Texas Railroad History - Tower 154 - Angleton

A Crossing of the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway and the Houston & Brazos Valley Railway

Above: John W. Barriger III snapped this photo of the Missouri Pacific (MP) depot in Angleton from the rear platform of his business car as his train proceeded south toward Brownsville on the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M) Railway. Geographically, the view is to the northeast with the Houston & Brazos Valley Railway crossing the SLB&M adjacent to the depot. By this date, probably mid-1930s, MP owned both railroads, hence they had erected a "union depot" near the crossing. Since 1929, this crossing had been controlled by Tower 154, a mechanical interlocking plant that, at least by time of this photo, was housed inside the depot. Below: This undated photo from the collection of  Jim Williams shows the MP depot more clearly with the H&BV tracks passing beside it. The white placards visible to train crews on both lines announce that the Tower 154 interlocker is housed inside.

The town of Velasco was founded in 1831 along the banks of the Brazos River, four miles from the Gulf of Mexico. It was an important town in Texas history -- the site where the Treaty of Velasco was signed in 1836, and a temporary capital of the Republic of Texas. The town declined substantially after the Civil War, but by the early 1890s, economic revival brought new construction in an attempt to create a deep water port facility at the mouth of the Brazos River. In 1891, the Velasco Terminal Railway (VTR) was founded to serve the port with grand ideas to build a rail line from Velasco to Hempstead. Two land promoters founded the town of Angleton sixteen miles northwest of Velasco and, to attract the railroad, offered an interest in their land in exchange for the railroad building through the center of town. By the end of 1892, a 20-mile rail line had been completed from Velasco through Angleton to Chenango Junction (later renamed Anchor) where a connection was made with an existing line owned by the International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad.

The VTR attracted the attention of E. H. Cunningham who owned a large sugar plantation at Sugar Land. Through the Port of Galveston, Cunningham was importing a large volume of sugar cane and low grade sugar products from Cuba that were being shipped by rail to his sugar mills and refinery. Routing through the Port of Velasco was an intriguing option because it was closer than Galveston and was connected by rail to Anchor, only 32 miles from Sugar Land. Cunningham knew the I-GN and VTR could provide the necessary rail service from Velasco, but he was also pondering the alternative of having his own rail line from House Junction (near the main sugar mill) to Anchor, eliminating the I-GN haul. Cunningham's successor, William Eldridge, proceeded to build such a line in 1916 as an extension of his Sugar Land Railway. By then, the VTR had folded and its initial reorganization had also failed. It had finally been re-chartered as the Houston & Brazos Valley (H&BV) Railway in 1907. Eldridge toyed with building four miles past Anchor into Angleton but did not do so.

Having reached Anchor, the reason Eldridge pondered building into Angleton was the opportunity for a direct rail connection to Brownsville to facilitate importing Mexican sugar cane. Doing so would have eliminated the hauls of both the I-GN and the H&BV. The connection to Brownsville was available on the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M) Railway which had built through Angleton several years earlier. The SLB&M was part of the Gulf Coast Lines (GCL) syndicate headed by B. F. Yoakum. Yoakum was a major force in midwest railroading -- simultaneously Chairman of the St. Louis San Francisco ("Frisco") Railway, a member of the Board of the Colorado & Southern Railway, and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. Yoakum was also a native Texan who had worked for three Texas railroads. He knew Texas and Texas railroading very well. His plan for the GCL was to compete with Southern Pacific (SP) along the Gulf Coast by completing a continuous route from Brownsville to New Orleans. This was to be accomplished by acquiring railroads to fill specific gaps and building new tracks where necessary. Houston would be the focal point for operations, so Yoakum founded the Houston Belt & Terminal (HB&T) Railway to provide switching services and to construct and operate a union passenger depot in Houston.

With substantial corporate intrigue involving Yoakum and SP, the SLB&M succeeded in building south from Robstown to Brownsville in 1904. This gave the Valley its first access to the national rail network through a connection to the Texas Mexican Railway line from Robstown to Alice where a connection to the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA&AP) Railway provided a route to the north. Yoakum then began building north from Robstown with the goal of reaching Houston, passing through Angleton in 1905-06. Rather than go all the way into Houston, Yoakum elected to stop at Algoa and negotiate trackage rights from there to Houston on Santa Fe rails.

