Texas Railroad History - Tower 137 - Big Sandy

A Crossing of the Texas & Pacific Railway and the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad

Above: a locomotive crossing the diamond eastbound on the T&P, with interlocker electronics cabin at left (undated Chuck Harris photo)
Below: c.1900 view of the Big Sandy depot, long before the interlocker was established (Chino Chapa collection)

In 1873, the Texas & Pacific (T&P) Railway built west across northeast Texas from Marshall to Dallas. A few years later, the Tyler Tap Railroad was organized to "tap" the T&P main line at a location near Big Sandy Creek. This would provide the citizens of Tyler with rail service over a 21-mile narrow gauge line. Because the lines were of different gauge, there was no direct connection. Instead, the Tyler Tap paralleled a T&P siding for a quarter of a mile to facilitate offloading cargo between the two railroads. In 1880, under new ownership and renamed the Texas & St. Louis (T&SL) Railway, the line was extended north across the T&P to Texarkana via Mount Pleasant, a distance of 107 miles. Unable to make favorable connections at Texarkana, the T&SL continued building northeast into Arkansas in 1882 and 1883.

In 1886, the T&SL was sold at foreclosure to the newly formed St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas (SLA&T) Railway which was chartered for the purpose of acquiring the T&SL. The SLA&T immediately converted the tracks to standard gauge and established rail connections with the T&P at Big Sandy Switch. But the SLA&T soon suffered the same financial difficulties that had beset the T&SL. It was sold at foreclosure in January, 1891 to the newly chartered St. Louis Southwestern (SSW) Railway. Unlike its two predecessors, the SSW was able to operate successfully as it expanded into east, north and central Texas. Over the years, it became more commonly known as the "Cotton Belt", a moniker they adopted on their locomotives and rolling stock. In 1932, Southern Pacific (SP) gained control of the SSW but continued to operate it as a separate company until 1994.

Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) records state that a 20-function electric interlocker, Tower 137, was commissioned at Big Sandy on August 14, 1928. Since a union depot had long existed at the crossing, it is likely that the interlocker controls were located there in lieu of a manned tower. Today, both lines are operated by Union Pacific (UP) and continue to see significant traffic. A Virtual Railfan camera system shows live video of the Big Sandy crossing.

Above: Although not involved at Big Sandy, Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad records from their Chief Engineer's office contained this 1915 track chart of Big Sandy (courtesy, Ed Chambers). This was more than a decade prior to the establishment of the Tower 137 interlocker.

Annotated Google Earth Image, Big Sandy

Above: Much has changed in Big Sandy over the past century. This Google Earth image from April, 2019 has been annotated to explain the track topology and mark the location of the former Union Station. The station (yellow rectangle) served both railroads, hence it was inevitably near the Tower 137 diamond (red circle). The original 1928 interlocker controls were in the station, but they were long gone by the time the station was razed (1958-1961 timeframe), having been replaced by automation and remote control. The 1928 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Big Sandy has some dimension notes from which the station size can be calculated as approximately 20 ft. by 70 ft. including its outer platforms. Its south edge was 20 ft. from the T&P main line (blue arrows); as a result, the original interchange track (yellow dashed line) between the T&P and the Cotton Belt passed north of the station.

As of 2020 (and likely for many years prior), two switches have defined the endpoints of a 100-yard segment of main line track (blue oval) immediately west of the Tyler St. grade crossing. The west switch is where the interchange track (yellow arrow) departs the former T&P main line to transition to the former Cotton Belt tracks. The east switch is for a siding (orange arrows) that extends 7,500 ft. to the west. The former Cotton Belt main line (pink arrows) also has a siding (green arrows) accessed by a switch (purple arrow) located 750 ft. west of the diamond. A crossover track (pink oval) provides a connection between the two sidings. As of 2020, this crossover track is manually switched and has derails in place. It could be (but is not, apparently) used to facilitate the occasional westbound-to-southbound movements that occur at Big Sandy. Instead, those movements are accomplished by bringing the rear of the westbound train past the interchange switch, backing up onto the interchange track until the lead locomotive reaches the former Cotton Belt main, and then pulling forward on the main to proceed south to Tyler, all of which can be accomplished using remote controlled switches. At various times (but not continuously) dating from the 1915 track chart through 1996 aerial imagery, there has been a connecting track (pink dashed line) at the west end of Big Sandy between the two sidings. This track does not appear on 2004 or later aerial imagery.

