Texas Railroad History - Tower A - Galveston (36th Street)

Crossing of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad, the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway, and the Galveston Wharves Co.


Above: An optical illusion makes Tower A appear as embedded in the building behind it. There was, however, an exchange track between them, behind the tower from this angle. (photo c.1940, Rosenberg Library, Galveston and Texas History Center)

Tower A was located in Galveston at a junction of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad, the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe (GC&SF) Railway, the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio (GH&SA) Railway, and the Galveston Wharves Co. railroad. Located on Mechanic Street, not far from Union Station, Tower A was most likely built during the recovery from the massive hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900. Thus, its design and construction preceded the interlocker approval protocol and numbering system established by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) after Texas' interlocker law became effective in July, 1901. The tower was a Santa Fe design, and the "Tower A" name is probably attributable to Santa Fe identifying it as the first interlocking tower on Galveston Island. Although it had been known to Galveston railroaders for nearly three decades, RCT's formal approval of the tower did not occur until 1926, and they elected to retain the common name rather than assign a tower number.

RCT's table of active interlockers published December 31, 1926 was the first to list Tower A. It described the interlocker as a mechanical plant having 52 functions and a service date of "Prior to 1902." The list published December 31, 1927 revised Tower A's service date to "1898". On that basis, some sort of tower existed before the hurricane, but it seems likely that a new structure had to be built after the storm. Tower A eventually stood in the parking lot of Farmer's Marine and Copper Works, but whether that business existed in 1898 or 1901-02 has not been determined. The building has been converted to a large covered parking facility targeting visitors taking cruise ships out of Galveston. The date of Tower A's demise has not been determined, but the 1960s seems likely. It is known to have existed in 1958 and does not appear on historic aerial imagery from 1969.

    
Above Left: This photo of Tower A, date unknown, is from the Kansas State Historical Society (courtesy William Osborn collection.) Frank Perez, a retired tower operator for Santa Fe, is sure that the person standing on the tower porch is H. E. Smith. Frank details that the interlocker levers were located in the middle of the room and were aligned parallel to the outside steps. Above Right: This table of whistle codes illustrates the complex series of movements possible through the Tower A interlocker. Trains could whistle these codes on approach to Tower A and the operator would line up the movement requested. The table was published after 1930 because the Burlington - Rock Island (B-RI) did not exist until then and had begun operating to the island using trackage rights from Houston. Also, the Texas & New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad had already absorbed the GH&SA by either lease (1927) or merger (1934) when the table was published. By the end of the 1990s, all of these railroads had been consolidated into two large systems: Union Pacific (GH&H and T&NO) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (GC&SF and B-RI.) (courtesy Don Harper, from the Galveston Railroad Museum collection)


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At some point, the "Tower A" name fell out of favor. Since a tower number had not been assigned by RCT, the railroads in Galveston adopted their preferred tower references in their employee timetables (ETTs). For example, the whistle code table above for tower operators (Santa Fe employees) uses the name "Thirty-Sixth Street Interlocker". While the intersection of Mechanic St. and 36th St. would have been directly adjacent to the tower, there's no evidence that 36th St. was ever extended to reach Mechanic St. At least since the 1930 USGS topographic map of Galveston, the intersection did not exist. It does appear on old plats of Galveston, but often these were merely hypothetical future streets and like 36th St., many were never built to their full extent. Thus it is not surprising that "Thirty-Sixth Street Interlocker" was not universally adopted by the railroads.

At left (top image), a 1930 T&NO ETT presents the whistle codes that pertain to T&NO trains at Tower A under a title that begins "TOWER, 35th STREET...". T&NO associated Tower A with 35th St. as the location of the crossings, and there was also a junction switch associated with 34th St. But neither of these streets was near the tower nor intersected Mechanic St., faring no better than 36th St. as a naming rationale.

The next lower image at left is from a 1951 T&NO ETT. It lists the same whistle codes, but uses the confusing title "TOWER 36, 35th STREET...". This appears to be an attempt to combine the 36th St. reference used by Santa Fe with the 35th St. reference that T&NO had been using. Unfortunately, it conveys the erroneous message of referring to "Tower 36", which was in Bryan. Elsewhere in the 1951 ETT (next lower image), T&NO associates "35th St. Tower" with the mileposts for the 34th St. junction and the 35th St. crossings.