Drainage infrastructure had long been a major public policy issue in Brazoria County, yet Yoakum had not anticipated the difficulty of building through the swamps and marshes near the Brazos River. To preserve schedule, Yoakum started building southwest from Algoa through Angleton to the Brazos while continuing to build east from Bay City to the river.

: The Alvin Sun of May 26, 1905 updated the "Coast line" (GCL) progress south from Algoa through Liverpool, anticipating that grading would be complete to the river within 90 days. Right: Seven months later, the Brownsville Daily Herald of December 5, 1905 reported that ties (but not rails) had been laid from Angleton to Oyster Creek, less than half the distance from Angleton to the Brazos River. Yet, the railroad was claiming "through trains" by January 1, 1906, only three weeks away! The first passenger train to make the trip through the Brazos bottomlands was a VIP train to Galveston via Algoa on March 13, 1906. Regular service could not commence because the grade, ballast and bridges between Algoa and Bay City were determined to be insufficiently engineered to withstand the rainy season in Brazoria County. Regular service through this track segment did not begin until the summer of 1907, more than a year later.

The GCL syndicate was controlled by the Frisco, but problems arose when the Frisco entered receivership in 1914. The GCL railroads had financial commonality through the St. Louis Trust Co. which had backed the syndicate, but they did not have the top-level executive structure of a corporation -- individual GCL railroads were managed cooperatively but separately by Frisco executives. Thus, a reorganization was necessary so that a single corporate entity could own and operate all of the component railroads. A new parent company, the New Orleans, Texas & Mexico (NOT&M) Railway was incorporated in 1916, with the SLB&M as one of its railroads. The NOT&M was, in essence, "the GCL", and it operated independently into the 1920s.

When, the I-GN came out of yet another receivership in 1922, it had more than 1,100 miles of track in Texas, but its repeated financial reorganizations made it a good target for takeover. The Frisco tried to buy it in 1922 but was rebuffed by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which refused to approve the sale. Missouri Pacific (MP) tried to buy the I-GN in 1924 as a means of gaining access to the Texas market, but again, the ICC nixed the sale. But MP had a fallback strategy; it helped to arrange for the NOT&M to buy the I-GN, simply to keep it out of the hands of other competitors. The sale of the I-GN to the NOT&M was approved by the ICC in June, 1924. MP was then able to buy the NOT&M on January 1, 1925 with approval from the ICC. Thus, they acquired the target I-GN along with all of the GCL railroads.

The other railroad in Angleton, the H&BV, was going through its own significant ownership changes in this same timeframe. The H&BV had been able to sustain a profitable business shipping sulfur from one of the world's largest sulfur mines located at the new town of Freeport which had been founded in 1912 downriver from Velasco (and into which Velasco was absorbed in 1957). The H&BV had become half-owned by the Missouri - Kansas - Texas ("Katy") Railroad in 1913, with Freeport sulfur mining interests owning the other half. The Katy went into receivership in 1915, and the Katy's share of the H&BV was sold to SP when the Katy was reorganized in 1923. As the H&BV was an orphan in the SP rail network, not connected to any other SP railroad, SP sold its interest to the NOT&M in 1924, which also acquired the terminal railroad at Freeport and a branch line to a large sulfur mine at Hoskins Mound. This gave the NOT&M ownership of both railroads at Angleton, and likewise, MP's acquisition of the NOT&M in 1925 gave it ownership of both railroads. Although under common ownership, the SLB&M and H&BV continued to operate with their own names until 1956 when they were fully merged into MP.

