Texas Railroad History - Tower 132 - McNeil

A Crossing of the International - Great Northern Railroad and the Houston & Texas Central Railway

Left: The two rail lines at McNeil crossed in an X-pattern, but with slightly acute angles north and south. The Tower 132 cabin sat in the eastern quadrant of the diamond, and viewed from this angle, a utility pole blocks most of the white "132" placard facing the camera. An identical placard is barely visible beneath the roof overhang on the west (~ southwest) wall facing the tracks.

The photo's timeframe is the mid 1960s and the view is south-southeast along Southern Pacific (SP) tracks that date back to the Austin & North Western Rail Road in 1881-82. In the distance, Alco locomotive SP #6607 approaches the tower, heading northwest with plans to proceed across the diamond and continue to its final destination, perhaps the end of track at Llano. The rails that SP #6607 will cross belong to Missouri Pacific, but the line was originally built by the International & Great Northern (I&GN) Railroad in the latter half of 1876.

The mechanical interlocker at Tower 132 began operating in 1928. It was a "cabin interlocker", typically a small, walk-in hut (often called a "shanty" by railroaders) that housed the interlocking plant and its manual controls. This cabin is presumably the original building, but this is unconfirmed.

Note the exchange track behind the cabin which doubles as a straight siding using the short connector opposite the bicyclist.

(photos from the collection of Roger Shull, Crew Chief, Austin & Texas Central Railroad; thanks, Roger!)

The International & Great Northern (I&GN) Railroad was created in 1873 by a merger of the International Railroad and the Houston & Great Northern Railroad. Although the companies merged, the railroad they were creating was delayed in getting approved by the Texas Legislature because of the International's dispute with the State over subsidy bonds that the Texas Comptroller refused to sign. A compromise was finally reached in 1875, and a year later, the I&GN built sixty-one miles of track from Rockdale to Austin, passing through this area (not yet known as McNeil) in late summer or early fall. The track segment was part of a larger plan to build from Longview to the Mexican border at Laredo (hence, the International part of the name.) From Longview, there was a favorable connection on the Texas & Pacific Railway to Texarkana, where another favorable connection led onward to St. Louis.

The I&GN was acquired by rail baron Jay Gould in 1880, but he lost control later that decade. He reacquired the I&GN in 1891, and his son George ran it for the next 25 years. During this time, it went into receivership in 1908 and again in 1914. The 1914 receivership lasted until 1922, and the reorganized railroad company took a new name, dropping the and to become simply the International - Great Northern (I-GN). The I-GN was a large railroad with 1,100 miles of track in Texas, but its recurring financial issues made it a candidate for takeover by a larger railroad system. The St. Louis - San Francisco ("Frisco") Railway, fresh out of its own receivership, tried to buy the I-GN in 1922, but the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) voted to reject the sale. Missouri Pacific (MP) tried to buy the I-GN in 1924 as a means of gaining access to the Texas market, but again, the ICC nixed the sale.

MP, however, had a fallback strategy that involved the New Orleans, Texas & Mexico (NOT&M) Railway. It had been incorporated in 1916 to be the "holding railroad" for three primary Gulf Coast railroads and several smaller ones that collectively operated as the Gulf Coast Lines (GCL). The GCL concept had been the brainchild of Frisco Chairman B. F. Yoakum, a native Texan with a long history in Texas railroading. Yoakum had formed a syndicate with financial backing by the St. Louis Trust Co to piece together a competitor to SP for Gulf Coast traffic, calling it the GCL. It was not a railroad corporation (more like a marketing brand), but that fact was inevitably lost on the general public; the GCL was just another railroad component of the Frisco. The individual GCL railroads were managed collectively by Frisco executives and were profitable. Their financial structure went through the St. Louis Trust Co., not the Frisco, hence the individual GCL railroads were not directly involved in the Frisco's 1914 receivership. The St. Louis Trust Co. effectively owned them, so they chartered a new NOT&M to establish a top layer of executive management and placed all of the GCL railroads under it. The NOT&M had been one of the GCL railroads, but in 1916, the new NOT&M became, in essence, "the GCL" as a corporation, owning the previous NOT&M and all of the other GCL railroads.

