Texas Railroad History - Towers 158 and 215 - Placedo and Bloomington

Two Crossings of the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway Southeast of Victoria

Above: Rail executive John W Barriger III took this photo of the crossing in Placedo from the rear platform of his business car as his train sped southwest toward Harlingen on tracks of the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M) Railroad. Barriger's view is to the northeast toward Blessing and Bay City during a trip taken in the mid to late 1930s or perhaps the early 1940s. His car has just passed the SLB&M depot and crossed over tracks of the Southern Pacific (SP) that ran between Victoria (left) and Port Lavaca (right). The SP depot can be seen trackside northwest (left) of the SLB&M depot. Both depots appear to be boarded up, for unknown reasons, perhaps a tropical storm. The tall pole to the right of the crossing was a gatepost that had been used during an earlier time when the crossing was gated. (John W Barriger III National Railroad Library)

Left: This 1919 timetable for the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway issued by the U. S. Railroad Administration (due to Federal control during World War I) explains the presence of gates at all uncontrolled crossings (which in 1919 included Placedo) and how the gates should be operated.

Placedo was named for Placido Benavides, a Mexican citizen and area rancher who had a prominent role in resisting Mexican forces during the early stages of the Texas Revolution. The community predated the arrival of the railroads which began during the early stages of the Civil War. The charter for the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf (SA&MG) Railroad had been issued ten years before the War when citizens of Port Lavaca decided to grapple with the difficulty of moving freight between their port and the population centers farther inland. With an immediate objective of reaching Victoria, the first five miles out of Port Lavaca was completed in either 1857 or 1858. The remaining 23 miles to Victoria was opened in 1861. The SA&MG did not survive the War intact, but it was rebuilt by the Federal government afterward. When the construction debt owed to the government could not be repaid, the line went into bankruptcy and was sold at auction to Charles Morgan in 1870.

Below Left: After taking the photo in Placedo, Barriger passed through Bloomington, five miles farther south. But if he photographed the crossing there, it has not been published by the John W Barriger III National Railroad Library. Ken Stavinoha provides this undated photo of the SLB&M depot in Bloomington (photographer unknown, not Barriger.) Below Right: An 1870 edition of the American Railroad Journal published an advertisement for the public auction of the SA&MG's assets. Note that the sale includes "1 Worthless lot of Blacksmiths Tools".

Morgan operated a steamship line into the port of Indianola, near Port Lavaca, and he also purchased the 15-mile Indianola Railroad that ran from Indianola to a connection with the SA&MG at Clark's Station, about six miles out of Port Lavaca. Morgan renamed his combined railroad the Gulf, Western Texas & Pacific (GWT&P) Railroad. In 1873, he extended the tracks from Victoria to Cuero, planning to continue to San Antonio. But major hurricanes in September, 1875 and August, 1886, inflicted severe damage on the GWT&P, both physically and financially. The Indianola branch was abandoned, but the Port Lavaca line was repaired and service from there to Cuero resumed in 1887. The GWT&P was leased by Southern Pacific (SP) and eventually bought and transferred to SP's subsidiary, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway.

Left: SP's 1885 Annual Report notes that they had begun to operate the rail line from Victoria to Indianola, but mistakenly conflates two separate activities: 1) acquisition of the New York, Texas & Mexican (NYT&M) Railway and its 92-mile main line between Rosenberg and Victoria, and 2) lease of the GWT&P line from Victoria to Indianola, which was listed elsewhere as a separate 66-mile operation in a table of SP's Atlantic System mileage. Only a few months after this Report was published, the great hurricane of August 20, 1886 would wipe out the town of Indianola, which was abandoned. The GWT&P was then rebuilt into Port Lavaca from Clark's Station using the original grade which had been abandoned after the 1875 hurricane.

The second railroad into Placedo was the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico (SLB&M) Railway. 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) Railway, and 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. Yoakum later took an executive position with the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway and then became Chairman of the Frisco in 1897.

