Two Crossings of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railway and the San Benito & Rio Grande Valley Railroad near San Benito
In June, 1903, the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico
(SLB&M) Railway was chartered to build a line to the Lower Rio Grande Valley
from Houston, hoping to establish the Valley's initial connection to the
national rail network. The SLB&M was the first of the Gulf Coast Lines (GCL)
railroads, a syndicate managed by the St. Louis Trust Company and backed
financially by the St. Louis San Francisco ("Frisco") Railroad. The Frisco's
Chairman, B. F. Yoakum, was a native Texan and long time Texas railroader. It
was his idea to create the GCL to build or buy railroads and weave them into a
system to compete directly with the Southern Pacific (SP) in Texas and
Louisiana. To lead the SLB&M, Yoakum installed his former boss, Uriah Lott, as
President. Lott had been the founder, promoter and President of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP)
he had hired Yoakum in 1886 to be the SA&AP's traffic manager. Yoakum had risen into
SA&AP's senior executive ranks, becoming General Manager in 1889. By then, the
owned lines serving San Antonio, Corpus Christi,
Houston, Waco, Kerrville
and numerous towns in between. When the SA&AP overextended its network and
couldn't pay the construction company, it went into receivership in 1890. Lott lost his job, but Yoakum was
appointed to be one of the two Receivers by the bankruptcy court. The bankruptcy
ended two years later when the SA&AP's major stockholders agreed to have it
become a subsidiary of SP. Yoakum moved on, taking an executive position with the
Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway and then becoming Chairman of the Frisco
With the SLB&M's plans for the Valley announced, SP decided to have the SA&AP build a competing line to the Valley from their nearest service point, the south Texas town of Alice. The SA&AP commenced construction out of Alice in September, 1903 toward Edinburg while the SLB&M had already started from Robstown in August, building south toward Harlingen and Brownsville. By June, 1904, the SA&AP had completed 36 miles to Falfurrias, and a month later, the SLB&M finished the 142 miles to Brownsville. Technically, the SLB&M won the race to provide the Valley with access to the national rail network because Robstown had connections to Alice and Corpus Christi over the Texas Mexican Railway. From those towns, the SA&AP had tracks to San Antonio. But the SLB&M's goal was to have their own line to Houston, which remained more than 200 miles from Robstown. Meanwhile, the Valley was only 67 miles from Falfurrias and the SA&AP had graded the first ten miles. And then...the SA&AP's construction stopped.
The work stopped because a lawsuit in Austin had resulted in a court order for SP to divest the SA&AP. Although it was initiated by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT), SP saw Yoakum and his close friendships with RCT commissioners as the unseen force behind the lawsuit, which had come as a total surprise -- SP had owned the SA&AP for eleven years! And SP was particularly galled since, as SA&AP Receiver, Yoakum had supported SP's acquisition of the SA&AP as a means of ending the bankruptcy. It was facially obvious, however, that SP had broken Texas' railroad competition law by acquiring the SA&AP, a direct competitor with numerous parallel rail lines. The lawsuit should have been filed in 1892 when the Federal bankruptcy court approved the plan. The anti-competitive nature of the acquisition was no secret to anyone, yet it had been completely ignored by RCT and the Texas Attorney General.
This overview shows the actual and projected main lines in the Lower Rio
Grande Valley as the race to the Valley began in the summer of 1903. The SLB&M
south from Robstown, and the SA&AP was building south from Alice.
Construction was southward so that supplies (including work locomotives)
could be shipped to the construction sites by rail. The Texas Mexican
Railway, serving both Alice and Robstown, had been completed between
Laredo and Corpus Christi in 1881. The SA&AP's line from San Antonio to
Corpus Christi had been completed in 1886, and two years later, a
branch line was built from Skidmore through
Mathis to Alice. The SA&AP's construction
toward Edinburg and McAllen stopped at Falfurrias and did not resume
until late 1926, by which time, the SA&AP had returned to being a
subsidiary of SP.
Continuing northward from Robstown in 1905, the SLB&M immediately crossed the SA&AP's Corpus Christi line at Sinton. The entire route was completed to Algoa in 1906 which became the northern terminus for the SLB&M. From there, Yoakum was able to negotiate rights into Houston on GC&SF's tracks via Alvin.
There were numerous branch lines in the Valley (not shown.) After the SA&AP arrived and built its branches, the result was six crossings with interlockers approved by RCT in the 1928-29 timeframe.