Despite building and staffing the tower, Santa Fe didn't stick with Tower A or "36th Street Interlocker." In 1939 (bottom image), Santa Fe referenced the Tower A junction as "Ave. A Jct., 36th STREET" along with another junction 0.1 miles closer to Union Station referenced as "WHARF CO. CROSSING, 35th STREET Jct." Elsewhere in the 1939 ETT, Santa Fe confirms that these two crossings are "protected by interlocking plant", but it does not name the tower.

   
Above: The 1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Galveston shows the location of Tower A where 36th St. hypothetically intersected Mechanic St. (Avenue C). That Mechanic St. was originally platted as Avenue C adds further confusion to Santa Fe's reference to "Ave. A Jct." in their 1939 ETT. Was "Ave. A" supposed to be shorthand for "Tower A" that was somehow corrupted during the final editing or typesetting? Ave. A was two blocks from the tower, more than 200 yards away at the closest point. Magnification of the map (right) reveals a two-story "Switch Tower" with a sizable roof overhang.

Below: This portion of a larger Station Map - Track and Structures drawing (June 30, 1918, revised Oct 1, 1933) from the GH&H Office of Resident Engineer shows the location of Tower A ("Interlocking Tower", just above and to the right of the center of the image). Again, a hypothetical 36th St. (unlabeled and identified as "Closed") appears to intersect Mechanic St. (labeled as "Public Gr. Xing") near the tower. The Santa Fe roundhouse appears along the left edge of the map. (courtesy Don Harper and the Galveston Railroad Museum)

Left: Frank Perez is a retired railroader who began his career with Santa Fe as an operator in Tower A in 1950. Frank tells of his first day on the job, having engineers whistling at him from all directions. He was so rattled that he started to bolt from the tower to head home when he heard the phone ring. He went back upstairs to answer it and it was his supervisor wanting to know why all those trains were whistling for signals! When Frank told him he didn't know what to do, the supervisor said to let one through at a time. Frank followed the instructions and had a successful career in the tower for many years. When Frank worked as a relief operator (1950 to 1958), Arthur Wade was first trick operator, H.E. Smith was second trick and a Mr. Clifford was third trick operator. Frank recalls that a signal maintainer named Boyd was killed when a train derailed and crushed him against a corner of the tower. Thanks to Frank for providing details about Tower A's operations. In retirement, Frank has supported the Galveston Railroad Museum as an electronics technician.


Above: Former Tower A operator Frank Perez is standing near the location of the staircase into Tower A. The view is to the northeast and the Galveston wharves grain elevators are in the background (Elevator B to the left, the decommissioned Elevator A to the right). Farmer's Marine and Copper Works is the red brick building at the left edge of the photo. The low concrete wall across the tracks was formerly part of a large cotton warehouse. Union Depot, now the Galveston Railroad Museum, can be seen in the distance to the right of the warehouse. (Don Harper photo, 2001) Below: This view is looking southwest with Frank standing near Tower A's staircase. The Farmer's Marine and Copper Works building is at right. The original interchange track ran behind Tower A next to the building. The current UP interchange track to the Galveston wharves curves to the left. The former GC&SF yard track ran straight ahead and is partly torn up - note the pile of old ties sitting atop the rails. Covered hoppers seen in the distance are in the UP (ex-GH&H) yard. (Don Harper photo, 2001)

Below: These images are cropped and magnified from a single large aerial photo of the east end of Galveston Island. Thanks to Don Harper for providing this material!

Above Left: Having studied the historic maps above, can you spot the interlocking tower in this image? The Santa Fe roundhouse is near the center. Above Right: The tower is adjacent to the far right corner (SE corner) along the slanted wall of the large building above and to the left of the roundhouse. The proximity of the building restricted the tower operator's visibility and contributed to the need for whistle codes used by engineers to request switching for movements.

Below: Don points out that all three Galveston roundhouses are visible in the master scanned image. The Santa Fe roundhouse is at the top edge, just right of center. The GH&H roundhouse is in the lower right corner, facing the opposite direction as the Santa Fe roundhouse. The T&NO roundhouse is along the middle of the left edge of the image. What a great shot!


Below: Google Street View supplies this May, 2017 view of the location of Tower A. The building is now a long term parking facility.


Above: The Sanborn map shows Tower A at Mechanic St. (Ave. C). It's apparent from this satellite image that 36th St. aligns with the tower, but no evidence has been uncovered that it ever extended to the vicinity of the tower. Below: In this bird's eye close up view of the same area, a remnant of the Santa Fe roundhouse is visible at left. Tower A was beside the oblique angle of the building.

 
Last Revised: 3/19/2021 JGK - Contact the Texas Interlocking Towers Page.