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Railroad Interlocking Towers of Texas

by Jim King
Ask someone to recall railroad buildings from their childhood memories and they are likely to mention a depot or perhaps a roundhouse. But there was another railroad building very common across Texas, in small towns and large, that few people recall: the railroad tower. Most people referred to these as "signal towers" or "switch towers", but they were formally known as "interlocking towers", and their locations and designs were carefully managed and approved by the Railroad Commission. The purpose of an interlocking tower was to provide for efficient and safe passage across "at grade" rail junctions where the rails were owned by different companies.

Railroad Interlocking Tower 64, Greenville, Texas 1930
"The original Tower 64 around 1930. The track straight ahead is looking toward Commerce, Texas on the St. Louis Southwestern (Cotton Belt). Track to the left is the Missouri, Kansas and Texas toward Denison. Structure that can be seen in the distance is the MKT Hunt Yard office in Greenville, Texas."
Photo courtesy Katy Railroad Historical Society

Remains of Railroad Interlocking Tower 64, Greenville, Texas today
"The current structure that still stands at the crossing appears to be the lower half of the original Tower 64."
Photo courtesy Myron Malone.

In 1901, a new state law tasked the Railroad Commission with developing rules to govern safety at all places where two different railroads crossed, and by 1902, they had produced rules governing such crossings. The basic rule was very simple - if a crossing was not controlled by an approved interlocking system, then all trains had to come to a complete stop before crossing the junction. Stopping and restarting a train was time consuming and inefficient, so the railroads were motivated to build interlockers at junctions that had frequent traffic. Using manual or electronic control systems, an interlocker would provide distant signals to the rail lines to indicate whether the crossing could or could not be occupied by an oncoming train. If a train had a "clear" signal, it could maintain speed and cross the junction without stopping.

Railroad Interlocking Tower 20, Bells Texas 1902
Railroad Interlocking Tower 20 in Bells
1902 photo courtesy George Kimbrough

In the early years, interlocking systems were typically installed in towers staffed with personnel responsible for controlling the signals. But at rail junctions where one line was heavily used and the other line was seldom used, this was an inefficient approach. There was little for a tower staff to do because the signals would almost always be set to allow passage on the busy line. This problem was solved through the use of a "cabin interlocker", a small, unmanned hut that contained the signal controls that could be manually operated by a train crew needing to get a "clear" signal for permission to cross. The controls were generally left with the "clear" signal given to the busy line so that the frequent trains on that line did not need to stop.

Railroad Interlocking Tower 69, Celeste, Texas old photo
"A very old photograph showing Tower 69 in Celeste, TX. Photograph from the Mackie Don Baber collection, courtesy of Jerry Hunter."

The Railroad Commission assigned a number to every interlocker they approved. The first three interlockers were authorized on May 21, 1902 to control crossings at Bowie (Tower 1), San Antonio (Tower 2) and Flatonia (Tower 3). By the mid-1960s, advances in electronic control technology had resulted in the widespread use of automatic interlockers, systems that detected the approach of trains and automatically issued the proper signals. The Railroad Commission decided to get out of the business of approving interlockers, and the last interlocker to receive a number was Tower 215 at Bloomington in 1966. Very few original railroad towers have survived to this day. Two excellent examples are Tower 3 in Flatonia and Tower 19 in Dallas http://www.towers.txrrhistory.com/019/019.htm

Railroad Interlocking Tower 3 in Flatonia, Texas
Railroad Interlocking Tower 3 in Flatonia
Photo courtesy of Flatonia Chamber of Commerce

Railroad Interlocking Tower 115, Eagle Lake , Texas
"Abandoned, but still standing in November, 1996, Tower 115 in Eagle Lake sits silently as an eastbound Southern Pacific freight rumbles by on the Sunset Route headed for Houston. The tower was razed shortly after this photo was taken."
Photo courtesy Jim King

The Texas Interlocking Tower Home Page

http://www.towers.txrrhistory.com/index.htm is a non-commercial project currently underway to document the history of all of the interlocking towers in Texas. Historic photos have been found for many towers, but there are literally dozens of towers for which historic photographs have not been located. Towers sometimes show up in the background of other photos. For example, Tower 36 (Bryan) shows up in the background of a photo postcard, and Tower 4 (Dalhart) was found in the background of some old photographs of Main Street in Dalhart. Our only Tower 7 (College Station) photo is from a 1920s vintage aerial photo of Kyle Field! Perhaps your collection of old photographs includes a railroad tower. If you find such a photograph, or if you have personal recollections of a hometown railroad tower that you wish to share, please visit the Texas Interlocking Tower Home Page http://www.towers.txrrhistory.com/index.htm and use the email links there to contact the webmaster.

Jim King
They Shoe Horses Don't They November 10 , 2006 Column

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