Texas Railroad History - Towers 114 (Sugar Land), 161 (Arcola Junction) and 162 (Sugar Land Junction)

Three Interlocked Rail Junctions near Sugar Land


Above: This image taken from a northwest-facing 1937 aerial photo of the Imperial Sugar Company shows Tower 114 in the center of the image (with magnification at right), adjacent to office buildings within the company's refinery and headquarters complex. The Sugar Land Railway is visible from the lower left corner of the image crossing the Southern Pacific tracks near the center, passing the west side of the tower and then curving further west off the top of the image. Below: It is difficult to know for certain, but suffice to say that Tower 114 would likely have been visible in this Google Street View image if it had been taken decades before December, 2016. The Sugar Land Railway tracks remain embedded in the Kempner St. pavement, but whether this was the main track or the connecting track that passed behind the tower in the image above (or perhaps some other track built later) is unknown. Union Pacific now owns the tracks at left that occupy a right-of-way established in 1855 and later acquired by Southern Pacific. The Imperial Sugar facilities in the vicinity of Tower 114 have mostly been removed to make room for urban development.

The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado (BBB&C) Railway was the first railroad in Texas. Construction started in 1853 at Harrisburg, a settlement on Buffalo Bayou southeast of Houston, and proceeded west toward San Antonio. Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) records state that twenty miles of track was laid that year to Stafford's Point, followed by twelve additional miles in 1855 to Richmond. The coastal prairie through which the BBB&C passed had been an area of sugar production dating back to the 1820s. In the 1840s, the sugar cane crop had begun to expand significantly, making sustained commercial sugar milling viable. Despite excellent soil, sun and rainfall in the "Sugar Bowl" area of Texas, sugar cane was not easy to grow. It required crop rotation and frequent replanting to achieve good yields. The supply of locally grown cane was often insufficient for the capacity of the area's mills, so the owners developed other sources. Inbound shipments of sugar cane from distant plantations and outbound shipments of processed sugar would be ideal freight for railroads.

If the BBB&C was planning on substantial sugar business, it certainly helped that the grade to Richmond went through the Oakland Plantation, a large agricultural operation with sugar cane and other crops. The plantation had been purchased by Benjamin F. Terry and William J. Kyle in 1853, a partnership that just happened to have the BBB&C's track construction contract! In 1858, a Post Office for "Sugar Land" was established for the plantation community that had settled near the large sugar mill built in 1843. Jonathan Waters, a BBB&C investor and company officer, owned another nearby sugar enterprise, the Arcola Plantation, a dozen miles south of Sugar Land. To get rail service into the vicinity, Waters and other plantation owners farther south needed a north/south railroad to connect with the BBB&C.

By 1856, merchants in Houston had noticed that much of the trade brought into Harrisburg by the BBB&C's rails was going south on Buffalo Bayou to Galveston rather than north on the bayou to Houston. They proposed the BBB&C's charter be amended by the Legislature to authorize the city of Houston to issue bonds for a branch line 6.5 miles south to "tap" the BBB&C. After the branch was built -- Houstonians called it the "Houston Tap" -- plantation owners saw that extending it farther south into the heart of the Sugar Bowl would bring them the rail service they desired. To this end, the Houston Tap & Brazoria (HT&B) Railway was founded to acquire the Houston Tap and extend it to Columbia, a port on the west bank of the Brazos river where it became navigable some 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The town's name morphed into West Columbia when people began calling the community across the river East Columbia. The HT&B acquired the Houston Tap and proceeded to build south across the BBB&C. This immediately created the first grade crossing of two railroads in Texas at Peirce Junction, named for Thomas W. Peirce (with the unusual "ei" spelling), a railroad investor, officer and attorney. Tracks reached East Columbia 45 miles south in 1860 and the line became known as the "Columbia Tap", a nickname that has persisted for more than 150 years.

The Civil War created an economic demise that resulted in physical deterioration and financial ruin of Texas railroads. Among many other difficulties, the war prevented the Columbia Tap from bridging the Brazos River into West Columbia (and it never did.) After the war, the Columbia Tap was sold for $500 at a sheriff's sale due to its substantial indebtedness to the state of Texas for construction loans. In 1873, the Columbia Tap was acquired by the Houston & Great Northern Railroad which merged with the International Railroad later that year to form the International - Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad. Under I-GN ownership, the Columbia Tap was repaired and service resumed along its tracks south of Houston.

The BBB&C incurred a similar fate. After defaulting on its construction financing, it was acquired in 1870 by an investor group with Thomas Peirce becoming President. Peirce rehabilitated the BBB&C and renamed it the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway. [Like many railroads, the name was aspirational -- only Harrisburg was actually served by the GH&SA at the time.] The GH&SA resumed building west, reaching San Antonio by 1877. Due to its westward trajectory, the nickname "the Sunset Route" was adopted. Within a year, Peirce was developing plans to extend it to El Paso to connect with the Southern Pacific (SP) coming east from California. In January, 1883, Peirce drove the Silver Spike where the two railroads met near the Pecos River, signifying completion of the major portion of the southern transcontinental rail line. SP had obtained an interest in the GH&SA by financing its westward construction from San Antonio. In 1885, it was leased by SP and subsequently acquired.

The economic recovery did not extend to the Oakland Plantation, which continued to decline. Both owners, Messrs. Terry and Kyle, had died in the early 1860s leaving a void at the plantation. Much of the plantation's land was sold to E. H. Cunningham of San Antonio who built a large refinery there in 1879. Although the Sugar Land Post Office closed in 1886, the local economy stimulated by the Cunningham Sugar Co. improved enough to justify a new post office in 1890.