The lawsuit succeeded, but SA&AP's new owners selected an executive management team that was nonetheless friendly with SP; some of them were current SP employees! It's likely that RCT was not happy about this development; they'd sued to reestablish a substantial competitor for SP in south Texas, only to end up with SP surrogates filling SA&AP's executive ranks. The court order required SP to provide financial backing for any construction bonds already issued by the SA&AP, but some (perhaps large) portion of those funds had been used to build to Falfurrias, so it was unclear whether the SA&AP would continue southward on its own. In his definitive work, A History of the Texas Railroads (St. Clair Publishing, 1941), the dean of Texas railroad historians, S. G. Reed, explained the prevailing theory of why the SA&AP's extension to the Valley ended abruptly:
The new owners did not undertake to operate the property [SA&AP] as a part of the Southern Pacific, but they selected as officers mostly Southern Pacific men. ...[T]he project was dropped, in June, 1904, for lack of funds and also to quiet the Railroad Commission. The reason officially assigned for discontinuing work was that there was not enough traffic in the Valley to support two lines, but another reason was surmised and may have been controlling, which was that [E. H.] Harriman, who then controlled the S. P., and Yoakum had effected a mutually satisfactory agreement for preferential routing of traffic between their respective systems. It is known that some such agreement was effected about that time and it continued for many years, but that it involved the abandonment by the S. A. & A. P. of the Valley extension is only a surmise."
[Editor: S. G. Reed began his railroad career with SP as a traffic manager in the south Texas town of Victoria in 1889, so I'd say it's a "well-educated surmise".]
While the SA&AP's line to the Valley stopped at
Falfurrias, the SLB&M's route between the Valley and
Algoa was completed in 1906. They
also built a lengthy branch line from Harlingen west to Rio Grande City. In
1910, another syndicate backed by the Frisco began constructing secondary lines in the
Valley. The San Benito & Rio Grande Valley (SB&RGV) Railway was
then chartered by Frisco interests two years later to take over this work and finish the construction.
SB&RGV operations commenced in two separate service areas in 1912, reported to
RCT as a total of 62.1 miles of track. One area
was in the vicinity of Mission; the other was a combined 30 miles of tracks in
opposite directions from San Benito
leading to Santa Maria to the southwest, and Rio Hondo to the northeast.
SLB&M provided connections for the SB&RGV at Mission and San Benito. In essence,
the SB&RGV was simply providing branch lines for the SLB&M.
On May 27, 1913, the Frisco went into receivership and lost control of the GCL and the SB&RGV. Within the GCL, the NOT&M was the parent company to which the other GCL railroads, including the SLB&M, were subordinated. The SB&RGV had not been a GCL railroad, but it was acquired by the NOT&M in 1916 and continued in its role as a branch line operator for the SLB&M. On January 1, 1925, Missouri Pacific (MP) bought the NOT&M. By this time, the NOT&M also owned the International & Great Northern Railroad which had a significant presence across Texas, including a line through San Antonio to Laredo. SP reacted to MP's sudden and substantial competitive posture in south Texas by quickly seeking to re-acquire the SA&AP. Permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission was granted, and as an SP subsidiary, the SA&AP restarted construction south of Falfurrias on July 30, 1926.
In response to SP's move, MP preemptively built an SLB&M branch line west from Raymondville in 1926. One objective was to reach areas in and around Edinburg before the SA&AP arrived. The branch went through Hargill and Faysville to Monte Christo, and there were additional branches from Hargill to Edcouch and from Faysville to Edinburg. SA&AP rails reached Edinburg in early 1927 and the SA&AP immediately built a 63-mile branch east to Brownsville. The branch crossed the SLB&M main line at Harlingen and also crossed the SB&RGV's Rio Hondo branch near Lantana. With the SA&AP entering Brownsville, MP countered with a 19-mile SB&RGV branch east from San Benito to Abney in 1928 (extended to Port Isabel in 1941.) This branch crossed the SA&AP near Laureles, just north of the town of Los Fresnos.
This image is a snippet of a larger map published by Mike Walker ((c)
SPV, 2001.) The former SLB&M main line through Harlingen
and the SA&AP branch between Harlingen and Brownsville are shown as solid lines indicating they were intact
when the map was published (and still are.) The branch
from San Benito to Rio Hondo is also shown intact, but according to
Randy Curlin, the tracks had been
removed in 1999 before the map was published. The map has been annotated
to show the crossings near San Benito that required interlockers.
The first interlocked crossing in this area was at Tower 138 (green circle), a 2-story manned tower where the SA&AP built across the SLB&M at Harlingen. It was commissioned on September 10, 1928. The next was Tower 147 (pink circle) at Lantana. This was where the SA&AP built across the SB&RGV line to Rio Hondo, commissioned on March 13, 1929. The last to be commissioned was Tower 151 (blue circle) on April 17, 1929, where the SB&RGV built across SA&AP's Brownsville branch. It was officially located at Rosita, a name used in SP's interlocker documentation. The map has locations called Laureles and Gray Bill nearby, but it does not show Rosita in the vicinity (nor anywhere else.) A 1932 MP timetable says that "Graybill" was 0.4 miles east of the crossing and Laureles was 0.8 miles west. The crossing near Laureles is confirmed to be the site of Tower 151 by SP timetables from the 1940s.
