Texas Railroad History - Tower 138 - Harlingen

A Crossing of the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads

Harlingen was founded through the efforts of Lon Hill, a lawyer and developer who served as the District Attorney for Bee County in the late 1890s. Envisioning significant growth opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley, Hill procured large tracts of land in Cameron County and operated a rice plantation near Brownsville, along with other commercial ventures. Hill began to promote getting a railroad into the Valley and he led a commitee that raised a bonus to be given to the first railroad to reach Brownsville. B. F. Yoakum's Gulf Coast Lines, under the charter of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico (SLB&M) Railway, collected the bonus by constructing a line from Robstown to Brownsville in 1904, a distance of 141 miles. At "Mile Post 116", 25 miles north of Brownsville, the railroad passed through the clearing on Lon Hill's land that he had designated to be the future town of Harlingen. Hill personally guaranteed free right of way and an additional bonus of land for the railroad to build a westward branch from there to Starr County. This forty mile branch terminated in what is now the city of Mission, passing through locations that would prove to be excellent for agricultural development. The town of Harlingen sprang up in the clearing, becoming incorporated in 1910. While numerous short branch lines were built in the Valley, no other major railroad came into the area for two decades. This changed when, after a long legal battle, Southern Pacific (SP) legally and finally acquired the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) Railway in 1925 (coincidentally, the same year that the SLB&M came under Missouri Pacific ownership.) Under the SA&AP's charter, SP began building south from Falfurrias into the Valley in 1926, reaching Edinburg in early 1927, and continuing to Brownsville that same year. SP's line to Brownsville passed through Harlingen, crossing the SLB&M tracks at grade. On September 10, 1928, Tower 138 was established to control a manual interlocking at this crossing.

Tower 138 may have been the last 'true' 2-story interlocking tower built in Texas. Although Tower 139 was commissioned three months later, there is evidence that it had existed well prior to the formal commissioning. After 1928, improvements in technology and consolidation of rail networks (and associated line abandonments) reduced the need for separate manned towers. The fate of the Tower 138 structure is unknown. The interlocker was decommissioned in 1994.

Tower 138 Historic Photos
(both photos courtesy of The Jernigan Library South Texas Archives, by R. H. Carlson, February 29, 1944)

Above: Tower 138 was a typical Southern Pacific two-story tower, resembling other SP towers such as Tower 26. This view is looking west down the SP tracks toward Edinburg. Below: A view of Tower 138 toward the northwest. A leaning metal pole mounted in concrete is visible in both photos between the tower and the crossbuck. Jimmy Barlow notes that the pole has appendages that look similar to what might be expected for a large swing gate, but the location is not ideal if this was a gate that protected the crossing before the tower was built. Since the concrete base does not appear to be sunk into the ground, perhaps the pole was moved. The size of the pole is comparable to the swing gate pole at Tower 176.

Tower 138 Location Photos (
courtesy of Randy Curlin)

"The Harlingen crossing was first automated with signals to deactivate the tower. Later it was "simplified" with stop signs in order to deactivate the signals in the early 1990s. The crossing protected the SP line running from its Harlingen yard to Edinburg/McAllen and the MP Harlingen-Kingsville line. Post 1975, SP was using the MP line so this crossing saw very light use save for a couple of locals and yard jobs. The diamonds (MP main and drill-yard lead) were removed in 1998 to speed up operations in the area. The SP switch job was moved to the MP yard and a worn out connector track allowed access for the Santa Rosa sugar mill from the MP yard."

Above: This photo (June, 1998) is looking south toward the MP Harlingen yard. The main is the left track and the yard lead is the right track. The SP line crosses from left (Harlingen) to right (Edinburg). The backs of stop signs are visible for northbound trains. Tank cars are sitting on the MP-SP interchange tracks. The connector track that allows southbound trains to access the SP line for Brownsville is out of picture to the left. Below: This photo is looking west toward SP Edinburg. The nearest MP track is the main and then the yard lead. Harlingen is to the south (left) and Kingsville is to the north (right). It is strange that an SP yard limit sign is so close to the diamond. Hopper cars are on the MP-SP interchange tracks. June, 1998

Below: UP has begun the removal of the SP line up to the diamonds. Looking west. Oct 1998

Above: Only the roadbed remains of the former SP line. The MP tracks show newer rails where the diamond was.  Looking west. November, 1998
Below: A similar view from September, 2004 shows that grasses have taken over the former SP alignment. Looking west.

Map of Tower 138

: Union Pacific ultimately obtained ownership of both of the railroads that crossed at Tower 138. Improvements resulting from the common ownership along with changing traffic patterns resulted in the elimination of the crossing at Tower 138, as shown in the north-facing satellite view.


Above: These Google Street Views from January, 2017 show an equipment cabinet occupying what appears to be the former location of Tower 138. The left view is facing northwest; the right view is facing southwest.

Last Revised: 2/28/2019 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.