Immediately south of Cunningham's property, the Arcola Plantation had rebounded from the Civil War. It had been purchased by Thomas Peirce in 1872, but resold a week later to Thomas W. House. House was a wealthy merchant, private banker, civic leader, former mayor of Houston, and an active investor with interests ranging from railroads to natural gas to cotton. He was also the first vendor of ice cream in Houston, which might explain his interest in sugar (and perhaps his election as mayor!) House made substantial investments in his plantation and began to produce excellent sugar. The mill was located at "House's Sugar House", which became settled as the community of House. The Columbia Tap tracks ran along the eastern side of the plantation less than two miles from House. Across the northern part of the property, a new railroad, the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway, was granted a right-of-way (ROW) in 1877 as part of their initial construction from Galveston to Richmond. This was a consequential development for area commerce as the new railroad evolved into a major Class 1 operation integrated into the vast Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway network.

Although the Santa Fe and I-GN were nearby, Cunningham's only rail outlet was SP. Convinced he was not getting competitive shipping rates, Cunningham sought other options. Working with Galveston investor G. B. Miller and others, Cunningham developed a plan to build a railroad. His Sugar Land Railway (SLRy) was chartered on October 21, 1893, but the news was out well before then. The Galveston Daily News of March 23, 1893 quotes Mr. S. K. Wheeler, Santa Fe's superintendent of transportation, 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...". Santa Fe's tracks were actually closer than eight miles. Their route crossed the Columbia Tap at Arcola Junction, spanned the northern part of the Arcola Plantation, bridged the Brazos River, and then angled northwest to Richmond, passing less than seven miles southwest of Sugar Land.

Cunningham was certainly aware of Santa Fe and I-GN as potential competitors to SP for his business. I-GN's Columbia Tap was only 14 miles from Sugar Land, and both I-GN and Santa Fe had bridges onto Galveston Island; SP would not have one for several more years. [I-GN's bridge was owned by the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) railroad which I-GN had leased in 1883. The validity of that lease was in litigation at the time, but I-GN retained use of the bridge and ultimately gained permanent trackage rights when the lawsuit was settled.] I-GN also offered an option unavailable to SP and Santa Fe: direct access to the port of Velasco at the mouth of the Brazos. Velasco's port had reopened in 1891, was closer to Sugar Land than Galveston, and had direct rail service from the Columbia Tap at Anchor over the Velasco Terminal Railway (VTR). Cunningham was importing a large volume of sugar cane and low grade sugar products from Cuba for his mills and refinery. Routing through Velasco was an intriguing option, particularly because Anchor was only about 32 miles from Sugar Land. A Sugar Land to Anchor rail line remained a long term option for Cunningham, but RCT records show that the SLRy proceeded with 14.2 miles from Sugar Land to "Arcola" in 1894. "Arcola" was an ambiguous name; there were at least three communities that used it over a two-mile stretch of the Columbia Tap. The connection was located at Arcola Junction, where the Santa Fe crossed the I-GN.

Overview Map
(not all railroads are shown)


Abbreviations and
Notes for the Above Map:
Sugar Land Railway (SLRy)
Houston & Brazos Valley Railway (H&BV)
Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway (GH&SA)
Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway (Santa Fe)
International & Great Northern Railway (I-GN)
Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad (GH&H)
 
1. The Houston & Brazos Valley (H&BV) became a successor to the Velasco Terminal Railway serving Freeport (Velasco.)
2. The SLRy built 12 miles north from Cabell to Hickey in 1931; the segment was removed in 1942.
3. Peirce Junction was renamed Pierce Junction, reportedly by Post Office officials in 1876.
4. I-GN's route through Harrisburg was due to its lease of the GH&H.

While the SLRy was preparing to begin construction, the Galveston Daily News of August 6, 1893 reported that "The International railway company is constructing a spur from Arcola to the House plantation." This "Arcola" was a community on the Columbia Tap that the railroads called Hawdon (also spelled "Howden") to eliminate confusion with other uses of the Arcola name. Since the plantation had its own private rail network, a track may already have existed that I-GN was rebuilding to its standards. Or perhaps I-GN was laying new track along an existing ROW. Whatever the case, the spur's construction was never reported to RCT despite I-GN officially advertising service to "House's".

Left: This timetable in the January, 1905 Official Railway Guide (ORG) shows that at least by September, 1904, I-GN was advertising service to House ("House's") by spur from Hawdon. The service to House does not appear in the November, 1898 ORG. As noted below, the SLRy claimed to serve "House" in 1898, but details are lacking.  

SLRy's route to Arcola Junction passed through the community of Duke which was on the Santa Fe line. A connection was made there to facilitate Santa Fe's competition for SLRy traffic through Galveston. Bill Willits' excellent and detailed history of the Sugar Land Railway asserts that the SLRy's tracks ended at Duke and that they used trackage rights on the Santa Fe to reach the last mile to Arcola Junction. RCT construction records state "Arcola" as the endpoint, and the SLRy ROW distance from Sugar Land to Arcola Junction (as measured on topographic maps) matches the 14.2 miles of construction reported to RCT. Additionally, a 1905 obituary references the permission "kindly granted" to the I-GN by the SLRy to operate a special funeral train from Arcola Junction to Duke on the SLRy's tracks. The SLRy advertised a connection with both the I-GN and the Santa Fe at Arcola Junction, in addition to their Santa Fe connection at Duke. Why would there be Santa Fe connections at both Duke and Arcola Junction, just over a mile apart? In his definitive historical resource, the 1941 tome A History of the Texas Railroads, S. G. Reed unfortunately doesn't explain, but he confirms that Cunningham extended the SLRy "...to Arcola, connecting with the Santa Fe...".

