In the shadow of one of the busiest highway crossroads in the county is one of the busiest railway crossroads in the country. Thousands of drivers on Interstates 30 and 35 pass by it every day; tons of freight pass through it every day bound for much of North America on tracks of Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe; Amtrak passengers pass through it bound for Chicago or San Francisco.
It’s Tower 55, and it hunkers, hiding in plain sight, in the web of the downtown mixmaster.
The term Tower 55 refers to both the little red brick traffic control building and to the railroad intersection where north-south tracks and east-west tracks cross to form a steel tic-tac-toe grid.
That small plot of railroad real estate has been the hub of train traffic in Fort Worth since the git-go in 1876. This 1889 map shows that Fort Worth’s first passenger depot and Ginocchio’s Hotel were located in the northeast quadrant of today’s Tower 55 intersection. (In 1884 an incident at the hotel set in motion the great escape of Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright.)
The original Tower 55 building began operation on September 26, 1904 and has been a busy railroad control center since the heyday of steam a century ago. That first building was located just northeast of the current Tower 55 building and was so-named because it was the fifty-fifth such tower designated by the Texas Railroad Commission. An interlocking plant was a complex electro-mechanical system of levers, rods, and switches that controlled track switches and signals and was designed to prevent trains from colliding with each other as they moved through the yard. Clip is from the September 26, 1904 Telegram.
The first tower in Texas (Tower 1) had begun operation in 1903 in Bowie when the Rock Island railroad track was laid south from Oklahoma and crossed the Fort Worth & Denver City tracks. Today that crossing (the tower is gone) carries traffic of Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Clip is from the April 18, 1902 Fort Worth Register.
Texas & Pacific’s Tower 55 was state-of-the-art in 1904: A man in the tower controlled an intricate system of interlocking levers. The levers, by electricity, triggered the proper signals and switches to route trains safely through the tangle of tracks. Clip is from the June 26, 1904 Telegram.
“With the present system,” the Telegram wrote on opening day of the interlocking plant, “almost absolute safety is insured, and the passenger is whirled along over the rails at cannonball speed in the dead of night and is as safe as the baby in the cradle.”
Of course, the newfangled system took some getting used to. On the very first night of Tower 55’s operation two locomotives derailed, and some “bawlin’ out” transpired as members of train crews—especially the old-timers—tried to learn the complicated new system of signals and whistles.
But by 1910 Texas had almost two hundred such towers.
This 1926 Sanborn map shows the Tower 55 building, labeled “signal house,” in the northeast quadrant of the rail intersection. To the west was the big roundhouse of Texas & Pacific.
This map of Tower 55’s yard in the 1930s gives an indication of the railroads that served Fort Worth: Missouri, Kansas & Texas (Katy), Texas & Pacific, Texas & New Orleans, Rock Island, Santa Fe, Fort Worth & Rio Grande, Fort Worth Belt, St. Louis-Southwestern, Fort Worth & Denver City, Houston & Texas Central. (From Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
This 1952 aerial photo shows that Tower 55 had lots of elbow room before the freeways were built. T&P’s big roundhouse was gone by 1952, but at the top and bottom of the photo, just to the west of the north-south tracks, can be seen railroad turntables.
The current Tower 55 building was built in 1941.
Rush hour at the tower: Tower 55 is one of the busiest rail intersections in the country and for years was infamous for ninety-minute delays. In these two photos, the long west-bound freight (bottom photo) had to cool its wheels for only twenty minutes until the short south-bound Amtrak had come and gone through the intersection.
As many as one hundred trains pass under the freeways and through Tower 55 each day.
In 2014 a $100 million construction project to better handle that rail traffic added the third north-south track, new signals, street closures, and improvements to grade crossings and bridges. The improvements are projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by ninety-five thousand tons a year and move trains through the intersection ten miles an hour faster.
But the project also did away with a part of our past: the late-nineteenth-century bridge with cut-stone abutments over Cold Springs Road.
Train technology was slow to change. For a half-century Tower 55’s command center was a long console of 128 levers operated by “levermen.” The third floor of the tower gave levermen a 360-degree view of the yard. They used binoculars to keep watch on approaching trains on the yard’s maze of tracks. Every train that passed through Fort Worth–one hundred trains a day, some of them a mile long and pulled by seven engines–passed through the tic-tac-toe intersection of Tower 55.
About 1990 the tower was computerized, levers gave way to buttons, and the old lever console was given the gold watch of retirement.
What was state-of-the-art in the early twentieth century and even in the late twentieth century is not state-of-the-art in the early twenty-first century. Today trains are tracked by GPS and can even be controlled remotely—something that the old-timers of Fort Worth’s first Tower 55 surely would find baffling.