Rebuffed by the ICC, MP convinced the NOT&M to buy the I-GN, simply to keep it out of the hands of competitors. This time, the ICC approved the sale in June, 1924. MP followed up by proposing to buy the entire NOT&M, i.e. the I-GN and all of the GCL railroads. The ICC approved MP's plan in late 1924 and MP's purchase of the NOT&M was executed on January 1, 1925. The I-GN continued to operate under that name until 1956 when it was operationally consolidated (as were the GCL railroads) into MP. MP was acquired by Union Pacific (UP) in 1982, and became fully integrated into UP operations in 1997.

Left: This 1876 map of Texas railroads (from the Texas General Land Office) anticipated two lengthy rail lines running northwest into the Texas Panhandle. The lines were projected by the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railway, which had already completed a main line from Houston to Denison (1873) with branch lines to Austin (1871) and Waco (1872). The line northwest out of Austin (blue circle) was expected to reach Oldham County on the New Mexico border. The line out of Waco (red circle) would head for the Canadian River in Potter County, near where Amarillo would be founded a decade after the map was drawn.

H&TC's investors expected both branches eventually to connect to the Atlantic & Pacific (A&P) Railroad, a company chartered by Congress to build a transcontinental route from Springfield, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, generally along the 35th parallel. Eastern and western portions of the A&P were built, but they were never connected. Its western tracks became part of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway while its eastern tracks became part of the Frisco.

The branch line out of Waco (built by a related but separately chartered railroad, the Texas Central) eventually reached Albany and stopped, never building into the Panhandle. The H&TC did not proceed with construction northwest out of Austin, but an unrelated railroad did. In 1882, the Austin & North Western Rail Road Co. completed sixty miles of narrow gauge track to Burnet, but went no further. The plan was to build to a connection with the Texas & Pacific at Abilene, but in 1883, the railroad entered receivership. It was financially reorganized as the Austin & Northwestern (A&NW) in 1888. It derived good business from granite quarries in the vicinity of Burnet and it carried all of the granite used to build the state capitol in Austin. Tracks beyond the quarries to Marble Falls were laid in 1889. The H&TC, under SP control, bought the A&NW in 1891 and converted it to standard gauge. The tracks were extended to Llano in 1892, but never went farther west. The A&NW had crossed the I&GN at an unnamed rural location northwest of Austin. The settlement that arose nearby became known as McNeil, named for George McNeil, an A&NW section foreman. The A&NW continued operating under its own name until it was fully merged into the H&TC in 1901.

That year, 1901, was a significant one for Texas railroads. A new state law commanded the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) to begin regulating railroad crossing safety. State law already required all trains to come to a complete stop before crossing another railroad's tracks at grade. In addition to creating delay, the loss of physical momentum caused by the stop increased the locomotive's fuel and water requirements as it accelerated beyond the crossing. This was recognized as wasteful of time and fuel since the vast majority of the time, a train approaching a crossing would find it unoccupied. The new law was focused primarily on the implementation of safety systems at crossings of two (or more) railroads at grade that could eliminate the need for trains to stop, saving time and fuel. [The law also included authority to regulate grade-separated crossings, but early on, RCT concluded there was simply no need.]

RCT began with a blanket order requiring swing gates to be installed immediately at all crossings. This was somewhat odd; gates per se didn't qualify as the kind of safety system that would permit a train to cross a diamond without stopping. Thus, trains approaching a gate that was not positioned against them still had to stop at the crossing (whether they always did so is another question.) Much later, regulations were enacted to allow trains to approach gated crossings at restricted speed, slow enough to be able to stop comfortably short of the diamond if the gate was "closed" against them but otherwise allowed to cross the diamond without stopping if the gate was "open".

The state of the art in railroad grade crossing safety was based upon the use of interlocker technology that had been developed and deployed in other parts of the U.S. Such interlockers used a combination of home signals, distant signals and derails to control how trains approached and crossed a diamond. RCT began issuing orders periodically to require railroads to adopt interlocker technology at specific crossings within a defined timeframe. RCT's order dated June 18, 1903 required the I&GN and the H&TC to interlock the crossing at McNeil by the middle of 1904, but that did not happen. The railroads wanted to prioritize their capital investment to maximize the benefit of interlocker installations by focusing on the busiest crossing locations, so it is likely that they convinced RCT to rescind the requirement for an interlocker at McNeil. Interlocking plants had to be operated by railroad employees, and at crossings such as McNeil, the relatively limited amount of traffic over the diamond could not justify the capital, labor and materials expense of installing, operating and maintaining an interlocker. Sometimes, interlockers were unnecessary because all trains stopped anyway at a nearby depot, close enough to substitute for the required crossing stop. How the McNeil crossing was handled in the early days has not been determined, but it is likely that a gate was installed.