  Left: The April, 1905 edition of The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association carried an obituary for John R. Fenn, the namesake of Fenn Rd. located immediately south of Tower 161 off of FM Rd. 521. Fenn had been an early owner of the Arcola Plantation, and he had settled at Duke, later moving to Houston in 1872. He was buried in the family cemetery at Duke, and the interment involved a special train on the I-GN that ran to Arcola Junction. The obituary then acknowledges the permission "kindly granted by the Sugarland Railway company to run this train over their track from Arcola Junction to Duke." [emphasis added]

 
Left
: In the November, 1898 ORG, Cunningham advertised connections with Santa Fe (with French acute accent diacritic on the 'e' !) at Duke, and with Santa Fe and I-GN at Arcola Jct. Service to "House" was listed, implying a Santa Fe crossing, yet there's no evidence one existed by then. Was it merely a stop at the closest point (which was between DeWalt and Duke) for a carriage to the Arcola Plantation's private rails, 0.6 miles away? Perhaps "House" was a community north of the Santa Fe (thus far, unidentified?) Were trackage rights used to go to House via Arcola Junction and Hawdon? If so, wouldn't it have been listed last (and longer than 14.2 miles?) By 1906, the SLRy had stopped advertising service to House. But it would resume within a few years.

A detailed track diagram would be helpful in understanding all of the connecting tracks (and their purposes) at Duke and Arcola Junction, but one has not been located. However, historic aerial imagery from 1953 does exist, and it shows that the SLRy ROW into Duke appears to continue by paralleling the Santa Fe tracks all the way to Arcola Junction where it aligns with an I-GN connecting track. This doesn't establish the original track layout in 1894, but it does show that by 1953, there was some kind of lengthy ROW from Duke to Arcola parallel to the Santa Fe, yet far enough apart to be visually distinct, and it fed directly into the Columbia Tap (hence, not originally a dirt road.) Whether this was the SLRy ROW is unconfirmed, but if it is, it's easy to envision how simple connections to the Santa Fe at Duke and Arcola Junction could effectively create a lengthy passing track to facilitate interchanging freight cars.


Above: This composite image is taken from 1953 aerial photography ((c) historicaerials.com.) The ROW west of Duke shows up as merely a tree line whereas the ROW east of Duke along the north side of Santa Fe's tracks appears well-defined and in use. It certainly looks like a lengthy lead for the visible northwest quadrant connector onto the Columbia Tap. Whether tracks actually existed on this ROW in 1953, and if so, who owned them and built them (and when), remains undetermined.

In 1908, the Arcola Sugar Plantation was placed on the market by the trustee of the bankrupt estate of T. W. House. The plantation property was owned by the Arcola Sugar Mills Co. which was owned by the estate. The estate was bankrupt from the collapse of House's other investments, so the company was a valuable asset to be sold for the benefit of the estate's creditors. The company had been incorporated in 1903 when the plantation was reorganized. The company produced a prospectus (hat tip, John Walker) offering the plantation for sale. The prospectus included a map of the plantation showing that as of 1908, the SLRy had not yet crossed the Santa Fe at the future Sugar Land Junction. The prospectus also noted that in addition to I-GN, Santa Fe and SLRy tracks, it had three miles of private tracks that were all standard gauge. Unfortunately, the Arcola Sugar Mills Co. ultimately did not fare well. It produced no sugar after 1914.



Above: This 1908 map was part of the prospectus of the Arcola Sugar Plantation. It appears to have been adapted from an earlier map of the plantation drawn by the surveyor of Fort Bend County in 1890.

Annotations:
Purple Line: SLRy tracks to Duke, continuing east toward Arcola Junction
Orange Line: Santa Fe tracks to Duke, continuing east toward Arcola Junction and Galveston
Pink Circle: future site of Sugar Land Junction
Light Blue Line: private tracks of the Arcola Sugar Mills Co.; note that the tracks reach but do not cross the Santa Fe tracks
Green Rectangle: House's Sugar House, the primary mill
Blue Rectangle: another sugar house on the property
Yellow Oval: the community of Duke
Red Line: I-GN tracks, including Columbia Tap (vertical) and the spur to House's Sugar House (horizontal)
Green Circle: Hawdon (also known as "Arcola"), the spur's junction with the Columbia Tap main line

Below: This photo in the prospectus faces south across the Santa Fe tracks at the future Sugar Land Junction. The prospectus states that its private trackage runs to within "a few feet of the Santa Fe track". Literally.

The SLRy's initial construction connected to, but remained north of, the Santa Fe at Duke. As pictured above, there were private tracks west of Duke that came from the south and reached but did not cross the Santa Fe. It appears that sometime between 1908 and 1911, the SLRy proceeded to build south onto the private ROW of the Arcola Plantation. This Santa Fe crossing became known as Sugar Land Junction (sometimes "Sugarland Junction".) The Santa Fe Railway Historical and Modeling Society has a Joint Facilities Record for Sugar Land Junction dated June 1, 1975 that provides an "Interchange Track Summary" of the contract between Santa Fe and the SLRy for construction and operation of the interchange. The document states that the "Date of Execution" was October 16, 1911. Whether this was the beginning of the construction activity, or the date that operations on the interchange began, is unknown. The diamond across the Santa Fe tracks would not have required an "interchange track" contract, hence, it is possible that the interchange track came well after the crossing was built. Whatever the case, the SLRy's tracks to Sugar Land Junction departed their main line at a location called Burnside (also "Burnside Switch".) When the tracks to Duke and Arcola were abandoned, the track south from Burnside became the main line.