The H&BV / SLB&M crossing at Angleton was uncontrolled, hence all trains were required to stop before proceeding across the diamond. The crossing had existed since 1906, but apparently neither railroad had ever sought to have it interlocked. It remained uncontrolled until July 22, 1929 when RCT commissioned a 10-function mechanical cabin interlocker, Tower 154, to begin operation at the Angleton crossing. Whether or not the MP union depot existed at that time is unknown; if not, a cabin was used to house the electronics until the depot was built adjacent to the crossing. The interlocking plant and its controls were ultimately housed in the depot, which bore white placards with the number "154" on the two sides of the building visible to train crews to denote the presence of Tower 154. This was one of ten interlocking plants involving the SLB&M to be commissioned in the 13 months between September 10, 1928 and October 1, 1929, but the motivation for this flurry of interlocker construction on the SLB&M is unknown. The first of these was a manned tower, Tower 138 in Harlingen; the other nine were cabin interlockers at Angleton, Allenhurst, Blessing, Placedo, Edinburg (two), Edcouch, Lantana and Rosita.

Above Left: This excerpt from a 1949 article in Railway Age (Vol. 127, No. 6) describes the replacement of the Tower 154 mechanical interlocker with a new Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) machine "located in an office at Angleton...", most likely the MP depot. CTC control extended from Algoa to Vanderbilt, a town on the SLB&M about 80 rail miles south of Angleton.

In the years before RCT began to allow automatic interlockers in 1930, cabin interlockers were used for situations in which the use of a manned tower was not cost-effective. The most common was where a lightly used branch line crossed a main line. In that situation, the staffing expense of a manned tower could not be justified since the signals were almost always set to allow unrestricted movement on the main line, i.e. there was little for an operator to do. A trackside "cabin" (a small hut with a lockable door) would be built to house the interlocking plant and its controls, and a member of the train crew on the lightly used line would enter the cabin and operate the controls to signal a "Stop" condition on the main line to allow his train to cross. When the train had passed, the crewmember would return the control to the normal position granting unrestricted movements on the main line. Main line traffic would never see a "Stop" condition except when the crossing was actually occupied.

When a cabin-type interlocker was to be located near a depot, it made sense to house the equipment and controls in the depot instead of a separate cabin, and often there would be someone in the depot trained to operate the system (typically the telegraph operator, if one was on duty.) Although the documentation has not been located, the ten functions of the Tower 154 interlocker were undoubtedly as follows: a derail in all four directions, a home signal in all four directions and a distant signal on the SLB&M tracks in both directions. Distant signals warned approaching trains on whether they needed to plan to stop at the crossing. They were not needed on the H&BV tracks because every H&BV train stopped at the home signal by the diamond to wait for the controls to be changed authorizing it to proceed. The Tower 154 plant and controls were eliminated when the CTC system was installed in 1949.

Left: This map shows the post-1926 railroad network near Angleton (not all tracks are shown.) Through its NOT&M (GCL) subsidiary, MP acquired the Sugar Land Railway (SLRy) in 1926. The goal of the SLRy extension from House Junction to Anchor in 1916 had been the potential to lower raw material costs by routing sugar cane imports through Velasco instead of Galveston. Rail access via Angleton for cane imports from Mexico on the SLB&M was also a consideration. Whether either of these goals was ever achieved by the SLRy is undetermined. But once MP owned both the SLRy and the I-GN, the route from Anchor to Hawdon on the I-GN Columbia Tap branch offered a superior alternative to the parallel SLRy. MP abandoned the 21 miles of SLRy track between House Junction and Anchor in 1932.

The Columbia Tap was one of the early railroads in Texas, officially the  Houston Tap & Brazoria Railway. The Tap ran from downtown Houston south to the east bank of the Brazos River at East Columbia, arriving there in 1860 and earning the nickname "Columbia Tap" (a nickname still in use.) The plan to build a bridge across the Brazos was thwarted by the outbreak of the Civil War. Although it never did cross the river, the Columbia Tap had a reliable business hauling people, raw materials and finished products for the many sugar refineries and plantations in the area. It was acquired by the Houston & Great Northern (H&GN) in 1873, and a few months later, the H&GN merged with the International Railroad to create the I-GN.

The SLRy line from House Junction to Hawdon remained in service so the SLRy could continue to access Houston via the Columbia Tap. North of Sugarland Junction, the SLRy tracks went to Tower 114 near downtown Sugarland. Thus, SLRy passenger trains from Sugarland to Houston had an unusual route that headed due south, away from Houston, to reach Hawdon where the trains turned back to the north to go into Houston on the Columbia Tap.