According to RCT records, Tower 147 and Tower 151 were both commissioned as 11-function mechanical cabin interlockers. Based on SP's Tower 149 (Alsonia/Faysville) documentation in the collection of Carl Codney, it is likely that these eleven functions consisted of four derails, four home signals, two distant signals and one door lock. The two distant signals would have been on the SA&AP line so that approaching trains would have adequate distance to stop if the signal indicated the crossing was occupied by an SB&RGV train. The SB&RGV tracks did not need distant signals because (as explained below) those trains always stopped at the diamond before crossing.
Through the end of 1930, RCT published an annual list of active interlockers. For each interlocker, the list included the railroads involved, the type of interlocking plant, the function count and the location. For all Lower Rio Grande Valley interlockers, the SA&AP and the SLB&M were listed as the railroads involved, even though Tower 147 and Tower 151 were on SB&RGV rail lines. The SLB&M was substantially larger then the SB&RGV and its locomotives undoubtedly appeared on SB&RGV tracks. It seems likely that RCT merely assigned responsibility for all MP activity in the Valley to the SLB&M, even though SB&RGV was a legally distinct entity. SP internal documentation shows that for Tower 151 (below), SP defined the SB&RGV as the other railroad.
(Carl Codney collection) "D-205" drawings were used by SP to
...LEVERS, FUNCTIONS AND DIVISION
OF EXPENSE AT INTERLOCKING PLANT for each tower that involved SP, in this
case, Tower 151. The reference "...at
or near Rosita, Texas" is likely the source for RCT's use of "Rosita"
in its published lists of interlockers. Why SP used this name is
unknown, and no other historical use of it in this vicinity has been found. The DATE of November 8, 1928
was about five months before
the interlocker was approved for service by RCT. From
the REMARKS column, it is known that the plant was designed March 20,
1928. This was during a nine day span in which the interlockers for
Tower 149 and
Tower 146 were also designed (perhaps Towers 138, 145 and
147 as well,
but those D-205 records haven't been located.) This version of the Tower
151 D-205 form is clearly a revision to the original because it was "Revised effective Aug 1 -
1944 account T&NO derails 4 & 8 abandoned." That change
resulted in a new
expense split of 50/50 based on the function count.
The "Void" scrawl indicates that there is a later version that became the master document. The last known version records a change dated December 1, 1955 when approach signals were made inoperative on the SB&RGV. As those signals don't appear on the document at left, they must have been added on yet another revision later than this one that preceded the final version. Instead of "Void", the final document has a hand-written note across it... "Out of service 7 - 1 - 69." The decommissioning of Tower 151 can be attributed to MP's abandonment of the SB&RGV line to Port Isabel in 1969.
The document notes that the interlocker is OPERATED BY "SB&RGV Trainmen", i.e. having stopped at the diamond, an SB&RGV train crewmember would enter the cabin to set the controls to permit his train to cross. Once across, he would reset the controls for unimpeded operation by the SA&AP. The document also says that the interlocker was MAINTAINED BY "SA&AP Ry". There was no definitive rule as to which railroad would handle maintenance for a cabin interlocker, but it was common for the busier railroad to be assigned maintenance responsibility.
The image below is from a 1932 MP employee timetable. It describes the cabin interlockers in south Texas as being "with T&NO", the Texas & New Orleans Railroad, SP's principal operating railroad in Texas which leased the SA&AP and most other SP railroads in Texas in 1927. The cabin interlockers listed "will be handled by trainmen", i.e. crew members of trains covered by this timetable. Thus, T&NO trains would normally proceed unimpeded through each interlocker unless the signals indicated that the diamond was occupied by an MP (SLB&M or SB&RGV) train. In the order presented below, the interlocker references are Tower 145, Tower 146, Tower 149, Tower 147 and Tower 151.