Burnside was approximately 0.3 miles from the start of a sweeping curve where the main line south from Sugar Land shifted to an easterly 95-degree heading on a straight line to Duke. Much of this area was cane fields. Whether the path between Burnside and Sugar Land Junction was an existing ROW, and if so, whether it ever had tracks (or perhaps was merely a field road, as in the above photo), has not been determined. Certainly by the end of 1911 it had standard gauge tracks for the SLRy to reach Sugar Land Junction and continue southeast to House. Timetables show that Burnside was 10.7 miles from the SP crossing at Sugar Land. This is significant primarily because the Handbook of Texas does not mention Burnside but makes references to "mile post 10.74" as the departure point for SLRy's new tracks to the south. Burnside is "mile post 10.74".

Historic US Geologic Survey Topographic Maps

Above: These two maps show the SLRy at "Sugarland Junction" and Duke. The map at left is the 1929 "redraw" of the 1915 1:125,000 map of the "Sugarland" quadrant. The "System" label near Burnside comes from "Missouri Pacific System"; by the time of the 1929 redraw, Missouri Pacific had acquired the SLRy. The chart may show a very short connecting track in the southwest quadrant of "Sugarland Jct." (of which no other evidence has been found), but it does not show any other connections at the junction. As discussed above, an agreement for an interchange track (in the northeast quadrant) existed by October, 1911, the track was documented by Santa Fe in 1915, and it appears on aerial imagery from 1953 onward. If it was, in fact, no longer in place in 1929, this resulted from the reconstruction of the tracks into Duke. This seems highly unlikely; other than this map, there's no evidence that the interchange track was ever removed until the entire line was abandoned. At right, the 1929 1:62,500 "Pearland" quadrant map shows the "Sugarland" tracks intact to Duke and paralleling the Santa Fe line a short distance, but not extending to Arcola Junction. A siding is located west of the Columbia Tap main track immediately north of Arcola Junction, and connections to the Santa Fe exist in both of that junction's north quadrants. (Perry-Castaneda Map Collection, University of Texas)

Below Left: This image taken from a Santa Fe "Gulf Lines" Mileage Statement dated June, 1915 (hat tip, Greg Johnson) identifies the Santa Fe track features between Arcola Junction and Sugar Land Junction. The "I&GN Ry. Conn." listed at the top was Santa Fe's northbound connector onto the Columbia Tap located in the northeast quadrant at Arcola Junction (originally for trackage rights to Houston that Santa Fe held in the early 1880s.) The "I&GN Ry. Crossing" was the diamond located 0.17 miles farther west, co-identified as Arcola (i.e. "0.00" miles from the crossing.) Going geographically west, it was 1.33 miles farther to Duke, and then 1.86 miles from Duke to "Sugarland Ry. Conn", the SLRy connecting track. The "Sugarland Ry. Conn" was installed to replace the Duke connection, which was removed in 1911 and thus does not appear on this chart. The comment column indicates that the beginning of the SLRy connector (the "H.B.", head block) is in a "Pass Track" (passing track), and the passing track begins 209 ft. "railroad north" (geographically west) of the connector. Note at the bottom of the image that the next track feature after the SLRy crossing diamond was 6.14 miles distant, i.e. there were no connecting tracks in the west side quadrants of Sugar Land Junction when the Mileage Statement was compiled. Below Right: When this same Mileage Statement was updated in 1944, the location of the "Sugarland Ry. Conn" had been moved, now starting only 1.82 miles west of Duke (instead of 1.86), and being 0.09 miles from the crossing diamond (instead of 0.05.)

Below: This composite image from 1968 aerial photography ((c) historicaerials.com) shows Sugar Land Junction with a connecting track in the northeast quadrant. The connector departed the Santa Fe main on a north side passing track. Per the 1915 and 1944 Mileage Statements, the passing track's west switch was 209 ft. west of the connector switch (distance between the blue arrow and the light orange arrow.) If nothing changed between 1944 and 1968, the connector switch would be 0.9 miles (475 ft.) east of the diamond. Thus, the passing track's west switch (blue arrow) should appear to be at 44% of the distance (209/475) from the connector switch (light orange arrow) to the diamond (green circle.) Notwithstanding the imprecision of this exercise, it's at least visually in the ballpark... The passing track's east switch location is not specified in the Mileage Statements, but matching it to topographic maps measures it at 0.7 miles from the diamond, about 1.2 miles west of Duke. Small structures (casting shadows to the north) appear close to, and southwest of, the diamond, presumably associated with the interlocker. A 1932 SLRy timetable denotes a "Yard" located at Sugar Land Junction..


The Edridge Era and the Imperial Sugar Co.

In 1906, William Eldridge and the Kempner family of Galveston jointly acquired the Cunningham Sugar Co. and control of the SLRy. Eldridge had considerable experience in sugar production and railroads, having helped build the Cane Belt Railroad in south Texas. He was named manager of the enterprise and quickly reorganized the business into the Imperial Sugar Company. In 1907, Eldridge chartered a new railroad, the Imperial Valley Railway owned by Imperial Sugar, to begin construction north from Sugar Land to Hempstead where rail connections to northern markets could be made. Track was laid to Cabell but then construction stopped. In 1912, Eldridge arranged to sell the Imperial Valley Railway to the SLRy. Reed says that the sale was "...twelve miles of trackage extending from Sugar Land to Cabell...", so it may have included some temporary tracks serving cane fields since Cabell is less than half that distance from Sugar Land. Although the tracks had existed for several years, the Imperial Valley Railway had never reported its construction to RCT. SLRy filed a report with RCT in 1912 recording 4.9 miles of construction from Sugar Land to Cabell, but this was most likely rehabilitation of existing tracks. The SLRy expanded farther north with 12 miles of track from Cabell to Hickey reported to RCT in 1931.



