Crossing of the Texas & New Orleans Railroad with the Robertson-McDonald Lumber Company
The Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad was the main operating
company for lines in Texas and Louisiana owned by Southern Pacific (SP). Perhaps the most important of T&NO's
routes was its line between Houston and Beaumont, continuing to New Orleans,
part of the famed Sunset Route. Roughly midway between Houston and Beaumont, the
community of Dever's Woods became incorporated in 1872, and by 1874, it had a
train station on the T&NO and a US Post Office. In 1892, the name was shortened
to Devers. A series of canals were constructed in the area to support rice
farming, but lumber was also a major contributor to the local economy. By the
1920s, the Robertson-McDonald Lumber Co. was operating a mill at Devers, and
there were undoubtedly tram lines into the forest to bring logs to the mill.
There were many places in east Texas where tram lines crossed Class 1 railroads, and some of these crossings were never interlocked although they should have been. The first tram crossing that was interlocked was Tower 111 in Trinity in 1919. Tower 143 at Devers was second, commissioned as a cabin interlocker on 5 April 1923. The cabin allowed tram personnel to manually set the main line signals so that tram cars could cross the T&NO. They would then re-line the signals for the T&NO when the crossing was complete. Documentation in the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) Tower 143 file preserved at DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, shows the cabin being in the northwest quadrant of a nearly right-angle crossing (87 degrees) located 1,762 feet west of the T&NO depot. The original interlocking plan was drawn in December, 1921, then further revised in August and November, 1922 as the interlocker construction was being completed. The DeGolyer files show that RCT considered the Devers interlocking to be a "temporary plant". The plan shows that the mill was north of the T&NO; the crossing existed to access forests south of the T&NO.
The DeGolyer files clearly indicate that the Tower 143 interlocker design was in work in 1921-22, yet its 1923 commissioning date is not aligned with the dates for other nearby tower numbers. The only two tower numbers assigned during 1923 were Tower 113 and Tower 114; another 29 tower numbers were assigned before 143 was allocated to Devers. Objectively, it appears as if RCT forgot to assign an official number when the interlocker at Devers was allowed to go into service in 1923. RCT listed all interlockers in each Annual Report through 1931. Tower 143 appears in the list dated 31 December 1929 with the 1923 commissioning date, but it does not appear in the list dated 31 December 1927 (and unfortunately we do not have the 1928 list.) A commissioning year of 1928 instead of 1923 would be more consistent with towers that have numbers near Devers', e.g. Tower 144 at Waco commissioned on 29 May 1928. Based on all of this evidence, it appears that since RCT originally considered this to be a "temporary plant", they didn't assign a tower number to their Devers file in 1923. They apparently didn't do so until 1928 when they were informed that the interlocker was still in service. This appears to have occurred when T&NO notified RCT that they were anticipating the interlocker could soon be removed. A letter RCT wrote to T&NO on 8 June 1928 states..."When it is ready to be taken out, the Commission will gladly give authority." However, documentation from SP's Houston office obtained by Carl Codney shows that the interlocker remained in service until 10 February 1930.
The Texas Forestry Museum Tram and Railroad Database describes the operation at Devers as having, as of 1928, "a blacksmith and machine shop, a 15-ton narrow gauge locomotive, a Baldwin 29-ton locomotive, a Porter 23-ton locomotive, thirty-one log cars, and 5,000 30'-long and 30# rails." The Texas Forestry Museum Sawmill Database notes that the "Gulf Coast Lumberman reported in February, 1931, that the Robertson-McDonald sawmills at Devers and Liberty were running again. Sometime in 1934 or shortly thereafter, C. J. Robertson and E. L. Kurth took over the mill's operation at Devers. Before January, 1936, Robertson-Kurth sold machinery from the Devers operation to a company that built a hardwood mill in Mexico, all of which effectively shut down the operation in Devers." When the mill at Devers was restarted sometime after 1928, apparently a tram no longer crossed the T&NO since there is no evidence of Tower 143 being placed back into service.
Above: This track chart (from the Carl Codney Collection) shows a spur going north from the T&NO tracks, but no indication of any tram or spur track to the south. Below: This SP drawing shows the "Levers, Functions and Division of Expense" for Tower 143. Note that all maintenance expenses were "borne entirely by the Lumber Company." (Carl Codney Collection)
Comparison of a 1952 aerial image (above left) and a 2018 image (above right) shows that much has changed in Devers. While the highways and tracks are essentially unchanged, and Sawmill Rd., Gates Rd. and Frost Rd. all remain intact, the entire sawmill has disappeared. The pink annotation on the 1952 image shows what appears to be (under magnification) the 928 ft. Mill Spur identified on the T&NO track chart, although by 1952 it was substantially longer than 928 ft. The 1952 image gives no hint of where a spur might have crossed the T&NO to serve areas to the south, presumably the impetus for the interlocker. The sawmill being north of the T&NO line likely explains why the interlocker was not reinstated when the mill reopened in 1931; the larger forest was to the north so tram operations did not need to cross the T&NO. The original crossing may have been needed to support logs from south of the mill, or perhaps there was an additional component of the mill south of the T&NO tracks.
Above: Making an educated guess that the T&NO depot was located in the annotated green oval near the Gates Rd. grade crossing, the Tower 143 interlocker would have been located 1,762 ft. to the west per the documentation in the Tower 143 file at DeGolyer Library. This places it at approximately the blue circle. It's readily apparent that directly south of the blue circle, there's a roadway (gold arrow) and some disturbed ground (red arrow) that could easily have once been the right-of-way of a tram track to the south. North of the circle, more disturbed ground (red arrows), a curved tree-line (pink arrows), and a driveway (gold arrow) provide vague evidence that a right-of-way may have existed along this path. Below: The 1952 HistoricAerials.com image of Devers has been magnified and annotated to illustrate the hypothetical right-of-way. Red arrows to the left of center and above the blue circle show various dark line indications of a former right-of-way, most likely without tracks, transitioning into a narrow white line that could easily be retained tracks with light colored ballast (or perhaps a narrow sawmill roadway occupying the path.) At the leftmost yellow arrow, the right-of-way seems to split. The yellow arrows identify the right-of-way visible on the 2018 image, wider and less well-defined than the northerly path (red arrows) which is not visible on the 2018 image. The pink arrows outline what appears to be the spur track as discussed in the aerial comparison image.
This Google Street View faces west at the point where the above hypothetical
right-of-way would have
crossed Gates Rd. (just to the right of the yellow arrow farthest to the right on the above image.)
This was some kind of right-of-way pertinent to the sawmill, but whether it
carried tracks or merely sawmill trucks is unknown.