The surprising element to SP's D-205 document for Tower 151 is that the SB&RGV is listed as SENIOR COMPANY even though RCT construction records state that the SB&RGV tracks were laid in 1928, a year after the SA&AP's tracks. By construction date, the SA&AP should have been the senior company. Under state law, the senior company was not required to share the capital outlay for installing an interlocker at crossings created after the interlocker law was passed in 1901, but recurring costs for staffing (manned towers) and maintenance were shared based on the percentage of assigned interlocker functions. Listing the SB&RGV as the SENIOR COMPANY for Tower 151 would imply that SP funded the design and installation of Tower 151 even though its tracks were there first. The best conjecture for this is that SP and MP swapped tower construction projects. This identical scenario was reversed at Alsonia (Faysville) where the SA&AP arrived after the SLB&M yet the SA&AP is listed as the SENIOR COMPANY in the D-205 for Tower 149. Why swap projects? The answer has not been determined, but it's worth noting that the SB&RGV was the senior company at Tower 147, about 10 rail miles northwest of Tower 151 along the SA&AP, and thus SP was responsible for funding that interlocker. As the Tower 147 and Tower 151 interlockers were both 11-function mechanical cabin interlockers near each other that involved the same railroads with the same operational scenario (signals normally lined for SA&AP operation), SP may have decided it could design and build Tower 147 and Tower 151 simultaneously at a savings compared to the costs for Tower 147 and Tower 149, the two interlockers that SP should have funded based on actual seniority. Tower 149 was more than 45 rail miles from Tower 147, so SA&AP construction crews would not have had the convenience of building a second cabin interlocker only ten miles away (although this may not have been much of a factor since they were ultimately commissioned about a month apart.) And why would MP want to swap projects? Again, the reasons are unknown, if it even happened. But the SB&RGV had never been involved with an interlocker and most likely did not have the engineering expertise to take on the project. SB&RGV would have needed to borrow engineering staff from MP or the SLB&M for the design and construction effort. SLB&M management may have preferred to fund and take the engineering lead on Tower 149 instead, an interlocker their railroad would actually use.
Above: TopoUSA map snippet annotated with rail lines and towers
Above: These chronologically consecutive aerial views ((c) historicaerials.com) of the Tower 147 crossing show the removal of the cabin sometime during a span of 13 years. In 1970 (left), the cabin was sitting northwest of the diamond casting a shadow to the north. By 1983 (right), the tracks remained in place but the cabin was gone.
Above: This April, 1999 photo taken by Randy Curlin at the Tower 147 crossing is looking east, but "railroad south", on the SP toward Brownsville. The MP Rio Hondo branch ran from San Benito (right) to Rio Hondo (left). The white post is the only evidence of a swinging gate that once protected movements across the diamond. Since distant signals controlled by the interlocker had existed on the SP line, it's possible (but undetermined) that opening the gate would trigger a stop condition on SP's distant signals. It's obvious that by the time of this photo, the crossing was uncontrolled and all trains were required to stop. Trains moved slowly on these tracks anyway, so the delay incurred by stopping at the crossing may have been deemed insignificant, eliminating the need for an interlocker. If you have details of how this crossing was handled after removal of the cabin interlocker, please contact the webmaster. Below: Randy took this April, 1999 photo from the southwest quadrant of Tower 147 looking northeast along the MP toward Rio Hondo. It shows MP's homemade stop sign with the SP line crossing in the background.
Randy Curlin's observations of Tower 147:
"The location was extremely obscure and I doubt that many photos exist. It was the location of the MP Rio Hondo Branch running from San Benito to Rio Hondo crossing the SP line to Brownsville. SP movements had priority. It was protected by a swinging gate (from 1970s MP timetables) then later homemade stop signs (1990s). The branch was sold to the Rio Valley Switching Co to serve a remaining petrochemical firm around 1997. By 1998 the firm stopped shipping by rail and the line was abandoned and removed in 1999."
In 1956, as MP was reorganized coming out of bankruptcy, its various NOT&M railroads became fully merged and ceased to exist as separate entities on March 1 of that year. Two decades later, SP abandoned their former SA&AP main line south to Edinburg in 1979 and began sharing MP's former SLB&M main line to the Valley. In 1982, Union Pacific (UP) acquired MP, and in the mid-90's, UP also acquired SP. By then, SP's former SA&AP branch from Edinburg to Brownsville was the major component of what was left of SP in the Valley. Satellite imagery from December, 2019 shows that the former SP tracks are still intact from Rogerslacy through Harlingen east to Brownsville, although west of Harlingen, much of the use appears to be car storage.
Below: This 1955 USGS
Topographic map shows the
Tower 151 crossing in the center of the image.
Above Left: This 1953 aerial image ((c)historicaerials.com) shows that the Tower 151 cabin sat in the northeast quadrant of the diamond. The bright spot to the north on the other side of the SA&AP tracks may have been a signal assembly. Above Left: It is apparent from the USGS map that the SB&RGV line was located a short distance south of Bingley Road (FM2893) and a substantially larger distance north of Kretz Road, both of which still exist. The right-of-way appears to have passed parallel to and slightly south of what is now Delta Drive. Historic aerial imagery shows that the housing subdivision did not develop until after 1980, by which time the former SB&RGV grade had been obliterated by farming and other land uses.
Facing east with the UP tracks crossing in the distance, this appears
to be a view along the former SB&RGV right-of-way. The Tower 151 interlocker
cabin would likely have been visible from this vantage point (and perhaps
resembled the shed visible in the distance to the right.)