It was not until 1928 that an interlocking plant was installed at McNeil. By this time, H&TC had been leased (1927) to another SP subsidiary, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad. RCT records show that Tower 132 was commissioned there on July 13, 1928 with an 11-function "mechanical cabin" interlocker, operated by H&TC. As 1928 was more than 25 years after the first interlockers were installed in Texas in 1902, the technology had evolved to address situations like McNeil where a busy line -- the I&GN -- crossed a line with limited traffic -- the H&TC. The expense of operating a manned tower, particularly the labor costs, could not be justified at such crossings. The tower operators would have very little work to do since the signals would be set to allow virtually every approaching train on the busy line to proceed across without stopping. Only rarely, when a train on the lightly used track needed to cross, would the signals be set to warn an approaching train on the busy line to prepare to stop. This condition would persist only long enough for the crossing to complete, after which the signals would be reset to allow continuous movements on the busy line.

Instead of paying a team of tower operators to do very little actual work (potentially on a 24/7/365 basis), RCT approved the use of cabin interlockers. The cabin was typically a small walk-in hut that would house the interlocking plant and its manual controls. Trains on the lightly used track would always stop at the crossing. A member of the train crew would disembark his train, enter the cabin and set the signals to allow his train to cross while warning trains (if any approached) on the busy line that they would need to stop. When his train had finished crossing, the crewmember would reset the signals to permit uninterrupted crossings by trains on the busy line. He would then re-board his train to continue its journey. Thus, cabin interlockers were actually operated by train service employees of the less busy railroad.

Right: This excerpt from a labor union's submittal to the National Railroad Adjustment Board explains that there was an "employee covered by the agreement" that operated the McNeil interlocker. The agreement specified this position as an "agent-telegrapher-leverman" employed by MP (I-GN) to operate the McNeil tower as a "joint agency" serving both railroads. The Union disputed whether T&NO train crews could operate the interlocker on Saturdays when, due to the new "40-hour work week", the tower was not staffed. The response from I-GN (below) states that train crews had always operated the interlocker when the tower was not staffed.

The above labor dispute (in which NRAB ruled in favor of the Union in 1953) provides some valuable insight into the operations at Tower 132. The Union's submittal explains that as of September 1, 1949, T&NO operated only two trains daily through McNeil six days per week (no trains on Sunday.) This is a classic example of a lightly used rail line that would motivate the implementation of a cabin interlocker for the benefit of the busier line (I-GN). Second, and more significant, I-GN's response states that T&NO train crew operated the levers "...outside the assigned tour of duty of the Agent." This passage isn't precisely worded, but it could be interpreted to assert that there has been an Agent at the tower "...ever since the T&NO cabin interlocking was placed in service..." in July, 1928. The fact that the Agent had telegraphy duties implies that the tower was being used to convey orders to passing trains. Most likely, this was already being done by a telegrapher at the I-GN depot across the diamond, hence the telegrapher simply relocated to the new facility and took on the additional duties of leverman, moving the interlocker controls four times per day (twice for each passage of a T&NO train.) The fact that the agent was an MP (I-GN) employee does not call into question RCT officially listing the H&TC as the railroad that operated the cabin. H&TC (actually, T&NO) train crews were ultimately responsible for operating the controls, but the duty was handled for them by the agent when he was on duty. That the railroads chose to incorporate an "agent-telegrapher-leverman" employed by I-GN was not an RCT requirement for the commissioning of Tower 132.

