www.txrrhistory.com - Tower 132 - McNeil
A Crossing of the International & Great Northern Railroad and the Houston & Texas Central Railroad
The International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad was created in 1873 as a merger of the International Railroad and the Houston & Great Northern Railroad. In 1876, the I-GN built 61 miles of track from Rockdale to Austin as part of a larger project to build to the Mexico border from northeast Texas. The I-GN became controlled by the Missouri Pacific (MP, a.k.a "MoPac") in the mid-1920s, and was ultimately merged into the MP in 1956. Union Pacific (UP) acquired MP in 1982.
In 1882, the Austin & Northwestern (A&NW) built 60 miles of narrow-gauge track from Austin to Burnet, crossing the I-GN northwest of Austin. The settlement near this junction became known as McNeil, named for George McNeil, an A&NW section foreman. In 1891, the A&NW was purchased by the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad and immediately converted to standard gauge. It remained a separate railroad until it was merged into the H&TC in 1901. Although the H&TC had been controlled by Southern Pacific (SP) since 1883, it remained a separate entity until it was merged into SP's Texas & New Orleans subsidiary in 1927. In 1986, SP sold the former A&NW route to the City of Austin which subsequently leased the line for operation to Rail Tex. A new Austin & Northwestern Railroad, unrelated to the original company of the same name, was established to operate the line. In recent years, the line has been operated by the Austin Area Terminal Railroad (AUAR reporting marks). The line is also used by the Austin Steam Train Association for passenger excursions.
McNeil was never a high volume junction and remained uncontrolled until July 13, 1928 when a cabin interlocker was authorized for operation by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT). The cabin structure survived well into the 1960s or 70's, and photos show that it was substantially larger than most cabin interlocker buildings. A cabin interlocker was used because the traffic was highly disproportionate, i.e. since the SP line was a "dead end" to the west, there were relatively few trains per day compared to the I-GN main line. Thus, the interlocker would be lined to allow the trains on the I-GN to proceed without stopping, with the SP line getting the signal only when an SP train crew reversed the signals manually in the cabin in order to cross. The SP crews were always required to reline the signals for the I-GN after passing over the diamond (R. J. McKay confirms this operation in a message dated 1/16/2005). In a message dated 1/17/2005, Bill Nash comments:
"The current interlocker is normally lined
for the UP (I-GN, MoPac) and requires crews desiring to cross on the [A&NW] line
to manipulate controls in a small box in the northwest quadrant. This can be a
very time consuming process and it's also possible to throw a red signal in the
face of a UP train if it is not operated properly."
Tower 132 Historic Photos from the mid-1960's
(photos courtesy of Roger Shull, Crew Chief, Austin & Texas Central Railroad - used with permission)
Southern Pacific engine number 6607, an Alco, is seen in the distance on approach to McNeil and the crossing
protected by Tower 132. This train is coming from the east to proceed westbound through the interlocker. The
"132" on the side of the tower cabin is partially obscured; only the '2' is visible.
The train has almost reached the tower.
The I-GN (MP) depot at McNeill stands watch as the Southern Pacific train passes. Tower 132 was
located diagonally across the diamond from the depot.
An MP locomotive crosses the diamond with an SP train visible in the background.
Facing northeast along the Missouri Pacific line.
Facing southwest, the Tower 132 hut is obscured by the electrical cabinets at left.
The Texas Eagle crosses the diamond at McNeil.
Personal observations by Jim King
I spent my teenage years attending junior high, high school and college in Austin. As a junior high football player, I was inevitably distracted by the occasional Southern Pacific train that would pass along side our practice field at Burnet Jr. High. Some of the school classrooms overlooked the rail line and I remember watching trains when I should have been watching the teacher. The MoPac line was also nearby and passed just beyond the left field fence of the local Balcones Little League Baseball field. Playing pickup baseball games there in the summer, the ultimate goal was to hit a homerun as a train was passing by (a feat I eventually accomplished, with the ball striking a box car broad side). When I was old enough to drive, my buddies and I used to drive out to McNeil at night. The nearby Austin White Lime Plant (founded in the 1880's!) had a particularly mysterious appearance at night. The tall structures and the way the lights illuminated the steam rising from the plant made the whole scene resemble something out of a science fiction movie. Don't believe me? See for yourself...
photo by "LittleOurkie", GoogleEarth
Construction of the Loop 1 expressway through Austin along the MoPac right-of-way was completed while I was in college. At night, the headlights of oncoming trains were practically blinding if you were driving in the left lane - I suppose they still are. For some reason, they never dimmed their headlights when I flashed my brights... The expressway eventually consumed the Little League field and various other neighborhood landmarks (e.g. "The Barn" restaurant).
Modern Photos, Interlocker 132
This is a view of a northbound UP freight taken from the interlocking plant, which is now located on the northwest
quadrant of the diamond. The Missouri Pacific McNeil depot was located on the right side of the tracks about where
the telephone pole with electric meter base is located above. Photo by John A. Pearce 1/7/2005
Austin Area Terminal Railroad locomotive AUAR 190 is switching the UP interchange track. Unit numbers 190
and 191 are a pair of GP-40s recently acquired by AUAR. The conductor on the rear of the locomotive is Eric
Hamilton. Photo by John A. Pearce 1/7/2005
View of present day electro-mechanical interlocking plant, Brakeman Jon Pederson has opened the cover door
and is preparing to unlock the derail switch handle. Target in front indicates derail position (open). Silver interlock
is linked to UP traffic dispatcher. When UP has a train in the block a small semaphore indicator on top of the
control stand is in th up position. After AUAR goes through the interlock is reset to pass UP traffic. The instruction
board has the "Southern Pacific" scratched out in several locations, and written over -- so, I would conclude it was
most likely the same arrangement in those days as well. Photo by John A. Pearce 1/7/2005
The grass covered cement rectangle is the old foundation for the Tower 132 shanty. Photo is near the eastbound
AUAR rail looking west. In the background is the company store for Austin White Lime. The UP mainline is in the
foreground, northbound is to the right. Photo by John A. Pearce 1/7/2005
A southbound UP light engine hop passing Austin White Lime led by an old SSW engine. It is headed into the
interchange track for AUAR, most likely to pick up a gravel train from the Abbott yard tracks.
Photo by John A. Pearce 1/7/2005
Here is what we call "the McNeil Switcher". Austin White Lime has a front loader with a railroad coupler attached
to the rear. They routinely push covered hoppers into place from their UP interchange track. Austin White Lime
is located on the north east quadrant of the diamond. Photo by John A. Pearce 1/7/2005
Above: In 2009, Capitol MetroRail completed its commuter rail line occupying the former Southern Pacific/A&NW right-of-way.
Cap Metro opted to construct a grade-separated crossing of the Union Pacific line at the Tower 132 interlocker site. The "at grade"
crossing remains in place for AUAR freight service. (photo by Rickey Green/CapMetro; thanks to J. P. Lamb and Tom Balzen)