Texas Railroad History - Tower 89 and Tower 139 - Houston

Crossings of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway with the International & Great Northern and the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe railroads

Historic Photo, Tower 139 (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library)

Above: John W. Barriger III took this photo of the north face of Tower 139 from the rear platform of his business car as he was leaving Houston in the early 1940s. His International & Great Northern (I-GN) train is northbound on the Houston, Belt & Terminal (HB&T) North Belt, having just departed Union Station. The counterweight of HB&T's draw bridge over Buffalo Bayou is raised indicating that the bridge is down and the tracks are in place, unsurprising since Barriger's train has just passed over it. From this view, the former tracks of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway, now owned by the Texas & New Orleans Railroad, pass in front of Tower 139, crossing the HB&T at a right angle near the bridge. Although the track to Barriger's immediate left merges onto the I-GN main line about 100 yards to the east, that route was used primarily for freight. Instead, Barriger's train remains on the North Belt curving slightly to resume a due north heading. He will soon pass Tower 26 and Tower 71 as he proceeds to Tower 80. There, his train will transition to the I-GN main line for his trip to Palestine (his destination evidenced by subsequent photos in this sequence from the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library.) A document in the archives of the Railroad Commission of Texas at DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University explains that Tower 139 was built as a replacement for Tower 89, but Tower 89 remains a mystery with its construction, location and ultimate fate unknown.

Towers 89 and 139 in Houston present an interesting mystery that began in 1912 when Tower 89 first appeared in the list of authorized interlockers published by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT). In a table dated October 31, 1912, Tower 89 is identified as a 12-function mechanical interlocker serving a junction of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway and the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway in Houston. Although no operational date was listed, this was not uncommon. Sometimes a tower was scheduled for a final RCT inspection, but was not yet commissioned at the time the report was printed (for example, Tower 90 in the same report.) In the next two annual reports, tables dated October 31 for the years 1913 and 1914 continued to list Tower 89 with no operational date. Beginning with a table dated October 31, 1915, Tower 89 was completely omitted from the list. Tower 89 reappears in a list dated December 31, 1919, but only in a footnote identifying interlockers that have been "Abandoned on account of removal of crossing". Tower 89's commissioning date is reported vaguely as "1912" whereas the other abandoned towers have precise dates. Tower 89 continued to be described this way through RCT's final tower list published at the end of 1930.

So...where was Tower 89 and what happened to it? There were only two Santa Fe/GH&SA crossings in Houston. One was at Tower 81; the other was immediately north of Santa Fe's bridge over Buffalo Bayou. In 1912, the GH&SA was a major component of Southern Pacific (SP) and had not yet been merged into the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad (later to become SP's primary operating company for Texas.) One of GH&SA's tracks was an east/west line along the north bank of Buffalo Bayou that ran eight miles from Clinton to downtown Houston. Close to downtown, the GH&SA crossed tracks of the International & Great Northern (I-GN) and the Santa Fe a hundred yards apart. The GH&SA connected into other SP railroads near Tower 108 to reach SP's passenger station.

The Santa Fe track crossed by the GH&SA was a spur built sometime prior to 1890 to provide a connection from Santa Fe's yard south of downtown to SP's yard north of Buffalo Bayou. Sometime around 1907, Santa Fe transferred operation of this spur to the Houston, Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway. HB&T had been created in 1905 by four railroads, one of them Santa Fe, to provide switching services around Houston. Apparently, the operating agreement included HB&T paying to replace Santa Fe's bridge over Buffalo Bayou. This was accomplished with a new single-leaf steel bascule draw bridge in 1912. The spur, however, remained owned by Santa Fe, and accordingly, Santa Fe was listed as one of the railroads that crossed at Tower 89. While it certainly appears that this crossing at the north end of the bridge was Tower 89's location, the letter below dated July 29, 1929, seventeen years later, shows that neither RCT nor SP knew for sure where Tower 89 was located nor what happened to it!

Above: This letter to RCT's Chief Engineer from T&NO's Signal Engineer, R. W. Meek, is the only item in the Tower 89 file at DeGolyer Library. It suggests that although Tower 89 might have been built without an interlocker, construction of Tower 139 occurred later to provide an interlocker for the same location.

: This image from the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance index map of Houston has been annotated to show the rail lines on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou and the site that eventually hosted Tower 139. Yellow lines are various SP railroads, red lines are I-GN, the purple line is the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT), and the green line is the H&BT which was operating the original Santa Fe spur to the north.