In 1903, Yoakum announced plans for the newly chartered SLB&M to build the first line into the Rio Grande Valley which did not yet have a connection to the national rail network. Construction commenced south from Robstown in August, 1903, and the line to Brownsville was finished in June, 1904. Yoakum's ultimate goal was a line to Houston, so construction resumed north from Robstown in 1905, passing through Placedo in 1906. Although Texas state law mandated interlockers at busy rail crossings, neither railroad moved to establish one for the Placedo crossing. One reason may have been the proximity of the depots to the crossing. If trains were generally stopping at the depots anyway, there was no delay in also stopping for the adjacent crossing as required by state law for uncontrolled crossings. With two railroads, Placedo began to grow; the town was formally platted in 1910. The SLB&M became a subsidiary of Missouri Pacific (MP) in 1925, but the crossing remained uncontrolled until 1929. The tracks northwest from Placedo to Victoria and Cuero, and southeast to Port Lavaca remain in operation today, owned by Union Pacific (UP) which acquired MP in 1982 and SP in 1996.

Five miles southwest of Placedo, the SLB&M built a station in 1906 at a settlement known as Bloomington, named for the town in Illinois which was the former home of nearby landowners. A Post Office opened in 1907. The town was formally platted in 1910, the same year the SLB&M built a 38-mile branch from Bloomington to Port O'Connor. This construction was the culmination of a long effort to build rails to the coast southeast of Victoria, an idea proposed in the mid 1890s by T. M. O'Connor, a wealthy Victoria cattle rancher. O'Connor owned 75,000 acres along the coast south of Indianola that he wanted to develop into a hunting and fishing resort. Roads were non-existent; O'Connor wanted rail service and he was willing to invest. A syndicate of bankers and cattlemen in Victoria was formed to charter a railroad from Victoria to Port O'Connor, the new name for the planned endpoint of the railroad. Supplies brought in by barge enabled an office building to be built in Port O'Connor along with a half-mile trestle into the bay to off-load rail materials to be brought in by ship. The plan turned out to be too ambitious and poorly managed. Grading was performed, but the funds dried up and the project came to a standstill around 1901. Several years later, another group acquired the unfinished grade and set out to lay rails to Victoria. Despite spending $100,000 to repair the grade, only one mile of track was actually laid and the project was abandoned. In 1909, Yoakum accepted an offer of $70,000 to be paid over ten years for building a line from Victoria to Port O'Connor. The SLB&M's branch from Bloomington to Port O'Connor was finished the following year. Construction continued from Bloomington to Victoria in 1912 (or 1915, depending on the source), and Port O'Connor finally had the railroad that T. M. O'Connor had envisioned twenty years earlier. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it, having died in 1910.

Right:  The February 21, 1908 edition of The Railway Age had this news item regarding the planned reconstruction of the abandoned grade between Port O'Connor and Victoria. The investors chartered their ambitious plan as the Port O'Connor, Rio Grande & Northern Railway, but like many such grandiose endeavors, this one also failed. The reference to "...considerable grading had been done before the suspension of the work." points to the original work in the late 1890s by T. M. O'Connor's investment group. In his 1941 tome, A History of the Texas Railroads, the dean  of Texas railroad historians, S. G. Reed, states that the original grading work had been completed all the way to Hallettsville! That's an enormous distance to grade without laying rail (because without rail, work locomotives could not be used to support the effort.) Yet, despite the existing grade and the expertise of Chief Engineer L. A. Gueringer (who later became Chief Engineer of the Railroad Commission of Texas), only a single mile of track was laid.  
Left:  This area map shows the relevant lines southeast of Victoria. Parallel lines to Victoria through both Placedo and Bloomington have survived to the present despite never being farther than five miles apart and both now owned by UP. All of SP's lines in this area were eventually placed under their GH&SA subsidiary although they were built originally by a mix of different companies.