Above
: Annotated and corrected map of Sugar Land area railroads, from an original map by Mike Walker, Steam Powered Video (c)2001

In July, 1911, the state of Texas sued the SLRy for removing a "short branch" to Arcola Junction. The October, 1913 issue of Railway Age Gazette (hat tip, Bill Willits) had the story:

“The State of Texas has lost its case against the Sugarland Railway Company for penalties amounting to $5,000 and a mandatory injunction to compel the road to rebuild a short branch which had been torn up and which the railroad claims would have cost $40,000 to construct and $10,000 annually to maintain, with practically no revenue. The case was filed in July, 1911, shortly before the company had extended its line from a point three miles from Arcola Junction to a point eighteen miles south of the connecting point of the International & Great Northern and the Santa Fe, leaving a spur 3 1/2 miles long from the point of divergence of the extension to Arcola Junction. Permission was granted by the Railroad Commission to tear up the spur, but later the order was revoked, and the company was ordered to rebuild the track.”

There is much to unpack in this article. The "...spur 3 1/2 miles long from the point of divergence of the extension to Arcola Junction" is the original main track to Duke and Arcola Junction (i.e. it was never an "extension".) The "point of divergence" is Burnside, where the tracks to Sugar Land Junction departed the main line. Since Burnside was approximately mile post 10.7 and the total distance to Arcola Junction was 14.2 miles, the difference was 3.5 miles. That the tracks to Duke and Arcola Junction had become relegated to spur status suggests that SLRy's operational focus had shifted to Sugar Land Junction and House. And for this spur to be seeing so little traffic that the SLRy was willing to (and actually did!) remove it, then service from Burnside through Sugar Land Junction to House must have begun at least some reasonable period of time before the spur's removal in 1911. Yet, it had to be after 1908 per the evidence in the prospectus. The implication is that the new interchange points at House (or possibly Hawdon) and Sugar Land Junction had quickly proved successful.

Becoming very confused, the article says that the lawsuit was filed "shortly before the company...extended its line...eighteen miles south". Yet, somehow this subsequent construction ended up "...leaving a spur 3 1/2 miles long..." which, of course, the lawsuit claimed "...had been torn up..." before the new construction commenced. Other evidence establishes that RCT's permission "...to tear up the spur..." was granted on June 24, 1911 and, wasting no time, the SLRy accomplished the task prior to July 3, 1911 when RCT rescinded its permission. The article also refers to "...a point three miles from Arcola Junction..." This is a reference to Burnside, an editorial rounding of the length of the spur. The Handbook of Texas rounded up, stating "...the four miles between mile post 10.74 and Arcola were abandoned", apparently sourced from a statement in Reed's book..."In 1912, about four miles of trackage, from Arcola north, was abandoned."

The State of Texas lost the lawsuit, so they appealed. In 1914, the appellate court reversed the trial court and ruled in favor of the State under the theory that RCT had no power to abrogate an element of a railroad's charter, which was a matter of state law. Evidence the SLRy provided to the appellate court (and recited in a snippet of the court's ruling below) confirms that the spur to Duke and Arcola was seeing so little use that "...its ties had rotted, and its rails rusted..." (which sounds longer than the three years between 1908, at the earliest, and June, 1911.) As a result of the appellate court ruling, the SLRy immediately began working the political angle to have the Legislature overturn the court's decision by relieving the SLRy of the mandate to rebuild the spur. Whether the law proposed by Governor Ferguson (below right) passed has not been determined. Tracks into Duke that appear on the 1929 topographic map suggest that the Governor did not succeed, but those tracks did not extend to Arcola Junction, so perhaps there was a compromise.


Above Left and Center: portions of the 1914 appellate court decision in favor of the State of Texas, reversing the trial court (edition 163 of the
Southwestern Reporter)
Above Right: Gov. Ferguson asked the Legislature to pass his bill relieving the SLRy of the court mandate to rebuild the spur.

Although Eldridge had acquired the Cunningham Sugar Co., it still existed to some extent, at least on paper, and apparently owned some railroad and land assets. The Handbook of Texas states that in 1912, the SLRy "...purchased seventeen miles of private track, from mile post 10.74 to Rotchford, from the Cunningham Sugar Company. This gave the Sugar Land Railway Company a new connection with the International and Great Northern, and the four miles between mile post 10.74 and Arcola were abandoned." [Note: It seems odd that the sale was by the "Cunningham Sugar Co." unless that company somehow acquired the rail assets of the Arcola Plantation when the plantation was up for sale in 1908; evidence of such asset transfer has not been found.] As discussed above, the abandonment of the spur from Burnside ("mile post 10.74") to Arcola Junction occurred before the 1911 lawsuit and was unrelated to any 1912 construction. The sale of 17 miles of private tracks from Burnside to Rotchford must have included the tracks between Burnside and Sugar Land Junction which had been in use by SLRy at least since Sugar Land Junction was built. This does not account for the 13.62 miles from "Arcola" to "Ratchford" reported to RCT in 1912. Regardless of which "Arcola" is used, Rotchford is more distant than 13.62 miles. And why would  "Arcola" be the starting point reported to RCT?

A major impetus for the 1912 construction was to realize the benefit of a direct connection into Velasco through Anchor, presumably with the H&BV. But the June, 1911 issue of the American Sugar Industry and Beet Sugar Gazette reported that the SLRy had amended its charter to build south to Angleton to connect with the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico (SLB&M) Railway (which explains the appellate court's recitation of SLRy's claim they "...had procured a charter...".) The SLB&M operated a main line from Algoa (near Houston) to Harlingen and Brownsville. The SLB&M at Angleton was only four miles beyond Anchor on the way to Velasco. An SLB&M interchange would be valuable for the SLRy, shortening the rail distance to the ports of Corpus Christi and Brownsville, and offering a shorter route to receive Mexican sugar cane by rail.

