Texas Railroad History - Tower 175 - Etter

A Crossing of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway and the Panhandle & Santa Fe Railway

Left: The Tower 175 diamond was sitting in the weeds a few yards from its historic location when this photo was taken c.2001. The silver painted hinge post adjacent to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks marks the location of the swing gate that protected the diamond after the interlocker was removed. The BNSF tracks are part of a route between Amarillo (to the right) and Las Animas, Colorado (to the left). The crossing tracks were of Rock Island heritage but came under Texas Northwestern (TXNW) ownership in 1982 when the last seventeen miles of the line west of the crossing was abandoned. The diamond and a short segment of track to the west was retained, presumably to avoid the expense of reinstalling the diamond if nearby land was acquired for a rail-served industry. The diamond was removed in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

The TXNW main tracks approach from the east, come under the US 287 overpass (in the distance at left) and continue west another 500 ft. where they split into southeast and northeast quadrant connectors to reach the BNSF tracks. The TXNW main track that previously approached the diamond from the east has been removed west of the connecting track junction. In the photo, the southeast connector hosts the box cars, and they appear to extend all the way back to the TXNW main line connection. (Jim King photo)

By 1910, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (CRI&P) Railroad was operating two routes through the Texas Panhandle: the Golden State Route and the Choctaw Route. Both had been built primarily for the purpose of making a west coast connection at Tucumcari, New Mexico, where Southern Pacific (SP) operated a line south to El Paso that continued onto their Sunset Route to California. To reach Tucumcari, the Golden State Route went from Liberal, Kansas diagonally across the Oklahoma Panhandle and the northwest corner of the Texas Panhandle, passing through Stratford and Dalhart, and entering New Mexico 41 miles southwest of Dalhart. The Choctaw Route crossed the Texas Panhandle on a due west heading through Amarillo, providing Oklahoma City and points east with access to the SP connection at Tucumcari. To comply with Texas' railroad ownership laws, these lines were officially owned by the Chicago, Rock Island & Gulf  (CRI&G), Rock Island's Texas-based subsidiary.

Rock Island shared the Texas Panhandle with two other railroads. The Fort Worth and Denver City (FW&DC) had been the first to lay tracks into this region, building mostly through the western Panhandle in 1888 to reach the New Mexico border at the new town of Texline. There, it connected to Colorado & Southern tracks to form a continuous route between Fort Worth and Denver. The other Panhandle railroad was the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railway. By 1902, it was operating a route from Wichita, Kansas southwest to Clovis, New Mexico via Shattuck, Oklahoma, and the Texas towns of Canadian, Pampa, Amarillo, Canyon and Farwell. Like Rock Island, Santa Fe complied with state law by accomplishing this work under Texas-based subsidiaries. Its operating subsidiary in the Texas Panhandle had been known as the Southern Kansas Railway, but it was renamed the Panhandle & Santa Fe (P&SF) in 1914.

By 1910, Santa Fe had begun a significant network expansion south of Amarillo, but north of Amarillo, the main line comprised Santa Fe's only tracks until 1917 when a branch from Shattuck, Oklahoma was built into the far northeastern corner of the Panhandle. In Texas, this branch helped to establish several new towns -- Follett, Darrouzett, Booker -- and Perryton, the new county seat of Ochiltree County. The branch terminated 26 miles southwest of Perryton at Spearman, another town platted in 1917 anticipating the arrival of Santa Fe's tracks (they finally reached Spearman, the end of the line, in 1919.) Elsewhere, short Santa Fe branches off the main line to Borger (1926) and Skellytown (1927) were built close to Amarillo. But as of 1927, a vast area of the north central Panhandle remained void of railroads. Within the large triangle formed by Amarillo, Stratford and Spearman, oil and gas development helped provide the final incentive for railroad construction.

By the late 1920s, oil and gas development north of Amarillo along with significant wheat production farther north in the Panhandle had begun to interest Rock Island. To serve these areas, they started construction of a line north-northeast from Amarillo toward Liberal in 1927. Construction was slowed by the rugged terrain, particularly crossing the Canadian River, and the tracks did not reach the Oklahoma border at Hitchland until 1929. In addition to serving mineral industries and agriculture, the line provided a means of routing freight between Amarillo and the Midwest, and it potentially served as an alternate route between Liberal and Tucumcari should Golden State Route operations become disrupted.

Left and Right: The
Rockdale Reporter of August 1, 1929 noted that the recent completion of Rock Island's line between Amarillo and Liberal resulted in the founding of several new towns in the Texas Panhandle, including Morse. Morse was significant because it soon became the target crossing point for an extension proposed by Santa Fe to connect Amarillo with their existing branch line at Spearman, 18 miles northeast of Morse.