In 1915, the SLB&M built a 17-mile branch to Austwell that departed from Heyser, a location on their line to Port O'Connor. The purpose of the branch was to reach large cotton farming areas at Austwell and at Tivoli, a town located along the branch. The branch was abandoned by MP in 1959. In 1933, the SLB&M ceased service to Port O'Connor. The permanent population was only 300 and area farmers had begun using roads as the primary option for moving their products. Livestock shipping by rail was still good business, and the main loading point was at Lela Pens, a couple of miles east of Seadrift. Lela Pens remained the terminus of the branch until MP abandoned the track south of Long Mott in 1969.

Long Mott was the site of a major Union Carbide chemical plant. Now owned by Dow Chemical, the plant continues to produce chemicals and plastics for consumer products. The track from Bloomington runs along the west edge of the facility, but the size of the plant and the volume of materials shipped in and out motivated the addition of tracks on the east side of the plant. Sometime between 1995 and 2004, a lengthy spur was built to connect those tracks to the former SP line near Clark's Station. This appears to have been the impetus for adding a new connector at Placedo to allow movements to (northbound) and from (southbound) the main line to Algoa.

On April 22, 1928, in response to notification by the SLB&M that the crossing at Placedo would be interlocked, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) assigned the interlocker to be #158 in their naming system. The plan was for a 10-function mechanical interlocker with controls to be located inside the SLB&M depot at the northwest corner of the crossing. This was part of a concerted effort by SLB&M to interlock all of their "cabin-eligible" crossings during the first nine months of 1929. Beginning January 3, 1929 (Tower 145 at Edinburg), the SLB&M established all nine of the cabin interlockers it would ever have. Tower 158 at Placedo was the last to become operational, on October 1, 1929. The others were at Edcouch, Lantana, Alsonia, Rosita, Angleton, Allenhurst and Blessing. Cabin interlockers were unmanned, typically just a trackside hut to house the interlocker and its controls, although sometimes a depot was used instead of a cabin. Cabin interlockers were employed where a busy line (here, the SLB&M) crossed a lightly used line (SP). For Tower 158, the controls were operated by SP train crews and the signals were normally set to allow unrestricted movement on the SLB&M. When an SP train needed to cross, an SP crewmember would enter the depot, set the signals to allow his train's movement over the diamond (thereby signaling a STOP condition on the SLB&M), and then reset the signals when the crossing was complete. SLB&M trains would always see clear signals unless they happened to approach the crossing while SP was using it. Controls might have been operated by authorized depot staff when they were on site (typically not 24 hours per day for a lightly used station.) The Tower 158 interlocker had four levers for signals, four levers for derails, two levers for facing point locks, and two spare levers. RCT records at DeGolyer Library indicate that changes were made to the interlocker on September 26, 1941 and January 11, 1952.

So...why was Bloomington not listed among the SLB&M cabin interlockers installed in 1929? The major difference was that both lines that crossed at Bloomington were owned and operated by the SLB&M. The prevailing view among Texas railroads was that they had the authority to de-conflict their own crossings however they wished, and that RCT approval was only required for grade crossings that involved at least two railroads. This understanding began to change when RCT insisted that new interlockers for rail yards be approved, even though only a single railroad was typically involved. The test case for a junction was Tower 135 in Canyon where Santa Fe did not seek RCT approval for an interlocker that involved no other railroad, yet was ultimately forced to do so. Overall enforcement for existing crossings was lax; RCT was apparently willing to "grandfather" existing controls that were not in the numbered interlocker system, but they required approvals for changes to those crossings. Sometime around 1966, MP decided to install an automatic interlocker to protect the Bloomington crossing. They sought and received approval from RCT, and #215 was the number assigned.

