www.txrrhistory.com - Tower 89 and Tower 139 - Houston

A crossing of the International - Great Northern, Texas & New Orleans, and Houston Belt & Terminal railroads

Tower 89 presents an interesting mystery that can be traced back to 1912 when the tower 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 close to being operational and had been assigned an interlocker number, but was not yet in service at the time the RCT report was produced (for example, Tower 90 in Victoria is similarly listed in the same report without an operational date). In succeeding years, Tower 89 remained on the RCT list as an interlocker awaiting final approval until it was omitted without explanation from the 1915 Annual Report. In the 1919 report, Tower 89 reappears, this time in a list of interlockers that have been "abandoned on account of removal of crossing". Its initial authorization date was vaguely listed as "1912" whereas the others on the list had precise dates of initial operation provided since they had actually been operational.

In 1912, the GH&SA had a line into downtown Houston from the east that paralleled Clinton Drive. Tower 5 was located along this route, and as the tracks neared downtown, a crossing of the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) railroad would have been required. This part of the HB&T had been obtained from Santa Fe when four Houston railroads combined to create the HB&T as a switching railroad in 1905. Depending on the precise line of demarcation between GC&SF and HB&T track ownership, it is possible the junction really was a crossing of the Santa Fe as stated in the RCT report. It is also possible that RCT mistakenly listed Santa Fe as one of the railroads associated with the Tower 89 interlocker due to the track's heritage. Whatever the case, not being able to locate the exact site of Tower 89 is unsurprising because, as the letter below shows, neither the RCT nor Southern Pacific (SP) knew for certain where it was!

Above: This letter to RCT's Chief Engineer from SP's Signal Engineer, R. W. Meek, was the only item in the
Tower 89 file at DeGolyer Library. It indicates that Tower 89 was never constructed.

Based on this letter, the logical conclusion is that Tower 89 was never built and Tower 139 eventually was constructed to control the same junction. The letter's reference to "Buffalo Bayou, Tower 139" provides evidence that Tower 139 was located near Buffalo Bayou, and a 1974 HB&T track chart confirms that the tower was located where the HB&T steel bridge crossed the bayou carrying their line north out of Union Station. At this location, east/west parallel lines of the International - Great Northern (I-GN) and the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) railroads crossed the HB&T. Also, Tower 5 is approximately one mile east of this location; RCT files state that Tower 139 took over the Tower 5 interlocker controls in 1940. Tower 139 first appears in RCT Annual Reports in 1929 as a 36-function electrical interlocker that opened on December 20, 1928, and by this time, the GH&SA had been merged into the T&NO. Thus, the original Tower 89 junction of GC&SF/GH&SA had become a junction of HB&T/T&NO by 1928, matching the definition of Tower 139 in RCT annual reports.

Historic Photo, Tower 139

Above: 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.
Below: A similar photo taken at the same time but facing northeast. The Tower 139 structure is more
clearly visible.

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

Above: The 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!

Historic Maps, Tower 139 Location

Above: This annotated image from the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance index map of Houston shows the rail
junction on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou that was the location for Tower 139. Yellow lines are SP (T&NO
or GH&SA), red lines are I-GN, and the green line is H&BT. Later, the HB&T line was extended due north
paralleling the I-GN line and SP lines to the major junction at Towers 25 and 26.

Above: The 1924 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Houston shows a small structure located just north of the HB&T "Steel Draw Bridge" at a crossing
of the HB&T, I-GN and T&NO railroads. Under magnification (right), the structure is revealed as a two-story railroad office with a door on the east
end. The purpose of the "A." notation is unknown, but may have been related to a type of construction or building material (e.g. asbestos?) which
would have been of interest for fire insurance purposes. A small rectangular railroad office with two stories sitting well away from any other railroad
buildings and located at a busy railroad grade junction sounds suspiciously like a railroad tower! This office probably served operational control
purposes and may have ultimately become Tower 139 when the interlocker was authorized for operation in 1928, four years after this map was drawn.

Above: 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
tower constructed in 1928. As discussed above, the location of the 139-A bungalow matches the location of the 2-story "office" structure that
appears on the 1924 Sanborn map, which was most likely the original tower. By 1974, the I-GN spur track that crossed the HB&T near the
drawbridge had been removed. (track chart courtesy Neil Mackay, with color annotations by Jim King)
Below: The 139-B bungalow referenced in the above chart is visible as a traditional cabin interlocker in this photo of the I-GN/T&NO
crossing located immediately east of the Tower 139 bascule bridge crossing. This image is from the same TxDOT archive photo facing
northeast that shows Tower 139.

Location Map - Tower 139

Additional Photos by Jim King, HB&T Drawbridge over Buffalo Bayou (click to enlarge)
The bascule bridge was converted for pedestrian use at some time in the past, but is now fenced off.

Satellite Image, Tower 139 Site

This satellite image, captured before freeway construction completely obscured the site, shows that the rail lines that comprised the Tower 139 junction
have all been abandoned.

Last Revised: 1/30/2010 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.