By the fall of 1929, additional railroad development in the northern Panhandle had become a high priority. Rock Island proposed building a branch line across the northern Panhandle between Dalhart, on the Golden State Route, and Morse, on the newly completed Amarillo - Liberal line, sixty miles apart. This branch would pass through the oil and gas fields in northern Moore County, twelve miles north of Dumas, the county seat. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) approved the line, but before Rock Island could start building it, Santa Fe requested ICC approval of an extensive construction proposal for the northern Panhandle, duplicating to some extent Rock Island's plan. Santa Fe began with the uncontroversial idea of connecting its southern main line at Amarillo with its original main line at Las Animas, Colorado, a north / south route that would go through Dumas, Stratford and Boise City, Oklahoma. Santa Fe also sought permission to build to Dumas from their existing branch at Spearman, an extension that would cross Rock Island's Amarillo - Liberal line at Morse and pass through the heart of the Moore County oil and gas fields. Rock Island vigorously opposed this route since it would largely parallel the eastern half of their ICC-approved line between Dalhart and Morse.

Dalhart and Morse are at the same latitude, but Rock Island had not proposed to build a due east / west line between them. Instead, the route went southeast from Dalhart on the abandoned Enid, Ochiltree & Western (EO&W) right-of-way, a railroad that had been graded from Dalhart to Dumas but had never become operational. After 5.9 miles on the EO&W, the tracks turned due east and passed through farming areas for 33 miles to reach an Apache Refining Co. facility at Altman. When the Sunray Oil Co. took over the Apache refinery in 1931, the town name was changed to Sunray (and remains so today.) In 1933, Shamrock Oil and Gas Co. built its first refinery in Sunray, and soon thereafter, opened its first gas station there. East of Sunray, the tracks remained on a due east heading for about three miles and then turned east northeast for approximately three more miles where they returned to a due east heading. The reason for this slight jog to the north is undetermined, but it seems likely to be related to serving particular farming operations. One of these was at Capps Switch, where a siding was built and where Skyland Grain now operates a grain storage facility. About nine miles farther east, the tracks intersected Rock Island's Amarillo - Liberal line two miles south of Morse, a location that became known as Morse Junction.

 Left: The Lipscomb Lime Light of July 17, 1930, quoting the Amarillo Tribune, carried this story about a tentative agreement between Rock Island and Santa Fe to share the eastern half of Rock Island's new Dalhart - Morse line. Under the plan, Santa Fe would build from Spearman to Morse and terminate into Rock Island's tracks between Morse and Morse Junction. From that point, they would have overhead rights on Rock Island's tracks through Morse Junction and westward to the crossing point of Santa Fe's new line to Las Animas, about twelve miles north of Dumas. Connecting tracks in the two eastern quadrants would allow Santa Fe trains from Spearman to access both the original main line at Las Animas and the southern main line at Amarillo. The tentative agreement left many details to be determined, and Santa Fe was required to submit the final plan to the ICC for approval before initiating construction between Spearman and Morse.



The ICC approved the final agreement in November, and the contract for sharing the eastern half of Rock Island's Dalhart - Morse tracks was finalized by the railroads on December 18, 1930. The survey for Santa Fe's extension from Spearman to Morse began the following week. By the time Santa Fe's construction to Morse was finished, their line from Amarillo to Las Animas had been completed as far north as Boise City, Oklahoma where it intersected with other Santa Fe branch lines; the track from Boise City to Las Animas was finished in 1937. Rock Island's Dalhart - Morse line had also been completed, hence, new rail service was being celebrated throughout the northern Panhandle in May, 1931. (Above Left to Right: Shamrock Texan, December 31, 1930; Shamrock Texan, May 13, 1931; Yoakum Daily Herald, May 18, 1931; Shamrock Texan, May 31, 1931)

