Texas Railroad History - Tower 181 - Mertens

Crossing of the International & Great Northern Railroad and the St. Louis Southwestern Railway

Above: Two railroads, the International & Great Northern (I-GN) and the St. Louis Southwestern ("Cotton Belt"), crossed at grade in the tiny town of Mertens, about 16 miles east of Hillsboro. Although the crossing had existed since 1902, it remained uncontrolled until the Tower 181 interlocker was commissioned in 1936. There was a connecting track (blue dashed line) in the southeast quadrant of the crossing, but its operational purpose has not been determined. All of the tracks at Mertens are abandoned: the Cotton Belt in 1940 and the I-GN in 1967 (by that date, owned by Missouri Pacific.) Little remains of the Cotton Belt right-of-way (ROW), but since it had telegraph lines built along it, the ROW was also used for other utility functions (e.g. electric power.) Hence, telltale utility poles (pink circles) remain visible in a field east of the crossing where cultivation has otherwise removed any evidence of the Cotton Belt grade. The I-GN ROW has survived as a mostly unpaved road running 0.4 mi. south and 0.3 miles north from State Highway 22. In 1936, a reconstruction of State Highway 22 produced an overpass (pink rectangle) over the I-GN tracks. The overpass was removed in 1979, about 12 years after the I-GN tracks had been abandoned.

According to the Handbook of Texas, the new railroad station in Hill County that opened in 1887 near the Navarro County line was "...called Mertens for the wife of the engineer on the first train." Unless she was "Mrs. Mertens", this doesn't seem particularly plausible. A more likely namesake was William Mertens, a noted railroad investor. Whatever the case, the station at Mertens had been built by the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas (SLA&T) Railway near property of the first settler in the area, J. K. Walling, who had bought 135 acres of land in 1884. As to precisely why the station was built, the answer is undetermined; there was little population nearby, but there was an excellent source of water at Richland Creek. The station site was apparently a good choice because, as the Handbook of Texas explains, Walling became very busy after the railroad's arrival.

Walling opened a general store, acted as station agent for the railroad, and served as postmaster when Mertens received a post office in 1888. By 1890 the community had some seventy-five residents and a number of businesses, including physicians, carpenters, general stores, a blacksmith shop, and a gristmill and cotton gin. In 1902 the First State Bank of Mertens opened; it was joined by a second bank in 1910.

Mertens was about 27 miles west of Corsicana on the SLA&T line that was completed into Hillsboro in 1888. This track was the smallest project among a major expansion by the SLA&T throughout northeast Texas that occurred in 1887-88, including 110 miles from Mt. Pleasant to Sherman and 97 miles from Commerce to Ft. Worth. These major construction activities coupled with the startup expenses for operating the new lines took its financial toll, resulting in the SLA&T entering receivership in 1889. The SLA&T had not lasted very long, having been created only three years earlier to acquire the assets of the Texas & St. Louis (T&SL) Railway.

The T&SL had begun as the Tyler Tap Railroad, a company chartered in 1871 to bring rail service to the east Texas town of Tyler which had been bypassed by two main lines. The "tap" to Tyler was finally accomplished with a Texas & Pacific Railway connection at Big Sandy in 1877. Two years later, the name changed to T&SL when they built 107 miles from Big Sandy to Texarkana along with additional tracks into Arkansas and Missouri. Westward expansion deeper into Texas also occurred in 1880-81 including tracks from Tyler to Corsicana (75 miles) and Corsicana to Waco (56 miles.) By 1882, the Texas portion of the T&SL had become profitable despite stiff competition from several railroads. But...the expansion into Arkansas and Missouri overextended the T&SL; it lacked the lengthy sidings and rolling stock necessary to run single-track rail lines efficiently, and it went into receivership in January, 1884.

Reorganization of the railroad's finances was slow. The bankruptcy judge was impatient and forced the T&SL to be sold rather than merely reorganized. Selling required dividing it into two properties, the Texas portion and the Arkansas - Missouri portion, so that the Texas portion could be headquartered in Texas to comply with state law regarding track ownership. Against the advice of the Receiver, Samuel Fordyce (who predicted a quick return to receivership), the plan was executed and the assets of both properties were sold to a bondholders' committee in early 1886. One of the five members of this committee was William Mertens, who might be relevant to this story.