The 1912 construction endpoint, Rotchford, appears on a 1925 Sugar Land Railway timetable as 0.7 miles south of Otey and less than six miles from Anchor. In 1916, RCT records show the SLRy completing 6.22 miles from Otey to Anchor. It's not likely that the tracks from Otey to Rotchford were rebuilt so soon, so perhaps the 1912 construction actually ended at Otey while the purchased tracks ended at Rotchford. Otey was 13.7 "timetable miles" from House, a distance that could easily explain the 13.62 miles of construction reported to RCT in 1912.

If construction started at House, why was "Arcola" the reported origin? Clearly "Arcola" was not Arcola Junction, to which the SLRy had abandoned its tracks the year before. One simple possibility is that "Arcola" was merely a generic reference to "Arcola Plantation" because the construction began at House, its headquarters. But House would not satisfy the Handbook of Texas' claim that the SLRy obtained a new I-GN connection. The SLRy had been using some I-GN connection, presumably House, long enough to be willing to abandon Arcola Junction. "Arcola" could be referring to the community (known to the railroads as Hawdon) that appears on an 1890 survey map of the plantation. In that case, perhaps the SLRy did some kind of track work between Arcola (Hawdon) and House, not amounting to much distance but enough to justify claiming Arcola as where construction began (and choosing to cite "Arcola" instead of "Hawdon" for unknown reasons.) If so, the interpretation is that Hawdon was the new I-GN interchange point replacing House. The SLRy did eventually advertise service to Hawdon and it had trackage rights on the I-GN through Hawdon into Houston. Whether the 1912 construction pertained to those rights is unknown.

Left: In June, 1920 I-GN was granted authority by RCT to stop passenger and mixed train service over the spur to House. The order granting permission was suspended in July and reinstated in September for "...regular through passenger trains...". The implication is that I-GN had been making the 1.9 mile run from Hawdon to House with all of its "through passenger trains". There was a wye at House onto which they could back the train to be able to pull out and resume going north or south at Hawdon, but this was no doubt a time-consuming maneuver. RCT granted permission because SLRy also served House. SLRy trains didn't have this issue; their departure from House continued in their current direction. Note that I-GN was not seeking to abandon the spur; they built it but they didn't own it. It was originally private track (hence never reported to RCT) and likely part of the 1912 plantation track purchase by SLRy.

Construction by the SLRy toward Otey and Rotchford required the creation of "House Junction". Coming south from Sugar Land Junction, the main track to House and Hawdon curved to the west to avoid Oyster Creek and then looped back due east, staying south of the creek and passing the House depot on the way to Hawdon. For the new route to Anchor, a switch north of House was installed to control the choice to go to Hawdon or to continue south toward Anchor. This arrangement caused the new track to cross over the existing track south of the bend in Oyster Creek. Historic aerial imagery suggests that connecting tracks existed at this diamond in both of the south quadrants. This was most likely a wye that predated the creation of House Junction so that trains from Hawdon to House could turn around. The new track aligned with the wye and continued south from there.


Above: 1951 aerial imagery ((c) historicaerials.com) shows the curve that allowed the main track to avoid a large bend in Oyster Creek and proceed due east past House continuing to Hawdon, whereas the new track to Anchor went straight, crossing the main track. There also appear to have been connector tracks south of the crossing diamond, most likely serving as a wye so that I-GN trains from Hawdon could turn around.

The goal of the SLRy extension to Anchor was to lower shipping costs through Velasco with a direct rail connection. Rail access via Angleton to Mexico and ports to the south was also a consideration. Whether this goal was acheived in the initial years after construction was completed in 1916 is unknown. Missouri Pacific (MP) acquired the I-GN (1925), the H&BV (1925) and the SLRy (1926), and began to eliminate unprofitable or duplicate tracks. Local traffic was insufficient to keep the House - Anchor route profitable, and freight from Velasco or points south could go via Angleton and the Columbia Tap to Hawdon for delivery to the SLRy, all within the MP family (which owned the SLB&M.) Understandably, the 21 miles from House Junction to Anchor was abandoned in 1932. Although purchased by MP's subsidiary New Orleans, Texas & Mexico Railway in 1926, the SLRy continued to operate under its own name. 1956, it was formally merged into the MP system and the SLRy name was dropped.

A March, 1925 SLRy timetable advertises mixed train service from Sugar Land to House continuing to Houston via I-GN trackage rights. A 1932 MP timetable shows SLRy mixed train service to House and Hawdon but does not show service continuing to Houston. However, that timetable shows northbound I-GN mixed train service arriving Hawdon at 6:56 pm, 4 minutes before a SLRy mixed train from Sugar Land arrives at Hawdon. The I-GN's arrival at the next station north, Arcola Junction, was 29 minutes later, covering a distance of only 2.3 miles. The clear implication is that the I-GN train waited for the SLRy northbound passengers to transfer (even though the ride to Houston was short, these were mixed trains, hence it's possible that cars were transferred, not just people.) The SLRy train back to Sugar Land did not depart Hawdon until 9:45 pm, 10 minutes after I-GN's southbound train from Houston had arrived. In A History of the Texas Railroads, S. G. Reed states that as of January, 1940, the SLRy "...has a trackage contract with the I. & G. N. under which it may operate trains to Houston from its southern terminus at Sugar Land Junction." Sugar Land Junction would be an unusual "terminus" since there was no population there. Presumably Reed meant that trains would begin in Sugar Land, go south through Sugar Land Junction to House and Hawdon, and then to Houston via I-GN trackage rights. But it is also possible that some (or all) of the trains encompassed by Reed's reference could be going from Sugar Land Junction to Arcola Junction on Santa Fe trackage rights to reach the northbound Columbia Tap. This might better accommodate his reference to Sugar Land Junction as the "southern terminus." As to whether this was passenger, freight or mixed service, Reed doesn't say. A 1959 MP timetable shows freight service, but no mixed or passenger trains, between Sugar Land, House and Hawdon, and does not show continuing service to Houston.

