Two Crossings of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass and St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico railroads
In September, 1903, the San Antonio & Aransas Pass
(SA&AP) Railway began extending its rails south toward the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. SA&AP's owner, Southern Pacific (SP), wanted
to compete with the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M) Railway which was
building into the Valley from Houston. A lawsuit filed by the Railroad
Commission of Texas (RCT) resulted in SA&AP becoming divested from SP ownership by
court order in 1904. By then, the SA&AP had already built 36 miles south to
Falfurrias from their closest service point, the town of Alice. The Valley town of Edinburg was only 67 miles
construction stopped on June 1, 1904 and did not restart until 1926, a year
after the SA&AP was re-acquired by SP.
By then, the SLB&M had been serving the Valley for two decades. Their routes consisted of a north/south main line from Algoa (near Houston) to Harlingen and Brownsville, and a lengthy branch line from Harlingen west to Rio Grande City. Another railroad, the San Benito & Rio Grande Valley (SB&RGV) Railway, operated 65 miles of tracks in the Valley that were essentially branch lines for the SLB&M. Both railroads had been funded by B. F. Yoakum's Gulf Coast Lines syndicate and both were owned by the New Orleans, Texas & Mexico (NOT&M) Railroad. On January 1, 1925, Missouri Pacific (MP) acquired the NOT&M, primarily for its penetration of the Texas market. The Interstate Commerce Commission had turned down MP's attempt to buy the International & Great Northern (I&GN), a major Texas railroad, so MP orchestrated having the NOT&M buy the I&GN first! With the subsequent purchase of the NOT&M, MP now owned the I&GN along with the SLB&M, the SB&RGV and several others.
MP's immediate response to the threat of competition from SP's construction toward the Valley was to build branch lines into the area north of Edinburg. The primary branch departed west from the SLB&M main line at Raymondville and reached Monte Christo via Lasara, Hargill and Faysville, reportedly in 1926. Secondary branches ran from Hargill south to Edcouch and from Faysville south to Edinburg. In Edinburg, the line from Faysville connected to an existing 10-mile branch that came north from San Juan, a community on SLB&M's east/west line between Harlingen and McAllen. This effectively created a north/south line from San Juan to Faysville that offered an alternate route for SLB&M's McAllen traffic to access the main line through Raymondville instead of Harlingen.
Edinburg Area Interlockers
Above: The only rail line in the Edinburg area that remains in service is a portion of the former SP main line that runs north from McAllen to Edinburg along with a short segment of SP's former branch east from Edinburg Jct. Both are now operated by Rio Valley Switching Co.
In 1927, the SP line from Falfurrias arrived in the
western Valley, reaching Edinburg and continuing south to McAllen. To compete with MP in the eastern
Valley, SP built a 63-mile branch line from Edinburg to
Brownsville. It departed the main line from what SP called "Edinburg Junction" and
proceeded east, crossing SLB&M's San Juan - Faysville line within the first
mile. A cabin interlocker, Tower 145, was approved by RCT on January 3, 1929 to control this crossing (which RCT referenced as
"Edinburg Junction" despite being a mile east of SP's Edinburg Junction.) SP's second crossing of the SLB&M
on this branch was twelve miles farther
east at Edcouch, interlocked a month later as Tower 146.
It appears that SP began planning the Brownsville extension before they learned
that MP's new branch to Monte Christo would necessitate a tower north of
Edinburg. RCT generally assigned tower numbers in numerical order based on when
railroads first notified them of planned construction. Tower 149 had a higher
(later) tower number than Edinburg, Edcouch
and Lantana on the Brownsville line even though it
was the first rail crossing SP encountered in the Valley. It was commissioned by
RCT on December 5, 1928.
Tower 149 was near both Alsonia and Faysville, and SP's internal documentation (below) mentioned both communities. All three of the subsequent annual interlocker lists published by RCT (dated December 31 in 1928, 1929 and 1930, respectively, after which RCT stopped publishing the list) identified Tower 149 as "Edinburg (4 Mi. East)". This was geographically incorrect -- the cabin was due north of Edinburg, about eight miles from the city's center (and the cabin was four miles east of...nothing!) RCT's lists described Tower 149 as an 11-function "M-Cabin" (mechanical interlocking plant located in a cabin operated by train crews.) Documentation obtained from SP by Carl Codney shows that Tower 149's original eleven functions consisted of four derails, four home signals, two distant signals and one door lock. Tower 145 is also identified in RCT's documentation as an 11-function "M-Cabin", presumably with the same eleven functions.
SP used an internal document to summarize the scope and functionality of each of its interlocker agreements. Although the document is titled
"Drawing No. D-205", that same title is used for
every SP interlocker summary, i.e.