Many manned towers were not staffed 24/7/365. During unstaffed periods, the signals were left positioned to grant "Proceed" indications on the busier line. Train crews on the other line encountering an unstaffed tower would either summon the tower operator by telephone to operate the controls (e.g. Tower 33), or they would enter the tower and operate the controls themselves (e.g. Tower 62, where the railroads converted a manned tower into a cabin interlocker simply by declaring it so and eliminating its staffing.) As a cabin interlocker, the default position of the signals at McNeil was to allow unrestricted movement on the I-GN line, but unlike most cabin interlockers, Tower 132 was staffed during the day six days per week and closed on Sundays. The reason the Union won its case at McNeil was because the railroads' existing agreement required the use of a Union employee six days per week. The Federal law that lowered the standard work week for "non-operating" railroad employees from 48 hours to 40 hours on September 1, 1949 did not affect the agreement since it could still be honored by hiring additional employees.

Left: These instructions from a June, 1940 T&NO Employee Timetable explain to train crews that they will need to operate the Tower 132 interlocker when the agent is not on duty. Elsewhere, the timetable lists the duty hours for the agent at Tower 132 as 8:00 am to 5:00 pm "Daily Except Sundays and Holidays" and "8:00 am to 10:00 am" on Legal Holidays. The tower was closed on Sundays. These instructions remained unchanged in a Special Instructions supplement issued by T&NO in December, 1959. Historic aerial imagery shows both the cabin and the depot removed between 1967 and 1973.

Above Left: Returning to the scene in the photo at the top of page, SP #6607 has almost reached the tower. Above Right: SP #6607 crosses the diamond adjacent to the MP depot. The depot sat in the west quadrant, diagonally across from tower. Note the corner of the tower's roof barely protruding into the image from the left edge. (both photos, Roger Schull collection)

 Four mid 60s photos courtesy Roger Shull collection: Above Left: A southbound MP locomotive crosses the diamond while SP's train waits in the siding. Above Right: a northeast view along the MP tracks  Below Left: In this south view of the crossing, the Tower 132 cabin at left is mostly obscured by electrical cabinets. Below Right: Facing northwest along the SP tracks, a northbound Texas Eagle passenger train speeds across the diamond past Tower 132.

Above: This photo, credited to Jim Hickey from the David M. Bernstein collection, appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of S P Trainline. The caption was:

"Operating as Extra 162 West, a train of empty cars for rock loading is crossing the Missouri Pacific diamond at McNeil. The station was owned, maintained and operated by the MP. A joint agency was maintained by the railroads by agreement effective November 1, 1911, with each company paying 50% of the building maintenance and T&NO paying one-third of the operating costs. The small building to the left is Interlocking No. 132 which was owned, operated and maintained by the T&NO. This was a cabin interlocking normally lined for Missouri Pacific movement. When on duty, the agent handled the interlocking signals, otherwise T&NO trains were required to stop before passing the interlocking signal and send a crewman ahead to operate the interlocking for their route using a manipulation chart displayed above the interlocking machine. After completing their move the T&NO crew would restore the route for the Missouri Pacific."

The photo is undated, but it certainly appears to have been taken in the mid 1960s. The view is similar to the photo of SP #6607 crossing the diamond except that here, the camera is west of the T&NO tracks instead of east. In both photos, the T&NO train is northbound out of Austin. That the agreement between the railroads dated back to 1911 lends credence to the idea that the joint agency telegrapher handling train orders at the station moved to the new cabin when it was erected in 1928 and took on additional duties as the leverman.

Above: These two images from 1966 (left) and 1965 (right) show operations at the McNeil crossing. In June, 1966, two crewmen on a northbound MP freight are leaning out to catch train orders as they pass the station. In August, 1965, this SP local freight is finally crossing the diamond northbound after a lengthy delay during which MP's southbound Texas Eagle passenger train was waiting in the distance. (both photos (c) J. Parker Lamb, 2016, Center for Railroad Photography and Art)

The H&TC was fully merged into the T&NO in 1934. The T&NO lasted until 1961 when it was fully merged into SP. In 1986, SP sold the former A&NW route to the City of Austin which wanted to preserve the right-of-way for potential commuter or light rail use. The City subsequently leased the line for freight operations to RailTex. Under RailTex, a new Austin & Northwestern was created to be the operating railroad. In 1996, the Longhorn Railroad took over operations on the line with freight service beginning May 6th. Yet another operating change was made in April, 2000 when the City leased the line to the Austin Area Terminal Railroad (AUAR reporting marks). Still owned by the City, the line has been operated by the Austin & Western Railroad (AWRR), a subsidiary of transportation services company Watco, since October 1, 2007.

