The interlocking tower, while not totally gone, has virtually vanished from the railroad scene. Whether it was a humble one story shanty or a magnificent two, three or more stories tall building, they once served a vital function. Some controlled where double track went to single; others controlled where two or more railroads crossed; others controlled a vast and complex passenger station “throat”.
Towers could be built to a particular railroad’s standard blueprint, but they all had their own personality. It was easy to recognize a certain railroad’s tower. Pennsy had it own look, as did the New York Central, Erie and the rest, but no hard and fast rules applied, even within the same railroad.
The inside of an interlocking was a fascinating and magical place.
Watching the operator going about his duties was a sight to behold. There was always something going on; the constant chatter on the dispatchers line, the “ding” of the bell notifying that a train was “on the circuit “, or the operator transcribing a train order. The special smell of the grease used to lubricate the throw rods added to the ambiance.
With the advent of CTC, radios, and more recently computers, it is now possible to control hundreds of miles with only one dispatcher. Downsizing the physical plant and outright abandoning of portions of the railroad helped hasten their demise.
When passenger service on the Maine Central Railroad (MEC) ended in 1960, I was 15 years old and had never been to the State of Maine. After the passenger trains were gone, the freight business was alive and well, thanks to the smart investments and wise business management of E. Spencer Miller, President of the railroad from 1952 through 1975.
My introduction to Maine was in 1964 through Colby College, which together with the railroad, was a major presence in Waterville, where the Maine Central had its repair shops, and its largest and most important classification yard.
Excursions beyond Waterville served as a diversion and study break from grinding through textbooks in the college library, and presented the chance to learn more about the railroad and how it worked.
One bitterly cold January day, a trip to explore the eastern portions of the Maine Central seemed like a good idea. I headed up toward Northern Maine Junction, where the MEC interchanged cars of Maine products, including printing paper, pulpwood, and potatoes, with the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad.
Around 1957, the Maine Central was still very much investing in the railroad, and a new CTC installation between Pittsfield and Northern Maine Junction was authorized to realize savings in redundant trackage and improve efficiency in the operation. The upgrade eliminated double track, and replaced the automatic block signals with a modern centralized traffic control system.
Tower MD’s building housed the CTC machine, relays and electronic equipment, a robust heating system, the operator, and a cat. On this winter day, I’m sure Phil Butler, the tower operator, was not expecting any weekend visitors to his lonely outpost, but he was most cordial and welcoming. I think he appreciated anyone who was interested in what he did and how he did it. After some railroad small talk, he explained the machine and how it worked. Tower MD was also a train order office, and so the order hoops and train order signal over the building were part of the station’s equipment.
To me, these photos are a time capsule of the Maine Central in good times. Trains were run at speed on well maintained track, most of the time with “High Green” Clear signals displayed.
After the boom years of the 1970’s, a combination of business and economic factors brought the Maine Central to its knees. Wall Street raiders took over the debt free railroad, precipitating a long and bitter strike of the Maine Central’s loyal and hardworking employees. Hundreds of track miles which had served the state’s industries for one hundred years and more were either abandoned or no longer maintained.
Today the CTC is gone. Most of track has a speed limit of 10mph, and many of the paper mills have closed as their product has become unneeded in the internet world.
It has been hard to watch the decline, but I certainly have many wonderful memories of what main line railroading was like Down East, back on that bitter cold winter afternoon.
Railroad interlocking towers once dotted the landscape so much that it seemed like they would always be there. Many towers still stand and watch silently as their human operators and the interlocking levers they controlled have been replaced by new technologies controlled from afar. Many other towers have vanished completely, with only a patch of gravel marking the spot where the tower once stood.
In the small, central Illinois town of Shattuc stood one of these towers. For years Shattuc Tower stood as a silent sentinel, watching the trains of many railroads roll by its broken and boarded up windows, its interlocking levers frozen in place from when the tower was decommissioned and the tower operator walked out of the tower at the end of the very last work shift. In its heyday the tower controlled the movements of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads. In later years the tower stood guard over the Burlington Northern and Chessie System, before being closed sometime in the 1980s. After being closed, CSX and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) trains rolled past the unused tower on the CSX’s Illinois Subdivision and the BNSF’s Beardstown Subdivision.
