Two Crossings of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway near Sugar Land
Modern Photo - Tower 161
Interlocking control cabinet for Tower 161 at Arcola (Jim King photo)
In 1856, the 6.5 mile Houston Tap railroad was built south from Houston to connect with the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado (BBB&C) Railroad, creating the first railroad junction in Texas. The Houston Tap was then extended 45 miles south, reaching East Columbia, a major shipping center on the Brazos River, in 1860. In doing so, the rail line picked up a nickname, "Columbia Tap", that persists today. The Columbia Tap served the sugar and cotton plantations south of Houston, providing them with access to shipping points at Harrisburg (via the connection with the BBB&C) and East Columbia. The plantations served by the Columbia Tap included the Arcola Plantation owned by Jonathan Waters who was a major investor and officer with the BBB&C. The sugar business was lucrative and provided freight loads and other commerce, but the economic disruption caused by the Civil War nearly destroyed the railroads. The Columbia Tap had deteriorated severely by the time it was acquired by the Houston & Great Northern Railroad in 1871. Subsequent mergers and acquisitions resulted in a succession of owners: the International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad, the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and Union Pacific.
In 1877, the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railroad built its initial main line out of Galveston, reaching the Columbia Tap at Arcola, 42 miles from Galveston. The Santa Fe line terminated at Arcola for two years, serving area sugar mills with access to the port of Galveston. Construction continued twenty miles west to Richmond in 1879, a segment that included a major bridge project over the Brazos River. In this area, the Santa Fe line was about nine miles south of, and roughly parallel to, the BBB&C, which had been extended west through the town of Sugar Land, crossing the Brazos River and eventually reaching the Colorado River.
Sugar Land had a large sugar mill built in 1843 that had become the main refinery of the Cunningham Sugar Company owned by Ed Cunningham. The refinery was served by the BBB&C and later, its successor, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) owned by Southern Pacific. In 1893, Cunningham, G. B. Miller, and other Sugar Land businessmen chartered the Sugar Land Railway to provide rail competition against the GH&SA. This would lower the cost of sugar cane imports from Cuba and refined sugar exports to eastern markets. The new railroad would also improve sugar cane transportation to the mill from the cane plantations south of Sugar Land. The new railroad passed through the community of Duke, home of J. H. B. House, one of the railroad's investors. Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) records list the initial construction as 14.2 miles between the GH&SA connection at Sugar Land (eventually controlled by Tower 114) and the I-GN (Columbia Tap) connection at Arcola, where trains could use the wye to turn around. By this time, Duke was also on the Santa Fe line, and Santa Fe wanted the Sugar Land Railway investors to include a connection at Duke so that Santa Fe could provide competitive access to the port at Galveston. The Galveston Daily News of March 23, 1893 quotes Mr. S. K. Wheeler, superintendent of transportation with Santa Fe, saying "I do not see why Cunningham and Miller will build a road twenty-five miles long to connect with the International and Great Northern when they can reach the Santa Fe by building about eight miles. Our road can handle the sugar from Galveston as cheaply as the Southern Pacific...". The reference to "twenty-five miles" was based on the mistaken assumption that the Sugar Land Railway would build due south to a connection with the I-GN at Anchor for direct access to the port of Velasco. Although this eventually came true, this was not the initial construction plan.
This 1908 map is courtesy of John Walker's excellent website about life on the Brazos River including a history of the Sugar Land Railway.
The map shows the community of Duke, with the Sugar Land Railroad paralleling the Santa Fe Railroad between Duke and Arcola. The map
shows a connection with the Santa Fe at Duke (just above the 'R' in "CLEAR LAKE"). Note that the map identifies the Sugar Land Railroad
as the "Cunningham Road".
