(See update at bottom of post.)
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; Fort Worth & Western trains pass through it bound for Cleburne or Comanche; Amtrak passenger trains 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 railroad intersection where north-south tracks and east-west tracks cross and to the building (yellow circle) that for decades controlled railroad traffic through the intersection.
That small plot of real estate has been the hub of railroad traffic in Fort Worth since 1881, when the north-south tracks of the Missouri Pacific and Santa Fe railroads crossed the east-west tracks of the Texas & Pacific track. This 1889 map shows that Fort Worth’s second 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 Jim Courtright.)
The original Tower 55 building began operation on September 26, 1904 during the heyday of steam. 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. Inside the building was the interlocking plant, which 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 railyard and the intersection. 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.
In 1912 the Texas & Pacific railroad reported that an average of nearly one train or engine per minute passed through the intersection in the month of November.
In 1924 the Record reported that the intersection, used by eleven trunk railroads, was the busiest in the Southwest. Men in the tower controlled all that traffic with levers that were numbered 1 through 120 and color coded blue, red, and black.
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 aerial photo of 1928 shows just part of Fort Worth’s railroad complex, with T&P on the left and Santa Fe and Fort Worth & Denver on the right . Tower 55 is just south of the black T&P water tower at the bottom of the photo.
This 1952 aerial photo shows that Tower 55 had lots of elbow room before the freeways and mixmaster 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 the slotted circles of railroad turntables.
The current Tower 55 building was built in 1941 (one source says 1931). Tower 55 today is owned by Union Pacific railroad.
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. (Think of Tower 55 as a mixmaster interchange for trains controlled by a four-way stop.) In these two photos, the long west-bound Union Pacific 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.
Train technology was slow to change. For a half-century Tower 55’s command center was a long console of 100-plus levers operated by “levermen.” The third floor of the tower gave levermen a 360-degree view of the railyard. 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 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.
In 2014 a $100 million construction project to improve movement of rail traffic added a third north-south track, new signals, street closures, and improvements to grade crossings and bridges. The improvements were 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.
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.
April 2022 update: Union Pacific railroad has applied to the city of Fort Worth for permission to demolish the Tower 55 building. That’s a shame. Because if Fort Worth—a town that railroads built—has a crossroads of history, that crossroads—literally—is the iron X at Tower 55 and the little building beside that X. During the 118-year career of first the original and then the replacement Tower 55 building, Fort Worth’s population has grown from 30,000 to 900,000. Past Tower 55 have rumbled cars carrying oil and cattle and grain—three commodities that, like the railroads, fed Fort Worth’s growth. For most of its 118 years the men and machinery inside Tower 55 played Red Light, Green Light with visiting presidents (two Roosevelts and a Truman), with soldiers going to war and soldiers returning from war (many in metal caskets), with Hollywood stars bound for personal appearances at the three theaters of Show Row, with vacationers “All aboard!”ing at our two passenger terminals to see the Grand Canyon or just Grandma’s back yard. A half-mile west of Tower 55 in 1931 Texas & Pacific railroad demolished Fort Worth’s first passenger depot (1876) because no one was aware of the history of the little wooden building, which had been moved to a corner of the T&P railyard and forgotten. In 2022 we don’t have the excuse of ignorance.