Today the tower is gone, and one of the two rail lines it once controlled is no longer a through route. Shattuc Tower was torn down in December 2014, after having stood as an empty, silent sentinel for many decades. In 2015, in a filing to the Surface Transportation Board under STB Docket No. AB-55 (Sub-No. 748X), CSX requested and received approval to discontinue service on its Illinois Subdivision between Caseyville, Illinois and Aviston, Illinois. Because of this, the rest of the subdivision now lies dormant with an uncertain future. However, BNSF trains still ply the rails of the Beardstown Subdivision, rolling past the empty spot where the tower once stood.
When I came across Shattuc Tower back in 2005, the abandoned railroad tower grabbed my attention more than the previous abandoned railroad towers, depots, and stations I had come across. Previous to coming across Shattuc Tower I had never thought much about these by-gone structures disappearing, which is a shame because so few of them are still standing and even fewer are being used. Shattuc Tower made me realize just how important it is to document the railroading environment as a whole, rather than just locomotives and the rail cars they move. The tower had stood watch along with its operators for so many years and then in the blink of an eye it was abandoned. This abandoned state was to me a reminder of just how quickly life can change after being the same for so long. The tower was a reflection of life and how the advancement of technology changes how people interact with their world. Before being torn down, Shattuc Tower taught me the valuable lesson to get out and document what I can because what is standing today may not be standing tomorrow.
Winslow Junction is located at the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens almost exactly half way between Philadelphia and the resorts in Atlantic City. The site is surprisingly rural for something set in the most densely populated area of the United States. However, 100 years ago Winslow Junction could boast some of the highest traffic densities in the world as two railroads competed to bring millions of middle and working class passengers to the fun and leisure of the New Jersey shore.
In the few decades between the time when workers developed the ability to enjoy leisure time in the late 19th century, and when private automobiles and inexpensive air travel expanded their options in the mid 20th, Atlantic City was one of several resort cities that owed their fortunes to efficient rail transport. Like Brighton Beach, New York and Brighton, England, Atlantic City relied on a conveyor belt-like system of trains that whisked holiday seekers from the urban core to the beach in the brief period when they were released from their jobs. Winslow Junction sat at the nexus of this system, located at the point where the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Southern Division crossed both the Camden and Atlantic (PRR) and Atlantic City Railroad (Reading) main lines. It was also the point where the ACRR’s Cape May branch split off from their Main Line with additional connections to the CNJ for its famed “Blue Comet” express service to New York City.
Improving road transport brought rapid change to the Atlantic City travel market and in 1933 the competing Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading System operations were merged into the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines. In 1934 the state of the art WINSLOW tower and its associated interlocking was constructed to bind the system together at its nexus point, replacing older mechanical towers and antiquated signaling. The air operated switches and cab signals were installed on over 5 route miles of track, all controlled from a single power interlocking machine in a brand new brick tower.
However the story of Winslow Junction from then on would be mostly one of decline. As Atlantic City faded, tracks were cut back and the main lines were downgraded. Finally, in 1983. passenger service to the shore was suspended and the interlocking plant in the middle of the Jersey pines was shuttered for good. Fortunately, state ownership meant that the artifacts were largely left in place. Reconstruction of the Atlantic City rail line in 1989 swept away some of the decay, but the tower’s unbroken windows still let in sunlight to shine on the Model 14 interlocking machine for nearly 20 years before they were boarded up.
The main line to Atlantic City that in its heyday hosted the fastest scheduled passenger train service in the world is now a single track line with short passing sidings and a top speed of 80mph. The interlocking that remains in sight of the tower is just a single crossover at the south end of one of those sidings. The former southward main is now just a glorified storage track, albeit one sporting 136lb main line rail with some joints still still paper thin.