"D-205" identifies the form being used, not the tower being documented,
in this case, Tower 149. The DATE of September 26, 1928 shows that the
SP/MP expense sharing agreement for Tower 149 was reached a couple of
months prior to RCT's commissioning activity. This iteration of the
document shows a 50/50 split on maintenance expenses; the original
document had a 59/41 split with SA&AP paying the larger share. Notes in the REMARKS column show the
basic design was
dated March 12, 1928, about nine months before the interlocker was
commissioned, but well after the two
lines had crossed. Changes were made on November 24, 1948
"...to show derails on T&NO removed", an action that took effect on
December 1, 1948. Although "SA&AP Ry." is the SENIOR COMPANY,
by 1948, SP had merged most of its subsidiary Texas and Louisiana lines
into the "T&NO", the Texas & New Orleans Railroad.
Tower 149 was a cabin interlocker (sometimes stated in such documents, but not here) which was OPERATED BY: "St.LB&M trainmen" (reemphasized with "Plant is to be operated by St.LB&M train crews.") Thus, the controls were normally lined so that SP had unrestricted operation. SLB&M trains would stop, a crew member would enter the cabin to set the signals to permit his train to cross, and he would reset the signals when the passage was finished. The plant was MAINTAINED BY: "SA&AP Ry." This is no surprise; unlike MP trains which always stopped, SP trains were moving across the diamond with speed, hence SP had the larger incentive to ensure that the plant, the signals and the diamond were well-maintained. "Void" scrawled across the document merely indicates that a newer version exists, either with changes or perhaps simply typewritten. The document was revised again in December, 1955 for changes to approach signals that modified the expense split to 45/55, with SLB&M paying the larger share. On that document, a handwritten notation (below) describes the plant as "Out of Service" on October 13, 1964. (Carl Codney collection)
One aspect of SP's D-205 drawing for Tower 149 raises
an interesting question. SA&AP is listed in the document as the "SENIOR COMPANY"
meaning their track was in place first and was subsequently crossed by the
SLB&M. But RCT construction records reverse that, with MP's branch to Monte
Christo completed in 1926 and SP's line from Falfurrias completed in 1927. By
that chronology, SLB&M should have been the Senior Company. This could
potentially matter because RCT's rule for interlockers built at crossings that
did not exist prior to 1901 (such as this one) was that the Senior Company was
exempt from the capital expense of building and installing the interlocker and
associated tower structure; all such costs would be borne by the other
railroad(s) at the crossing (but once operational, all of the railroads at a
crossing shared recurring expenses, e.g. maintenance, and for manned towers,
staffing.) So...implying that MP paid for and performed the Tower 149
construction, why is SP listed as the Senior Company? One speculative
possibility is that SP and MP swapped tower construction projects. Whereas RCT
records show that MP built its tracks through Faysville/Alsonia first and should
have been the Senior Company at Tower 149, the reverse was true at
Tower 151 (Rosita). RCT's records show that SP's
branch to Brownsville was completed in 1927, and that the SB&RGV branch from San
Benito to Abney, which crossed SP's tracks at Tower 151, was built in 1928. Yet,
SP's documentation lists the SB&RGV as the Senior Company at Tower 151. The
reason for this apparent swap of construction activity is unknown, but it is
reasonable to surmise that SP did not want a small railroad, the SB&RGV
(although owned by MP at the time), taking responsibility for designing and
building an interlocker, which they had never done. SP would not have had that
concern for the SLB&M, which was larger and had already been involved in several
interlocker projects. Rather than try to loan SLB&M engineering staff to SB&RGV
for the Tower 151 project, MP may have found it easier to let SP take the Tower
151 project and have the SLB&M take Tower 149, which involved the SLB&M anyway
(e.g. for design review and collaboration with SP, though not originally for
funding.) This is only speculation; the real reasons are lost to history.
Valley competition between MP and SP continued essentially unchanged into the 1960s. RCT documentation states that MP abandoned the nine miles from Faysville west to Monte Christo in 1957. This should have eliminated the need for Tower 149, but as shown above, SP did not officially take the plant out of service until 1964. MP still had tracks into Faysville until 1964 and it's possible they left the rails intact west of Faysville should the line need to be reactivated. Whatever the case, MP's tracks from Hargill to Faysville were abandoned in 1964 along with the eight miles from Faysville to Edinburg. This might have affected the decision to finally decommission Tower 149. MP's abandonment south of Faysville eliminated the need for Tower 145 (and it was presumably decommissioned at this time), but MP continued to serve Edinburg via the short connection north from San Juan (abandoned in 1971.) In 1979, SP abandoned their main line into the Valley between Edinburg and Falfurrias, retaining their Valley branch lines to be served via MP's main line. Much of this trackage was later abandoned, but SP's 12-mile line from McAllen north to Edinburg remains in service by Rio Valley Switching Company (RVSC).