The bondholders' committee deeded the Texas assets to the "St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway in Texas" in February, 1886, a new company expressly formed for the purpose of restarting the Texas portion of the railroad. The Arkansas - Missouri assets were similarly deeded to the "St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway in Arkansas and Missouri" in April. The management was the same for both companies, with Sam Fordyce as President. As Fordyce had predicted during his stint as Receiver, the combined SLA&T companies were soon unable to meet their financial obligations and they went into receivership in May, 1889. Fordyce was again named Receiver, but with A. H. Swanson appointed to work with him due to legal questions regarding Fordyce's eligibility to be the Receiver for the Texas company.

History repeats itself... After a couple of years of reorganization, another new company, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (eventually best known by its nickname, the Cotton Belt) was incorporated as two corporations (one in Texas and one in Missouri) in January, 1891. Fordyce was again named President, but then, the receivership cycle was broken. The new enterprise was a success, and the Cotton Belt operated independently until 1932 when it became controlled by Southern Pacific (SP). It continued to operate as a subsidiary corporation until it entered voluntary receivership in December, 1935. At that time, a Trustee was appointed to manage the railroad for the creditors. After financial reorganization, it emerged from receivership and continued as a subsidiary of SP until it was fully merged in 1992.

The other railroad through Mertens was the International & Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad, at one point the largest railroad in Texas. The I-GN had resulted from an 1873 merger of the International Railroad with the Houston & Great Northern Railroad. In 1901, the I-GN began to execute a plan to assemble, through construction and acquisition, a main line between Spring (near Houston) and Ft. Worth. The final segment to be built, from Waco to Ft. Worth, included crossing the Cotton Belt at Mertens. The I-GN reached Mertens in July, 1902, the year after the Texas Legislature passed a law charging the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) with the duty to regulate all railroad crossings in the state (even those that were grade separated.) The crossing of the I-GN and Cotton Belt at grade in Mertens was uncontrolled, but neither railroad pressed the issue of implementing an interlocker right away. Instead, to comply with state law, all trains were required to stop before crossing the diamond. This may not have resulted in much delay since most of the trains would be stopping at Mertens anyway.

Left: The Waxahachie Daily Light carried this news story on July 4, 1902, discussing the first train to cross the Cotton Belt at Mertens during the I-GN's northward construction in the summer of 1902. [Note to young people: Dr McPool's "kodak" was a popular film camera invented by George Eastman.]

Right: About four decades before Snidely Whiplash tied up Nell Fenwick on Canadian railroad tracks, the
Whitewright Sun of December 29, 1921 had this story about such an event in Mertens. Unfortunately, the news article omits a critically important detail, leaving railroad historians wondering... "Which track?"


Right: RCT's 1903 Annual Report (covering the 1902 calendar year) included a table of priority rail crossings to be addressed. It did not list the five interlockers approved in 1902; all subsequent reports listed all active interlockers by tower number plus those "Under construction." The first column identifies the railroad seeking the crossing, a detail omitted from all subsequent reports. The difference in the Character of crossing between "Grade crossing" and "Grade interlocked" is unknown.

Mertens appears in the table, implying that this new crossing (only six months in existence) was receiving attention from RCT. Yet, the overall composition of the table is confusing. Of the 27 interlocking towers that were soon to be commissioned by RCT during calendar year 1903, only five made this list: Waco, "College", Navasota, Texarkana and Orange (and Bay City was early 1904.) Others on this list were delayed for many years, e.g. Mertens (c.1936) and "Maurice" (1929).


 Left: Railway Signaling and Communications, in a 1938 edition, listed Mertens as a location that received an interlocking plant in 1936. As the second railroad to arrive at Mertens, I-GN was responsible for the capital outlay for the interlocker (the table notes I-GN's owner, Missouri Pacific, "M. P.", as the responsible railroad.) I-GN had the busier track, so the choice of a 2-lever mechanical plant implies the plant was to be operated by Cotton Belt train crews. I-GN trains would always see an unrestricted "Proceed" signal unless a Cotton Belt train had stopped to reverse the signals and was actively crossing the diamond. The function assignment to the levers is undetermined; levers could control more than one function. A typical cabin interlocker without derails (which were no longer required after 1930) would have had six functions: a distant signal in each direction on the busier line and a home signal in all four directions. But whether this crossing was, in fact, a cabin interlocker has not been determined. An interlocked gate could also have been used, as was the case for the I-GN / Cotton Belt crossing in Jacksonville, Tower 176, installed a few years earlier. There was also a simple "ground lever" design used at Tower 168 in West Livingston that could have been copied for Mertens. Unlike capital expense, maintenance expenses were shared by the two railroads. An automatic interlocker would have been more expensive to maintain, without much benefit to the few trains operating on the Cotton Belt. A Cotton Belt or I-GN employee timetable from 1937-1939 might help to clear up the operational details of Tower 181.