T&NO Signal Engineer R. W. Meek's letter references "Buffalo Bayou, Tower 139" leaving no doubt about that tower's location, confirming its identity in Barriger's photo (the tower number placard in the photo is visible as three digits but insufficiently legible under magnification to verify the number.) The style of the tower indicates Tower 139 was an SP design, resembling numerous other SP towers in Texas (e.g. Tower 21, Tower 95, Tower 100.) Since Meek was SP's engineer responsible for "...Interlocking Reports." to RCT and his offices were in Houston, he was undoubtedly familiar with the design and operation of Tower 139 which had opened only seven months earlier. Meek's reference to Tower 89's location, "...this plant was at Maury Street, crossing of T&NO, I-GN and GC&SF", plainly asserts that Tower 89 "...was at...", i.e. actually built, at a Maury St. site. In the vicinity of Buffalo Bayou, such a location would have been about a thousand feet west of where Tower 139 was ultimately built. The above index map does not do justice to the complex jumble of tracks in the area between the bayou and the streets located to the north. Individual maps verify that I-GN had tracks in this area west of the main line. The detailed maps show no structures that could be interpreted as signal towers, but this 1907 Sanborn Map series was drawn approximately five years before the purported construction of Tower 89.

Meek asserts that "Buffalo Bayou, Tower 139 was placed in service at this location." This is confusing because "...this location..." was described as "...Maury Street...", but Tower 139 was a thousand feet east of Maury Street (and closer to at least three other streets.) It is possible that "...this location..." meant the "functional location", i.e. the place controlling the same set of switches and signals that Tower 89 would have managed. In that interpretation, Tower 139 was doing the same job as Tower 89, but was built at a slightly different location. As to why were there no records of Tower 89's interlocker at RCT, Meek supplies the straightforward answer: "Plant was never constructed...". This raises two questions. What happened to prevent the interlocking plant from being constructed? And was there some sort of railroad structure actually built "...at Maury Street." that was originally planned to host the Tower 89 interlocker? There was a Maury Street location that became interlocked as Tower 207 in 1956, but it can be dismissed as a possibility very quickly: in 1912, it would not have involved GH&SA, Santa Fe or I-GN, and the site was at least a half mile from where Tower 139 was built. This was not the "Maury Street" location Meek was referencing.

Notwithstanding Meek's identification of the location as "Maury Street", might there have been a structure to house the Tower 89 interlocking plant that was, in fact, built at the future Tower 139 site as Meek asserts? Can a potential tower structure be found at this location on Sanborn Maps after 1912? The answer is Yes. Four years before Tower 139 was commissioned, the 1924 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Houston (below left) shows a structure in precisely the same location. Under magnification (below right), the structure is revealed as a two-story "OFF." (office) with a door on the east end. Sanborn Map interpretation sources claim that in general, the 'A.' symbol indicates "Auto House or private garage". Why would someone build an "office" on railroad property near a bridge and two crossing diamonds in the exact same spot that an interlocking tower was later constructed? And why would it be two stories with a "private garage"?


Rather than an "office", wouldn't it be more likely that this structure was built to serve an obvious railroad purpose? Yes, but perhaps not for housing an interlocker. The more pressing need was to provide an office and a temporary residence for the HB&T bridge tender on duty to raise and lower the bridge. HB&T would have needed some sort of facility (in time for the bridge to become operational in 1912) to host the bridge tenders for this very busy track on a 24/7 basis (hence a potential upstairs living area and a garage.) Perhaps in planning for a bridge tender's quarters there was discussion among the railroads of also installing an interlocker to manage the adjacent Santa Fe/GH&SA grade crossing? There are lots of issues...cost, space, operations, staffing...that could have derailed a planned interlocker. In particular, tower expenses were normally shared among the railroads on a weighted function basis, so perhaps SP did not want the incremental cost of managing the bridge incorporated into the tower's collective expense. The bridge served HB&T alone, and its operational costs would be borne entirely by HB&T if no interlocker was present. Furthermore, HB&T needed the interlocker much more than SP. HB&T's North Belt had become a busy main track whereas the GH&SA line was a secondary route. Due to SP's substantial network of industry tracks in the area, their trains were unlikely to be moving at speed, hence the time and energy cost of stopping at a non-interlocked crossing was relatively insignificant. SP might simply have backed out of the deal.