Above: This annotated satellite image of the Tower 145 crossing shows the historic location of the main lines and nearby support tracks. All of these tracks have been removed except a segment of the former SP branch line toward Harlingen which remains in use by RVSC as a storage track that ends a mile east of the Tower 145 crossing. Below: This annotated close-up view of the same area illustrates that the Tower 145 cabin was located in the northwest corner of the diamond. (both annotations provided by Noe Gutierrez)
Above Left: Noe Gutierrez took this May, 2019 photo of a concrete pedestal with steel inserts that sits at the site of the former Tower 145 cabin. It may have been the support for a control stand that would hold a box with pushbuttons for lining the signals (see example at Tower 103.) Such boxes were often used as a simple electronic control for distant signals when a cabin interlocker was abandoned. Above Right: looking north along the MP right-of-way from the Tower 45 crossing (Noe Gutierrez photo) Below Left: This 1955 image ((c)historicaerials.com) shows the Tower 145 cabin sitting in the northwest quadrant of the MP/SP crossing casting a visible shadow to the north. Below Right: Google Earth imagery from October, 2016 shows the tracks east of the former Tower 145 crossing being used for car storage.
When Noe Gutierrez traveled to Edinburg in May 2019, he stopped in the Faysville area to take a look at the site of Tower 149. Noe describes his visit:
"The last place I intended to visit on the way in was the old Tower 149 site
west of Faysville. I couldn't - it turned out the road paralleling the old MP
line to Monte Christo (aka Monte Cristo) is the private main entrance to Lamar
Farms with very large 'No Trespassing' signs all around. I managed to talk to a
worker leaving the farm who directed me to drive on in and talk to the folks in
the office of a produce packing warehouse next to the old tower site. I was
given the name of the landowner, Chris Burns, whom I called and left a voice
mail telling him who I was and what I wanted to do there.
The next morning, not having heard from him, I called again. I spoke with him and he agreed to allow me to conduct my field checking in the area of the old tower but requested I go no further west. I drove out there right afterward and began taking pictures. Mr. Burns himself soon drove up and we had an interesting conversation. ... He knew of the old rail lines that used to cross his property and stated he'd found at least a hundred spikes over the years.
His manager then drove up, a gentleman older than both of us, and he recounted the time when the 'narrow gauge' line ran down where we were standing. He further stated that the main road, unpaved many years ago, ran down the old MP roadbed. I asked if I could possibly venture on down to where the road jogged to the north slightly where parallel fence lines 40 feet apart were located. Mr. Burns again said he'd rather I not go down there and that there was really nothing to see there. His manager stated that the old MP line used to run down the middle of those two fence lines. They then departed down that road to tend to farm business and left me to finish my pictures. Very nice people them.
I already knew the manager must be mistaken about the old MP line being narrow gauge as the San Benito & Rio Grande Valley HAD to be standard gauge to interchange with the St Louis, Brownsville, & Mexico. Further research using old aerial photographs revealed the manager to be partly correct about the location of the old MP line. The main drive was NOT located on top of the old roadbed, at least not for the first 2.25 miles. After that the road continues on, either as a paved road, dirt road, or field access road for another seven miles to where the only evidence of the old line shows up, beyond the north end of Cantu Road, presumably where the failed community of Monte Christo used to be. Here the line turned to the south to head to Alton and Mission. While the rail line may have remained fixed in place until it was abandoned, the road(s) along it did not. They were moved over the years, sometimes parallel to the railroad, and sometimes moved to the old roadbed. Those must have been the instances the manager was recalling.
I found no evidence of old rail infrastructure at the site, and there was construction traffic moving through there in connection with a pipeline being built. Old aerials show the interlocking cabin was located in the NE quadrant of the site, though. Mr. Burns had also stated that the tree line on the east side of the old SP ROW was 'virgin' in that it had not been touched since the abandonment."
Above: Tower 149 is depicted in the northeast quadrant of the MP/SP crossing on this annotated satellite image provided by Noe Gutierrez. All of the tracks in this area were abandoned many decades ago, the most recent being the north/south SP main line in 1979. Below Left: Located in the northeast quadrant of the diamond, the cabin that housed the Tower 149 interlocker casts a distinct shadow to the north in this 1955 aerial photo ((c) historicaerials.com.) Below Right: SP documentation described the Tower 149 cabin as located at "Alsonia, Texas (Faysville)." Alsonia no longer appears on county maps, but it appeared on this US Army Corp of Engineers map from 1930. Highlighted are Alsonia (green), the Tower 149 crossing (red) and Faysville (blue.) SP timetables from the 1930s list Alsonia as 1.8 miles north of Tower 149 which matches its latitude/longitude assignment in the US Geologic Survey Domestic Names database. Satellite imagery does not indicate there was ever a railroad stop or any other activity besides agriculture at Alsonia. (University of Texas, Perry Castaneda Library)