In 1908, William Eldridge acquired the Cunningham Sugar Co. and control of the Sugar Land Railway. Eldridge had helped to build the Cane Belt Railroad (including the town of Eldridge) and he quickly reorganized the plantation and sugar refinery into the Imperial Sugar Company [and since the mill was built in 1843 and the corporate headquarters remain at Sugar Land today, Imperial Sugar is the oldest business in Texas continuously operating at the same site.] In 1912, Cunningham extended the Sugar Land Railway south across the Santa Fe line to serve the Arcola Sugar Mill. From this location (which became known as House Junction), the line was extended east a couple of miles to make a new connection with the Columbia Tap south of Arcola. Eldridge also rebuilt some private narrow gauge tracks on the former Cunningham plantation that had served the Arcola mill and used them to expand the Sugar Land Railway south from House Junction. RCT records list 13.62 miles of new construction for the Sugar Land Railway in 1912 from Arcola to "Ratchford", an unknown location (also spelled "Rotchford" by the Handbook of Texas). This construction total would include the new rails south across the Santa Fe line to House Junction and further south into the plantation along the right-of-way of the narrow gauge tracks, plus two miles for the new connection to the Columbia Tap (at Hawdon, also spelled Howden. Hawdon is used on recent maps, but neither spelling appears in the Handbook of Texas -- Hawdon appears to have been the name of a railroad switch. The RCT reference to Arcola as a terminating point of the 1912 construction may have been because Hawdon was on the Arcola Planation). This construction resulted in the original main line through Duke to Arcola Junction becoming an unnecessary branch line, reportedly abandoned when the new connection at Hawdon was opened (although this is not listed in RCT records).
RCT records show that in 1916, the Sugar Land Railway was extended 6.22 miles from Otey to Anchor. A new connection to the Columbia Tap was made at Anchor as well as a connection to the Houston & Brazos Valley Railroad which owned the former Velasco Terminal Railway tracks from Anchor to Velasco. Since construction into Otey is not shown in RCT records, perhaps Otey and Ratchford are the same location? More likely, construction between Ratchford and Otey was not reported to RCT. The distance from House Junction to Otey is approximately 14 miles whereas, allowing for the branch from House Junction to Hawdon and the connection from House Junction to the original main line as part of the 13.62 miles of construction in 1912, the distance south from House Junction to Ratchford would be approximately 9 miles. This would leave approximately five miles between Ratchford and Otey as unreported, possibly because it was existing private narrow gauge track that needed little work beyond the change of grade. Whatever the case, this southerly extension of the Sugar Land Railway lasted only 16 years; the 21 miles from House Junction to Anchor were abandoned in 1932.
The Sugar Land Railway was acquired by a subsidiary of Missouri Pacific in 1926, but continued to operate independently until it was merged into the Missouri Pacific system in 1956. The two north/south rail crossings of the Santa Fe line, at Arcola Junction and Sugar Land Junction, were assigned interlocker numbers 161 and 162, respectively, by the RCT and authorized for operation in July, 1930. Both were unmanned cabin interlockers, but Tower 162 is listed as "Mechanical - Electric" indicating that electric power was incorporated into the control system. Tower 162 has the distinction of being the last numbered interlocker to have a service date listed in the final list of interlockers that was published by RCT in the 1931 Annual Report. Towers 163 through 170 appear in this final list, but are "Under Construction". Subsequent RCT annual reports omitted the detailed list of numbered interlockers.
The Santa Fe line remains intact, operated by successor Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Tower 162 was dismantled when the Sugar Land Railway was abandoned in the 1970s and '80s. The other crossing diamond remains in place so that Union Pacific (successor to Missouri Pacific) can reach tracks constructed parallel to the BNSF line from Arcola Junction to the west to reach the Smithers Lake Power Plant. The Columbia Tap south of Arcola Junction was abandoned in stages beginning with the Anchor to East Columbia segment in 1956.
Towers 161 & 162 Location Map
Above: Looking east, the Santa Fe crosses the Columbia Tap at Tower 161 and then Farm Road 521
in quick succession. (R. J. McKay photo)
Below: the Tower 161 interlocker box (photo by Tom Kline)
Tower 162 Site Aerial Photo
Although the Sugar Land Railway is long gone and the Sienna Plantation residential development now occupies much of the former
sugar cane plantation, the Sugar Land Railway right-of-way at the former Tower 162 site remains in use as a utility easement. The
two rail lines crossing horizontally in the image are the former Santa Fe main line and the much newer Union Pacific line to Smithers
Lake. The Sugar Land Railway right-of-way is delineated by the residential fencing easily seen as a diagonal corridor from the upper
left corner. An equipment cabinet is visible near where the diamond would have been located for Tower 162.