Three years before the SLRy became part of MP, the crossing of the SP and the SLRy in Sugar Land was interlocked. Tower 114 was authorized for operation on April 30, 1923 with an 11-function electrical interlocker. It was a manned, 2-story structure on Imperial Sugar Company property. It was most likely constructed by SLRy since SP's tracks (constructed by GH&SA predecessor BBB&C) had arrived first; the tower construction task usually fell to the second railroad. In November, 1941, Railway Signaling journal reported that SP (through it's operating railroad in Texas, the Texas & New Orleans - T&NO) was proposing a modification of the Tower 114 interlocker "...involving installation of bolt lock on 1 hand-operated switch, and removal of 1 hand-operated switch with interlocked siding derail on M.P.; removal of 2 main-track derails on T&NO." A note from 1951 in Vol. 68 of Trains-communicator (which appears to be a newsletter of the union representing tower operators) states "The gang is at Sugarland putting in the automatic crossing which means the end of Tower 114 and probably a couple operators." The fate of the structure is unknown, but the interlocker was apparently fully automated sometime in 1951.


Above: The February 1926 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Sugar Land shows Tower 114 located in the northeast quadrant of the crossing. Magnification (at right) shows that the cartographer documented the tower as a 2-story structure with a door (x) on the southeast corner and an internal staircase (1-2) in the southwest corner. The dashed line surrounding the tower probably indicates an enlarged roof overhang. Below: Imperial Sugar provides this 1932 street scene within their plant complex that happened to capture Tower 114 in the background (magnification below right.))

Left: Plans to modify the Tower 114 interlocker were advertised in the September, 1950 issue of Railway Signaling and Communications. Among the changes were the replacement of the mechanical interlocking with a "ground-lever type unattended interlocking" along with numerous signals and derails. At bottom, the sentence extends to another column with a short but important finish:

"...and removal of mechanical interlocking machine and all mechanical interlocking facilities. Purpose: To modernize the equipment and make operation more economical."

This appears to be the announcement of the activity that culminated in the aforementioned arrival of "...the gang...at Sugarland putting in the automatic crossing...".

The two north/south rail crossings of the Santa Fe, at Arcola Junction (I-GN) and Sugar Land Junction (SLRy), were assigned tower numbers 161 and 162, respectively, and were authorized for operation in July, 1930. Tower 161's interlocker was listed as a "Mechanical - Cabin", likely no more than a hut or a cabinet operated by train crews on the Columbia Tap. The signals would normally be lined to maintain continuous operation on the busy Santa Fe tracks. When I-GN trains needed to cross, their crews would line the signals against the Santa Fe, have the train proceed through the crossing, and then re-line the signals for the Santa Fe before continuing away from the interlocker.

Tower 162's interlocker is listed as "Mechanical - Electric". The control system might have been inside an unmanned cabin, or it might merely have been a metal post with buttons that used electrical relays to control the signals. Either way, it would have been operated by SLRy train crews so that the signals were lined against the Santa Fe only when SLRy trains needed to cross. Tower 162 has the distinction of being the last numbered interlocker to have a service date in the final list of interlockers 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.

Below Left: This photo was taken along the SLRy ROW during or shortly after the abandonment of the Tower 162 crossing. The SLRy block light is visible in the distance (John Treadgold collection.) Below Right: This aerial image from 2009 shows the remnant of the Tower 162 interlocker equipment adjacent to the Santa Fe tracks. The SLRy ROW was (and continues to be) used for utility lines. The track at the bottom of the image is the spur to Smithers Lake built in the late 1990s.
 

The SLRy's northward extension from Cabell to Hickey was abandoned back to Cabell in 1942. Another three miles south from Cabell to Pryor was abandoned in 1952. The tracks to Pryor lasted until 1985. The tracks from Sugar Land to Hawdon via Tower 162 apparently remained intact until 1981 when MP abandoned the segment between Hawdon and Herbert, which was just over three rail miles south of the Tower 114 crossing. The former SP main line remains busy, now owned by Union Pacific (UP), which also owns the Columbia Tap. The Santa Fe line remains intact, operated by successor Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). The Columbia Tap south of Arcola Junction was abandoned in stages beginning with the Anchor to East Columbia segment in 1956. Tracks south of Hawdon were removed in 1987, and the remainder south of Tower 161 have since been abandoned although the crossing remains intact.


Smithers Lake

In 1956, Houston Lighting & Power (HL&P) began construction of a natural gas-fired electricity generation plant southeast of Richmond along Dry Creek. The plant required a source for cooling water, so a new reservoir, Smithers Lake, was impounded in 1957, increasing the capacity of an existing small lake. There was already a rail line adjacent to the plant site because in 1930-31, Santa Fe (through its subsidiary Cane Belt Railroad) had built a branch line that departed the Santa Fe main at the community of Thompsons and proceeded southwest for 33 miles to a junction with an existing Cane Belt line. This branch served the massive sulfur deposit at Newgulf and required a crossing (lightly used and never interlocked) of an existing SP rail line at Guy that had been built in 1918 to reach mineral deposits at Damon Mound.

When Smithers Lake added a coal-burning power generation unit in the late 1970s, the branch line gave Santa Fe an advantage in supplying coal to the power plant. Santa Fe's arrangement with Burlington Northern (BN) had BN bringing coal trains from Wyoming to Fort Worth where Santa Fe would take over and bring them to Smithers Lake. Empty trains were sent back to Fort Worth and handed over to BN. The target round-trip cycle time to Smithers Lake from Ft. Worth was 44 hours, including 4 hours to unload.