Left: When the cabin was removed (late 60s or early 70s), the interlocker controls were moved to a post-mounted box. Brakeman Jon Pederson has opened the cover door and is preparing to unlock the derail switch handle. The target in front indicates the derail position (open). The silver interlock is linked to UP's traffic dispatcher. When UP has a train in the block, a small semaphore indicator on top of the control stand is in the 'up' position. After the AUAR train goes through, the interlock is reset to pass UP traffic. The instruction board has "Southern Pacific" scratched out in several locations, i.e. it was most likely the same arrangement when control box was installed. (John A. Pearce, January 7, 2005)

: This 1985 MP employee timetable shows the SP crossing at McNeil with a circled M to indicate a mechanical interlocker. Compare with the MKT crossing 0.4 miles east of Taylor, which shows a circled A, for an automatic interlocker.


 Control posts such as this one were commonly used as replacements for cabin interlocker huts. With the box only able to be opened by authorized train service personnel, huts could be eliminated, with the controls moved to a post and the interlocking electronics moved to a trackside cabinet. For other examples, see Tower 103, Tower 70 and Tower 64. At Tower 127, the control boxes were mounted on the side of the interlocker cabinet instead of a post.

Four photos taken January, 2005 by John A. Pearce; thanks, John! Above Left: Austin Area Terminal Railroad locomotive AUAR 190 is switching the UP interchange track. Unit numbers 190 and 191 are a pair of GP-40s that had been recently acquired by AUAR. The conductor on the rear of the locomotive is Eric Hamilton. Above Right: Looking west, the grass covered cement rectangle is the old foundation for the Tower 132 cabin. The UP mainline is in the foreground, with north to the right, crossing McNeil Store Rd. In the background is the company store for the Austin White Lime Co. Their limestone products plant has been located in the north quadrant of the McNeil diamond since 1888, and may have had rail service from the very beginning. Below Left: A southbound UP light engine hop passes Austin White Lime led by an old Cotton Belt engine. Below Right: Austin White Lime had a front loader with a railroad coupler attached to the rear, known to all as "the McNeil Switcher". They routinely used it to push covered hoppers into place from their UP interchange track.

Clifton Jones provides the following details about the interlocker at McNeil.

The interlocking device was usually operated by an SP trainman (later A&NW, Longhorn, Austin Terminal, etc.) There was a locked box, that once it was opened would set off a timer, and an unlocking device for the derail, and also set the home and distant signals for the MP (UP) approaching the interlocking. After a period of about 9 minutes, the timer on the cabinet would unlock the derail and the trainman could throw the split derail switch for the train on the SP to proceed. It set the home signal for the SP to ‘lunar’ so the train could proceed at restricted speed. Once the entire train had cleared the interlocking limits, the derail could be restored to derail position and the lock box on interlocking device was closed and locked.

Austin's plan to use the A&NW right-of-way for commuter transit evolved into Capital MetroRail, a commuter rail system that began operating in 2010 between Leander and downtown Austin, sharing the freight tracks along much of the route. At McNeil (above left), commuter trains pass over the UP tracks on a bridge whereas AWRR freight trains continue to cross UP at grade at the Tower 132 site. (photo by Rickey Green/CapMetro) Above Right: Looking south from the McNeil Rd. grade crossing, the right track elevates onto the bridge that carries Cap Metro commuter trains over UP's tracks at McNeil. The left track is used by AWRR freight operations to cross UP's tracks at grade at the former Tower 132 site.

In 1988, the Austin Steam Train Association (ASTA) was formed as a non-profit organization to rebuild SP #786, a steam locomotive that had been donated to the City of Austin in 1956. The rebuilt engine pulled its first excursion train northwest of McNeil between Cedar Park and Burnet on July 25, 1992. Operating as the Austin & Texas Central Railroad, the ASTA continues to offer excursions to the public. While SP#786 is undergoing a complete rebuild, diesel locomotives provide substitute power.


Last Revised: 10/27/2023 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page webmaster.