During MP's major reorganization in 1956, the I-GN, H&BV and SLB&M became fully integrated into MP and no longer operated under their original names. MP's Columbia Tap branch was abandoned in stages: south of Anchor in 1956, south of Rosharon in 1962, south of Hawdon in 1987, and south of Arcola in 1999. Today, the tracks curve west immediately south of Arcola and enter an aggregates yard owned by CEMEX.

When MP abandoned the Columbia Tap from Rosharon to Anchor, it also abandoned the former H&BV tracks from Angleton to Anchor; they served no purpose since the I-GN and SLRy tracks at Anchor were already gone. All Freeport shipping was being routed on the former SLB&M via Algoa, where Yoakum was able to negotiate trackage rights (in 1908) on the GC&SF to Houston via the branch line at Alvin. That branch led directly to Tower 81 and into New South Yard built by Yoakum's Houston Belt & Terminal Railway.

In 1924, the H&BV built a branch line to Hoskins, site of a major sulfur mine. The branch was abandoned by MP in stages beginning in 1970.

Besides Tower 154 at Angleton, there were three additional numbered interlocking towers on this map. Towers 161 and 162 at Arcola and Sugarland Junction, respectively, became operational in July, 1930. Tower 65 at Algoa operated between 1906 and 1911.

Union Pacific (UP) acquired MP in 1982 and operated it as a subsidiary until it was fully merged in 1997. The GC&SF became part of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1887 until it was fully merged in 1965. Santa Fe merged with Burlington Northern in 1995 to create Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF.) UP still operates the rights between Houston and Algoa via Alvin that were negotiated by Yoakum. The tracks on the above map that remain operational are the GC&SF (now BNSF), UP's former SLB&M line south of Algoa, UP's former H&BV branch from Angleton to Freeport (not including the branch to Hoskins), and UP's Columbia Tap tracks north of Arcola.

Left: These track charts (courtesy Ed Chambers) were produced by the Katy Railroad's Texas-based engineering department in 1915. The Katy maintained track charts for almost every significant crossing or junction in Texas, regardless of whether their railroad was involved. The significant feature of the Angleton chart is that it shows two depots, neither of which is particularly close to the crossing. At some point, a combined MP depot for both railroads was built near the crossing.

Right: Since the chart is dated the year prior to the arrival of the SLRy at Anchor, it does not show the SLRy. It does show a depot; the town thrived prior to WWI, but lost its post office in 1920.

Below: These undated photos of the SLB&M (left) and H&BV (right) depots at Angleton might show the structures that were present at the time the Katy track chart above was created. (Brazos County Historical Museum images)

Above Left: This Google Earth image from 2018 shows the remaining tracks near the Tower 154 crossing, now Angleton Junction. The former SLB&M crosses the image diagonally, showing the tail end of a northbound UP train heading for Algoa. The former H&BV tracks only head due south now, but they previously continued north across the SLB&M toward Anchor. Angleton Yard just beyond the left edge of the image dates back at least to the early 1980s, but it was expanded significantly in 2018 to add a Storage In Transit yard with a capacity of 1,100 cars. The substantial rail infrastructure in this region is due to the numerous petrochemical plants nearby and the Port of Freeport, which handled 30 million tons of freight in 2020. Above Right: What appears to be the former MP freight depot in Angleton is now in use as a UP office. (Jim King photo, 2006) Below Left: Looking generally west, a BNSF train with Canadian National #2550 as the trailing engine passes through Angleton heading southwest toward Bay City, exercising BNSF rights to use UP's former SLB&M route. The track in the foreground is the southeast connector to the Freeport line to the south (left edge of the image). Hopper cars on the southwest connector in the distance are being pulled by a UP train into Angleton Yard. (Jim King photo, 2006) Below Right: Looking south from the north side of the former Tower 154 crossing, the sign sits on the former H&BV right-of-way to Anchor. (Jim King photo, 2006)

Above: Two Google Street Views of UP's former SLB&M line taken from the Loop 274 overpass: southwest (left) and northeast (right)

Last Revised: 2/24/2022 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.