HL&P fought for better rates on coal deliveries through proceedings with the Interstate Commerce Commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ultimately HL&P signed long term contracts to use BN and Santa Fe trains to deliver most of the coal they needed, but they also put out periodic open bids for additional coal. UP teamed with Chicago & Northwestern to bid successfully on many of these short term contracts. Since Santa Fe had the only tracks into Smithers Lake, UP trains were interchanged with Santa Fe at Ft. Worth for the round trip to Smithers Lake (hat tip, Tom Kline.)

That HL&P was getting better rates on these short term deliveries was a major factor in their opposition to the BN/Santa Fe merger that created BNSF in the mid 1990s. If the merger was to be approved, they requested overhead trackage rights from Sealy and/or Rosenberg to Smithers Lake so that coal trains of competitor railroads could deliver directly to the plant. It appears that this request was denied because after the merger, HL&P worked with UP to build a line directly into Smithers Lake from Arcola Junction, avoiding the need to use BNSF tracks. As a result of this effort, the Tower 161 crossing continues to exist.

Annotated Google Map, Towers 161 and 162

Above: Approximately 3.5 miles of track separates the locations of Towers 161 and 162 along the BNSF main line. In the 1990s, HL&P worked with UP to execute a plan to establish competition for coal deliveries by building a new line to Smithers Lake that would avoid the need to use BNSF's tracks. UP rehabilitated the Columbia Tap from the north (red) to Tower 161 to be able to carry coal trains, and then added a sweeping 90-degree curve to the northwest immediately south of the crossing. New tracks (green) reached the BNSF main line (yellow) ROW and then became parallel. From there, the new line continued to a location 4.5 miles west of the former Tower 162 site, at the community of Thompsons (off the map to the left), where it then curved to the southwest to reach Smithers Lake. HL&P owned the new Smithers Lake spur and gave UP contracts for coal deliveries. [Deregulation of the Texas retail electricity market in 2002 resulted in significant breakup and restructuring of corporate utilities including HL&P; it appears that NRG, through its subsidiary Reliant Energy, now owns these tracks.] Ultimately, the plan did not provide effective competition because UP's routing required coal trains to transit though their busy Houston rail network to reach the Columbia Tap, creating delivery uncertainties and raising costs. By contrast, BNSF coal trains arrived via Ft. Worth, Temple and Rosenberg, completely avoiding Houston. Eventually, BNSF decided to add their own 180-degree connector to access HL&P's Smithers Lake spur. This benefited them by allowing multiple coal trains to be queued over the spur's 10-mile length, keeping parked trains off of the busy main line sidings. Empty coal trains would continue to depart Smithers Lake using BNSF's tracks directly to the main line near Thompsons where they turned west toward Rosenberg. The balloon track (red loop) off of the Columbia Tap south of Tower 161 is a very recent addition, apparently a sand operation served by UP.

Below
: UP's Columbia Tap line (purple arrows) no longer proceeds south of Tower 161 (pink circle) except for an immediate sweeping curve that connects (via the red arrow switch) to both the Smithers Lake spur (green arrows) and a new sand operation (blue arrows, built in 2018-2019.) The sand operation tracks curve into a tight loop that returns back to a connection with itself (pink arrow.) The Smithers Lake spur (construction date unknown, sometime between January, 1995 and April, 2002) follows the BNSF (yellow arrows) alignment west toward Thompsons and then veers southwest to the plant. Satellite imagery shows that by January, 2009, BNSF was building its own connector to the spur which required a 180 degree semicircle (orange arrows) to bring it onto the correct alignment. BNSF's loaded coal trains arrive eastbound on the main and take this loop to access the spur. Since the spur is ten miles long, multiple loaded coal trains can be queued on it, freeing up valuable siding space on the main line and improving delivery reliability.


Above: West of Tower 162, the Smithers Lake spur (green arrows) and the BNSF main (yellow arrows) remain parallel across the Brazos River (pink circle, which required a new bridge for the spur.) Near the community of Thompsons, the spur curves away from the BNSF main, creating a track that slants southwest toward the Smithers Lake plant. A BNSF equipment cabinet at the Oilfield Rd. grade crossing (lower left corner) implies that BNSF maintains the spur.

Below
: The spur tracks (green arrows) slant southwest from Thompsons and then curve due west into a utility ROW for the final 1.5 miles into the plant. The spur tracks merge (at red arrow switch) into the existing plant tracks (blue arrows.) Empty BNSF trains proceed northeast through the switch on a track (yellow arrows) to the main line at Thompsons where they proceed west. (And since this direct route remains operational, might it still be used occasionally, rather than the spur, for an inbound coal train?) UP's empty coal trains had to depart via the Columbia Tap, preventing UP from having any other train on the spur. Note that there are maps of this area showing the utility ROW hosting UP's spur from Smithers Lake all the way due east to the Columbia Tap, but they are incorrect. No objective evidence of UP rails on this ROW east of the slant track curve has been found.


Above: Looking east, the Santa Fe crosses the Columbia Tap at Tower 161 and then crosses Farm Road 521 in quick succession. (R. J. McKay photo) Below: the Tower 161 interlocker control box (Tom Kline photo)



Above Left: The W T Byler Co. supplies this northeast-facing aerial image of their construction of the BNSF connector loop. The other curved track was UP's access to the Smithers Lake spur from Tower 161. Above Right: With an impressive number of power lines in view, John Treadgold took this photo of the Smithers Lake spur connection to the Smithers Lake plant tracks on July 13, 2020.

 
Last Revised: 7/25/2020 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Website