As part of ICC's approval of the agreement, on November 13, 1930 they issued "...a certificate of public convenience and necessity to the Santa Fe railway authorizing the construction of a line of railway from Spearman to a connection with the Rock Island tracks in Hutchinson County, and also giving permission to the Santa Fe to enter into a trackage rights agreement with the Rock Island from the connecting point into Amarillo." (Lipscomb Lime Light, November 20, 1930, quoting the Spearman Reporter) [The "connection with the Rock Island tracks in Hutchinson County" was the location between Morse (Hansford County) and Morse Junction (Hutchinson County) where Santa Fe's line would terminate, about 3,000 ft. south of the county line.] West of Morse Junction, Santa Fe only needed trackage rights to the crossing of the Las Animas line, so the language specifying "into Amarillo" is a bit confusing. The crossing point became known as Etter, named for a Santa Fe executive, soon to be the site of a Santa Fe water stop and depot. As the Etter crossing was an important part of the railroads' track sharing agreement, it seems likely that they also addressed installation of an interlocker. Regardless of which railroad was the first to actually lay tracks at Etter, Santa Fe was considered the "second railroad" at the crossing since Rock Island's permission from the ICC for the Dalhart - Morse line predated Santa Fe's authorization to build from Amarillo to Las Animas. Under Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) regulations, the capital outlay for interlockers at post-1901 crossings belonged to the "second railroad", hence Santa Fe designed, funded and installed the signals and interlocker at Etter, and they did so with the intent that the interlocker be in place by the time both tracks were operational. At the end of 1931, RCT published a list of interlocker installations that had occurred during that calendar year. It showed that a 4-function automatic interlocking at Etter, identified as Tower 175, had been commissioned on May 19, 1931, consistent with the celebration dates in the news articles noted above. The January, 1932 issue of Railway Signaling reported that the Etter interlocker was built by Union Switch & Signal Co. and had "8 signals".

Right: This 1983 AT&SF System Map shows the Etter - Morse rights (at this point, on TXNW tracks) treated like any other line in Santa Fe's network, but with no stops between Etter and Morse (e.g. Sunray, Capps Switch). TXNW inherited Rock Island's industrial branch running south from Sunray that eventually connected to a Santa Fe spur (not shown on the map) coming east off the main line north of Dumas about half way to Etter.

: As of February, 2022, the spur off the BNSF main line has been severed where the tracks crossed US 287, five miles north of Dumas. Whether the evident road construction was a factor in the track removal is undetermined. (Google Street View)

Left: This paragraph from a 1938 ICC Valuation Report discusses Rock Island property that is "Solely owned, but jointly used with..." the P&SF, providing an overview of the financial agreement between the two railroads.


Left: The February, 1941 issue of Railway Signaling and Communications reported that the P&SF had filed for permission from the ICC to make permanent the discontinuance of the automatic interlocking with the CRI&G at Etter "now temporarily out of service", to be replaced by a crossing gate "normally across the Santa Fe track to permit Rock Island trains to cross at restricted speed without stopping, on account of light traffic." The interlocker was out of service because, as noted the previous year in Volume 21 of The Signalman's Journal, the P&SF had filed an application with the ICC requesting permission for a "...temporary discontinuance of automatic interlocking at crossing with C. R. I. & G. Ry at Etter, Tex. on the Plains Division..." This initial request had been granted, and by early 1941, Santa Fe was prepared to make it permanent with the installation of a crossing gate normally lined against their tracks. Santa Fe had insufficient traffic across the Tower 175 diamond to justify the continued expense of maintaining an automatic interlocker, even though such expenses were shared with Rock Island.

Below: The Tower 175 gate was installed and was normally positioned across the P&SF tracks as shown in this photo. Looking northeast, the P&SF depot is visible (in the distance at left) along with the P&SF water tower. The Rock Island tracks cross horizontally in the foreground. The black wiring that snakes up the gate pole connects to the indicator at the top of the gate to illuminate the gate position for night operation. It was controlled by the locked metal box near the ground. (Kenneth Moore photo, date undetermined)

As Santa Fe had funded the interlocker installation, they also took the lead on requesting permission to remove it when traffic could no longer justify the maintenance expense. Since the swing gate was to be normally lined against Santa Fe, it is unlikely that Rock Island objected; their trains could still cross "at restricted speed without stopping" and they would no longer have any shared expense for maintaining the interlocker and signals. The fact that the gate was to be lined against Santa Fe suggests that its north / south trains were mostly stopping anyway, perhaps for passengers or to handle a cut of freight cars. Thus, the added delay of stopping to swing the gate was not significant overall, and Santa Fe trains taking either of the Tower 175 connecting tracks would not have crossed the diamond anyway.

A small settlement grew up around Etter and in 1940, the census reported 150 people there. In 1942, the U.S. Government built the Cactus Ordnance Works immediately north of Etter to manufacture ammonium nitrate for use in explosives for World War II munitions. The town of Cactus was established, and a few thousand people worked at the plant during peak years. The railroads benefited from the freight and passenger traffic generated by the plant and from the families housed on site. During the war, the plant was modified and partially shut down as no longer needed, but then it was reactivated to produce components for fertilizer being shipped to Europe to help restart agriculture in the aftermath of the war. At various times over many years, the plant produced a diverse array of commodities including ammonia, nitric acid and additives for aviation fuel. The plant was closed in the 1980s, but the town now hosts a large meatpacking plant. With a population over 3,000 residents, Cactus is quite a bit more than the "wide place in the road" it once was.