Tower 181 was commissioned by RCT sometime in 1936. Starting in 1904, RCT had included tables of interlocker details and commissioning dates in its annual reports, but this practice ended with the 1931 report covering calendar year 1930. Later reports typically mentioned changes to the total interlocker count but they did not always identify where the changes occurred. Regardless, the 1937 Annual Report (covering 1936) has not been located. Work performed by Myron Malone about twenty years ago at the Texas State Archives produced copies of the interlocker sections of several post-1931 annual reports, but his effort did not include the 1937 report.

The Cotton Belt entered voluntary receivership in December, 1935 to restructure its finances while remaining within the corporate umbrella of Southern Pacific. The appointed Trustee, Berryman Henwood, managed the railroad while in receivership on behalf of the creditors committee. In late 1938 or early 1939, Henwood submitted an application to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) requesting permission to abandon the Hillsboro branch. A hearing was held in the spring of 1939 by an ICC Division 4 Examiner to establish facts relevant to the decision. Five individuals officially protested the proposed abandonment and presented evidence at the hearing, primarily stating that the loss of the Hillsboro branch would have a serious detrimental impact on property values and local commerce.

Among the facts established by the Division 4 Examiner, he noted that the Cotton Belt's original rail was still in place and badly worn after 50 years. There were 51 bridges on the branch totaling 4,178 feet of track. Not counting the populations of the two endpoints, Hillsboro and Corsicana, there were about 7,000 people in the area served by this branch. Farming was the only industry and cotton was the principal crop. Operating statistics for the five year period 1934-1938 were examined during which the line averaged about 100 carloads per year of local freight on the branch. There were another 887 carloads per year of freight that either originated or terminated (but not both) on the branch. There were also 727 carloads per year of overhead traffic, mostly interchanges with the Missouri - Kansas - Texas ("Katy") Railroad at Hillsboro. The peak year for passenger traffic was 1937 with 5,023 passengers, but the other years had substantially fewer. The branch had been operating at a net deficit for at least five years; the peak deficit was $46,684 in 1937. The Examiner noted that State Highway 22, an "all weather" highway, paralleled the branch for its entire length. Busses operated twice daily in each direction between Corsicana and Hillsboro, but there were no common carrier trucks operating the route.

The final report issued by the Division 4 Commissioners recommended approval of the abandonment request. On January 31, 1940, the report and recommendation were submitted to the full ICC, and on February 12, 1940, the Commission endorsed the recommendation and granted Henwood a certificate allowing abandonment of the Hillsboro branch. Soon thereafter, the Cotton Belt tracks through Mertens were removed.

The I-GN tracks fared much better; Houston - Ft. Worth service via Waco continued to operate through Mertens for nearly thirty more years. On March 1, 1956, the I-GN became fully integrated into MP and ceased to exist as a separate corporation. In 1967, MP was able to negotiate trackage rights on the Katy railroad between Ft. Worth and Waco. The Katy's route was shorter than the former I-GN line through Mertens, which was abandoned that same year.

Left: Railway Signaling and Communications, in a 1941 issue, noted that the decommissioning of the interlocker at Mertens had occurred.

: About ten years after the former I-GN tracks through Mertens were abandoned, the Texas Highway Commission approved a contract in June, 1978 to remove the overpass on State Highway 22 at Mertens. The bridge over the tracks had existed since 1936.


Left: This 2005 image faces south down the former I-GN grade which has become a gravel road. Had this photo been taken prior to 1940, the Cotton Belt diamond would have been in the foreground.

Right: Concrete foundations, presumably for signal posts, are the only apparent remnants near the former crossing. (Jim King photos)

Below: Unlike the I-GN grade which ran north/south along the eastern edge of Mertens, the Cotton Belt grade ran east/west through the center of town. This view facing east along the Cotton Belt ROW from FM 308 shows the town park that now occupies the area south of Front St. (road at far left.) The Cotton Belt preceded the town, hence the town built around it. The I-GN arrived fifteen years later, by which time it was quicker and less expensive to acquire a ROW along the edge of Mertens rather than through the middle of it.

Last Revised: 12/8/2021 - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.