By the early 1960s, RCT had begun to recognize that their role in approving and managing interlockers was nearing its end. What made regulatory sense in 1902 no longer applied given the massive changes that had occurred in the railroad industry, particularly the rapidly increasing sophistication of remote control, switching, communications and signaling systems that occurred after World War II. This would likely have overwhelmed the efforts of a limited-budget state agency like RCT to retain the engineering capability necessary for reviewing and managing new railroad safety systems. RCT's simultaneous authority over the Texas oil and gas industry had begun to dominate their regulatory focus, just as petroleum engineers had come to dominate their workforce. Since railroads were required to comply with Federal safety regulations anyway, RCT could no longer sustain a viable role in managing grade crossing safety. (Every few years, there are bills introduced in the Texas Legislature to rename the Railroad Commission since it no longer manages railroads to any measurable extent.) RCT stopped managing interlockers in 1966, and their final approval was issued for Tower 215 at Bloomington.

Left: The Victoria connector in the west quadrant has existed at least since 1981 and probably years longer. A new connector (sometime between 1995 and 2004) enabled Port Lavaca traffic to merge with the main line to the north. This couldn't be done in the east quadrant without major disruption due to the presence of businesses and a US Post Office. Instead, the diamond was eliminated and the new connector crosses over the former right-of-way (ROW) to Port Lavaca and then curves back to rejoin the original track alignment about 2,300 ft. southeast of the former location of the diamond. The historic depot locations are marked with "D" near the crossing. (Google Maps)

Looking northwest along the original Port Lavaca track alignment (below), the ROW continues straight ahead, but the new connector for northbound traffic curves left to begin a long sweeping curve back to the right. (Google Street View)

Above Left: At Placedo, the connector to Port Lavaca departs UP's main line and curves to the southeast. Just before crossing the highway at grade, it passes over the original SP ROW to Port Lavaca (left) and Victoria (right). (Google Street View, May 2011) Above Right: With the Port Lavaca connector crossing in front, this view is to the northwest along the SP ROW to Victoria. The SLB&M depot was in the grassy area beyond the tracks at right, with the SP depot further beyond. (Google Street View, May 2011)

Below Left
: Looking down the SP ROW toward Port Lavaca, the gap in the trees far in the distance makes it easier to discern the precise alignment. The tracks return to the ROW about 2,000 ft. from the camera. (Google Street View, May 2011) Below Right: With about 850 ft. of the original track at Placedo removed northwest of the diamond, the line from Victoria now curves southwest on the original connector alignment to reach UP's main line toward Bloomington. This is the trackage rights route for Kansas City Southern trains operating between their Texas Mexican line at Robstown and their tracks at Victoria. (Jim King photo, c.2006)

Above Left: At Placedo, UP called the branch connection to the main line "Port Lavaca Jct." The signs were removed as of May, 2011 according to Google Street View, but perhaps the name is still used. (Jim King, c.2006) Above Right: In this undated photo, an SP train from Victoria curves southwest at Placedo to join the main line toward Bloomington. Note in the distance that the crossing diamond was still intact. Kansas City Southern has rights on the Victoria - Placedo line and uses this connector to head to Robstown to connect with the Texas Mexican Railway to reach Laredo. (photo by Leonard Ruback)

Below Left
: Facing southeast at Bloomington, the branch line from Victoria connects to the UP main line in both directions. (Jim King photo 2006) Below Right: Facing northwest at Bloomington, the branch from Long Mott curves to the north onto the UP main line. (Jim King photo 2006)

Above: This Google Earth satellite image of Bloomington shows that there are connecting tracks in three of the four quadrants created by the original X-pattern crossing. Only the south quadrant is trackless. This configuration, with the diamond removed, was in place at least by 1981 according to historic aerial imagery.

Below: Although Lela Pens was the terminus of the Port O'Connor branch for decades, it does not appear on maps and it is not listed in the USGS Domestic Names database. But Google Street View shows that it exists as a red barn along Hwy 185 about two miles east of Seadrift. The flyer posted to the gate identifies Lela Pens as stop #22 on the historical tour of Seadrift published in a 2016 Calhoun County visitor's guide. That this image is also from 2016 probably explains the bright Lela-Pens sign. The guide explains that the barn was built in 1907 by a local ranching family and the site became the area loading point for livestock shipments by rail. The tracks were located in the foreground between the highway and the barn.

Last Revised: 4/9/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Website