The former T&P line is now UP's Mineola Subdivision. The former Cotton Belt line is now UP's Pine Bluff Subdivision north of the diamond and its Corsicana Subdivision south of the diamond. As the vast majority of movements on the Cotton Belt come south on the Pine Bluff Subdivision, there is a crew change hut a short distance north of the Pearl St. grade crossing (at far right) where most (but not all) southbound trains stop. From there, trains continue onto the Corsicana Subdivision or take the interchange track to go west onto the Mineola Subdivision.

Below: This annotated composite image from 1955 ((c)historicaerials.com) shows the passenger station (yellow rectangle) and an interchange yard (pink rectangle). By this time, the original interchange track north of the station had been removed. The passenger station does not appear on the 1961 USGS Topographic Map for Big Sandy. Instead, a new interchange track through the station's former site is in place, i.e. equivalent to (and perhaps identical to) the one that exists today. At least by 1996 (the next historic aerial after 1957), the interchange yard had been removed, replaced by a connecting track between the two sidings at the west end of the former yard (pink dashed line above.) By 2004 (the next historic aerial after 1996), that connecting track had been removed, perhaps because it duplicated the facility for southbound-to-westbound (or eastbound-to-northbound) movements provided by the interchange track north of the diamond. Instead, a new interchange track between the two sidings had been installed (in the "opposite" direction), apparently the same one that exists today (pink oval above.) The lake that is barely visible north of the former T&P tracks at far left is Big Sandy Lake, constructed by the T&P to provide water for steam locomotives.

Left: The 1928 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Big Sandy details the Union Station as a "R R Station" with an interior north/south width of 14 ft. The notation at bottom appears to read "20 to MAIN LINE TEXAS & PACIFIC RR", presumably noting that the platform was 20 ft. from the T&P main line tracks. The various other notations on this image have not been deciphered. Based on this drawing, the station was approximately 20 ft. by 70 ft. including the exterior platform.

Google Street Views of Big Sandy, September 2013

Above Left: This view to the west on the Mineola Subdivision from the Tyler St. grade crossing shows the siding switch in the foreground. The Pine Bluff Subdivision connecting track comes in at right and merges with the main line approximately 100 yards west of the siding switch. Above Right: This view from the Tyler St. grade crossing is to the northeast, with the acute angle diamond in the foreground and the connecting track to the left. The Mineola Subdivision crosses the diamond left to right; the Corsicana/Pine Bluff Subdivisions cross right to left. An interlocker equipment cabinet (of ancient vintage) sits to the right of the diamond.

Below Left
: The five tracks visible (from nearest to farthest) are the Corsicana Subdivision main, the Corsicana Subdivision siding, the siding interchange track, the Mineola Subdivision siding, and the Mineola Subdivision main line. Below Right: With a southbound train approaching, this view is to the northeast along the Pine Bluff Subdivision showing the crew change facility. The switch in the foreground is for the connector to the Mineola Subdivision.

Tower 137 Diamond

Above: Looking south toward an interlocker equipment cabinet, the crossing diamond at Big Sandy is almost invisible due to the acute angle at which the two lines cross. This is due to the Tyler Tap being a narrow gauge line when originally constructed; freight was offloaded between rail cars on parallel tracks since the cars could not be interchanged. The silver cabinet sits a few yards south and east of the site of the former Union Station. (Jim King photo, c.2005)

Below: John Winfield's beautiful painting of the junction at Big Sandy shows the Union Station. The passenger diesel is southbound on the Cotton Belt. The hut across the tracks from the depot is for the Railway Express Agency, and its location is depicted on the 1928 Sanborn map of Big Sandy.

Above: Having built Big Sandy Lake to provide a water source, T&P built a massive water tank trackside less than a half mile from the lake. (Stanley Fisk photo, Sept. 2020)

Last Revised: 9/11/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.