Left: Overtaken by Cactus, the Etter name is kept alive by at least one business. The red truck is about to cross the northeast quadrant connecting tracks. Farther west, the crossing signals along the highway in the distance mark BNSF's line. (Google Street View, Jan. 2022)

In 1960, Rock Island abandoned the first dozen miles of the Morse branch out of Dalhart, stopping at Wilco, a farming operation about 17 miles west of Etter. This was the first impact in the Texas Panhandle of Rock Island's attempt to save money by pruning its route network. By 1964, it was clear that Rock Island could only survive long term by seeking a merger partner. The much larger Union Pacific (UP) Railroad agreed to be that merger partner, but the potential deal was complicated. Rock Island's financial picture worsened as ICC regulators held hearings for ten years to take testimony from other railroads opposed to the merger and to consider UP and Rock Island counterarguments. With the merger pending, Rock Island continued pruning routes by abandoning the south end of the Amarillo - Liberal line in 1972, retaining the tracks north of Stinnett. The merger was approved in 1974, but the enormity of the plan indicated how radically it would have altered western railroading. Various terms and conditions specified by the ICC's administrative law judge were considered onerous by UP, and they chose not to proceed with the merger. Rock Island went into bankruptcy in 1975; attempts were made, but no viable recovery plan was ultimately forthcoming. The assets were liquidated, sold mostly to other railroads; the Golden State Route was sold to SP in 1979.

On April 8, 1980, the ICC amended a Directed Service Order they had issued in the wake of Rock Island's suspension of operations wherein individual railroads had been authorized to serve shippers on an interim basis on specified Rock Island routes. The amendment authorized Santa Fe to begin serving shippers on the Etter - Morse line, including the industrial branch line out of Sunray. (The tracks west of Etter to Wilco were not mentioned, suggesting that the Wilco shipper may not have been active.) Santa Fe was also authorized to serve shippers on Rock Island's line between Morse and Liberal. The tracks from Morse south to Stinnett were not mentioned; again, there may not have been any active shippers on that track segment. Finally, in 1982, a new railroad, the Texas Northwestern (TXNW), was founded to acquire Rock Island's branch between Wilco and Morse, plus its industrial tracks south of Sunray and the remainder of the Stinnett - Liberal line north to Hardesty, Oklahoma. At this point, Santa Fe's interim service authorization expired, but they still had their original trackage rights between Morse and Etter.

Left: This 1982 Santa Fe track chart is oriented with north to the left, showing tracks adjacent to the Tower 175 crossing.

Right: In 1991, Charles Napp took this photo facing west toward the Tower 175 crossing. The switch for the single-track northeast connector is in the foreground. In the distance, the swing gate existed but is not readily visible. Presumably, its normal position had been changed to be against the TXNW tracks; to the west, the former Rock Island line to Dalhart was abandoned although the diamond and gate remained intact.

In 1987, TXNW abandoned the tracks from Morse north to Hardesty, and from Pringle south to Stinnett, leaving the tracks between Morse and Pringle as the only remnant of the Amarillo - Liberal line in Texas. In 1990, Santa Fe relinquished its trackage rights between Morse and Etter, and sold its branch from Shattuck to Morse to the Southwestern Railroad Co. (SWRR) [not to be confused with the former Southwestern Railway Co at Henrietta.] SWRR immediately abandoned the tracks between Spearman and Morse. In 2004, TXNW abandoned the tracks from Capps Switch to Morse Junction, and from Pringle to Morse, eliminating the last remaining tracks into Morse. In 2007, SWRR abandoned its tracks from Spearman to Shattuck, Oklahoma, a distance of 85 miles.

Although pipelines now carry most of the oil, gas and refined products in the vicinity of Etter and Sunray, petrochemical production continues to be a major contributor to local commerce in northern Moore County. BNSF and TXNW cooperate to serve the Valero McKee Refinery five miles southwest of Sunray, along with numerous other industrial and meatpacking facilities in the area.  Above Left: Compare this November, 2021 view of the site of the Tower 175 diamond with the photo at the top of the page. (Google Street View) Above Right: TXNW operates a huge facility between Etter and Sunray, reportedly the largest private railcar storage yard in the US, plus cleaning and repair services. (Google Earth, 2019) Below Left: This August, 2022 view from the US 287 overpass looks west toward the former Tower 175 crossing. Compare this with the view from 1991 above. The track arrangement is indicative of the significant movement of cars on both quadrant connecting tracks, reflecting the growth of industrial facilities in the Cactus / Etter / Sunray area. (Google Street View) Below Right: This August, 2022 image looking east from the US 287 overpass toward Sunray provides another view of the significant local rail infrastructure. (Google Street View)


Last Revised: 1/26/2023 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.