Year by year, bit by bit, more of Winslow’s history succumbs to collectors, vandals and nature. The telegraph poles have fallen to those interested in the copper wire or blue glass insulators. The power supply was bulldozed for PCB remediation and even the half mile long ramp for the Cap May flyover was completely harvested for its supply of high quality construction sand.
If anything, Winslow Junction is a testament to the force of nature to reclaim that which humanity tried to assert its dominance over.
At the same time it is a testament to those materials of the analogue age that continue to resist the forces of nature, decades after being left to fend for themselves. Creosoted wooden ties, lead painted pipelines and even rust covered structural steel still stand strong.
Many of the classic PRR position light signals at Winslow Junction were salvaged by local railroad enthusiasts during the Amtrak rebuilding project in the late 1980’s, however the former 8L signal stationed at the south junction of the connector track was rolled down the embankment to fade away.
The track connecting the former Atlantic City Line to what became the Conrail Beesley’s Point freight line saw a brief resurgence after the tower was closed as it was the only way that Atlantic City bound freight traffic could access the line after the portion between the Delair Bridge and Winslow Junction was taken out of service. When the line was rebuilt the interchange moved to SOUTH WINS interlocking and the S-curving connector was left to the weeds. In addition to the rails, this NJT friction bearing M of W flatcar found itself stuck in time.
Winslow Junction was built with no fewer than 6 rail-rail overpasses to allow movements to pass by each other without conflict. This amount of “flight” is typically reserved for busy urban junctions like Zoo, Harold or Jamaica. Elsewhere in the country, junctions similar to Winslow would have consisted of flat switches and diamond crossings.
The air for the switches was supplied by nearly 2.5 miles of pipeline, originating at WINSLOW tower and then following the CNJ Blue Comet connection up to the ACRR junction before splitting, with one line continuing down the Cape May branch and the other using the connecting track to serve the switches around the flyover bridge on the former PRR main line. Most of this impressive compressed air system was left in place where it is slowly being covered by leaves and vegetation.
Surprisingly this isn’t the only abandoned pipeline at Winslow Junction. On the remaining connecting track between the CNJ and Reading are a collection of concrete blocks dating from before even the depression era WINSLOW tower. These are foundations for the mechanical pipes that ran from the original ACRR Winslow Jct tower to switches and signals on the CNJ connection.
Nearly invisible from the track and ensconced in a thicket of brambles and weeds, the foundation for the 1890’s vintage Reading owned ACRR tower can still be found. The upper level was razed in 1934; the basement continued to be used as a remote relay room and possibly as a secondary air compressor station. Today, still water tight, it is used as a clubhouse for local teens, looking to consume adult beverages away from the prying eyes of adults.
Winslow Junction is a double accident of history. Constructed in the middle of nowhere to take the masses to the shore in the pre-auto era, it was left to fade away due to having become the ward of a state that couldn’t be bothered to properly dispose of it. Hopefully its secrets will linger on to inspire future generations of trackside explorers.
(All photographs were taken in November, 2015. Click here to view additional photos from Winslow Junction.}
In 1948, when I was 12 years old and was a very avid railroad fan, I would spend Friday evenings at the New York Central Strong Arm Tower #1 in Mott Haven Passenger yards in the Bronx NY. The tower man, Mr. Bill White, taught me how to operate the machine and how to control the switches and signals that controlled the 5 double track diamonds that crossed the north & south wyes and the 5 leads to one of the largest passenger car yards in the U.S. I used all the railroading that I accumulated in my teens to eventually hire out on the New Haven RR as a tower man in 1956.
The “RUT Milk ” freight train ran from the NYC RR West Side freight yards to DV Tower at Spyten Duyvil where it came south on the Hudson Division to Mott Haven yards and there crossed the yard leads and entered the Harlem Division tracks for Brewster, Pleasantville and Chatham NY. There it was turned over to the Rutland Railroad for its final leg to Eagle Bridge NY and then to Rutland VT.