multiple yard tracks into a single track going north. South of Garland St., the TSL depot sat where the car wash is currently located to the right. The mine spur lead passed along the west side of the depot while yard tracks were located on the east side. Behind the sign to the left and stretching all the way back to the buildings in the far distance was a rectangular salt warehouse that sat at an angle served by both the TSL and the T&P. This had originally been an evaporation plant of the B. W. Carrington salt works.

Above Left: T&P depot at Grand Saline in 1912 (Grand Saline library collection) This was presumably the station built to replace the initial 1872 depot. Above Right: This is the "final" T&P depot at Grand Saline. In the 1980s, the depot was repurposed to house the Grand Saline Public Library. (Richie Morgan photo, 2016)


Last Revised: 12/4/2022 - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.