The GH&SA tracks were laid c.1876 and the Santa Fe tracks arrived no sooner than c.1884. As the second railroad, it would have been Santa Fe's responsibility to establish the interlocking tower. Hence, to the extent it ever existed, the original Tower 89 interlocker documentation might have been held by HB&T or Santa Fe. Tower 139 was clearly an SP structure, presumably by mutual agreement with Santa Fe. So, it seems likely that the building that existed in 1924 was razed before (or perhaps contemporaneous with) SP's construction of Tower 139. In theory, the 1924 building could have been the original structure built for Tower 89. If so, then it was either razed for the new SP tower, or it was an existing SP tower structure re-used to host the Tower 139 interlocker. If it was razed, then it doesn't matter who built it, and Meek might not have known its history. But if it was, in fact, the Tower 89 building and they elected to install the Tower 139 interlocker into it, Meek should have known; it opened only seven months before his letter was written. But in that case, Meek would not have needed to explain that Tower 89 was "...at Maury Street." RCT knew the location of Tower 139; if it was in the original Tower 89 structure, Meek could have just said so.

Regardless of when SP's Tower 139 structure was built, surely Meek's reference to the Tower 89 site as "Maury Street." and his assertion that "...Tower 139 was placed in service at this location.", which was three streets and a thousand feet away, cannot both be correct? Or can they? Notice that if Meek had penned "Mary Street." instead of "Maury Street.", only one letter different, his description would be entirely correct. Mary Street was the right-of-way that Santa Fe used north of Buffalo Bayou and it was the street closest to where Tower 139 was ultimately built. Perhaps Meek's typist, familiar with "Maury Street." but not with "Mary Street.", misread Meek's handwriting, and he did not notice the error when signing the letter? But if that were true, then why bother to describe where Tower 89 was located at all? It would be simpler to just state that Towers 89 and 139 used the same building. That is, unless Tower 89's Mary St. location was slightly different than Tower 139's location. Yes...it's a mystery.

Tower 139 first appears in RCT annual reports in 1929 as a 36-function electric interlocker that opened on December 20, 1928 involving HB&T, T&NO and I-GN. By the time of the Barriger photo (~ 20 years after the 1924 Sanborn map), it appears that only a single track (the original GH&SA line, now owned by T&NO) was crossing the HB&T at this junction. The I-GN reference likely indicated that Tower 139 was designed to control the I-GN/T&NO crossing a short distance to the east (which it ultimately did in later years.) RCT files state that Tower 139 took over the Tower 5 interlocker controls in 1940, but we do not know how much beyond that date Tower 139 survived as a manned tower, nor has the ultimate fate of the tower structure been determined.

Below: With north to the left, HB&T's 1974 track chart for Tower 139 (interlockers 139-A and 139-B) shows the location of the equipment bungalows that replaced the original tower. (track chart courtesy Neil Mackay)

Tower 139 Vicinity, Early 1960s

Above Left: This image is an excerpt from an undated photo in the Texas Dept. of Transportation archives. The photo is probably from late 1960 or early 1961 based on the freeway construction in progress. The Tower 139 "bungalow" (as referenced on HB&T track charts) appears to be visible near the crossing. Above Right: A similar photo taken at the same time but facing northeast shows the Tower 139 "bungalow" structure more clearly.

Below Left: The 139-B bungalow in the above chart is visible as a traditional cabin interlocker near the utility pole to the left of the diamond of this I-GN/T&NO crossing located on the north bank immediately east of the bridge. This image is from the same TxDOT archive photo facing northeast that shows Tower 139. Below Right: defaced historical plaque for HB&T's bridge.

Site Photos, Tower 139 (Jim King, December, 2006)

Above: The nearly 100 year old HB&T steel bascule bridge remains intact across Buffalo Bayou, hidden from the public by the maze of freeways crossing overhead. The original Tower 139 was probably located in the foreground of this photo. There was no evidence of a foundation or structure apparent at the site. Note the minimal clearance between the top of the rotation arm for the bridge and the freeway overhead. Clearance issues required the massive counterweight structure to be dismantled. Rather than discard it, it was preserved on a new concrete foundation surrounded by a barbed-wire fence (below) near the bridge. Thanks to John Davis (pictured) for providing transportation to this and other tower sites in the Houston area!

Location Map - Tower 139

Above: This map shows the location of Tower 139 relative to the roads and freeways that have been built in its vicinity. The HB&T line was abandoned c.1991 to make room for the expansion of US 59, but the single leaf bascule bridge was preserved as a historic structure. To replace the abandoned line, HB&T double-tracked Missouri Pacific's former I-GN line and added a new crossing near Tower 26 to rejoin the existing HB&T tracks north of Tower 26.

Last Revised: 12/23/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.