Tower Architecture

“CW Cabin” – Hinton, West Virginia – Chesapeake & Ohio – Robert Staples photo

Railroads today are very standardized in their operations and equipment. It is very difficult to distinguish one railroad from another other than by their paint scheme. Things were different in the golden age of railroading. The railroads were very different from each other in terms of operating practices, the equipment used to move freight, and even the structures used to support operations such as depots or interlocking towers.

I will cover just the general look and design that the railroads followed most of the time. Please keep in mind that there were always exceptions to the rules.

Each railroad’s towers had their distinctive look and most followed a standard design or plan, but even within the same railroad, the towers could differ in looks or style from line to line.

Pennsylvania Railroad

Pennsylvania’s towers in the east looked different from the ones that were on their New York to Chicago line. (Ft. Wayne Line) Starting in World War II, PRR built towers that looked to me like small castles, complete with parapets. The technical term for this feature was “crenelations.” These were constructed after the original tower was destroyed by fire or derailment. Dunkirk Ohio is a prime example of this.

“Dunkirk” – Dunkirk, Ohio – Pennsylvania RR – Dan Maners photo
“Hunt” – Huntingdon, Pennyslvania – Pennsylvania RR – Bruce Vogel photo
“Upper Sandusky” – Upper Sandusky, Ohio – Pennsylvania RR – Dave Oroszi photo
Adams – Ft. Wayne, Indiana – Pennsylvania RR – Dan Maners photo
“Vandalia” – Vandalia, Illinois – Pennsylvania RR – Dan Maners photo

New York Central

Another example were New York Central’s towers on the former Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (Big Four Route). I believe that these towers that “stood on stilts” were unique to the Big Four. As time went on some of these towers received closed-in bottoms.

“Winchester” – Winchester, Indiana – New York Central – Photographer unknown
“Cobb” – Coal Bluff, Indiana – New York Central – Bob McCord photo
“Morgan” – Quincy, Ohio – New York Central – Jay Williams photo

The towers that stood on the New York Central in the east, especially on the “Water Level Route” were large, well built , brick structures.

“SS#30” – Utica, New York – New York Central – Mark Hinsdale photo
“X” – Dunkirk, New York – New York Central – Chip Syme photo

Baltimore & Ohio

Baltimore and Ohio’s interlockers were easy to distinguish. They were two story wooden structures with “fish scale” sidings right below the window line. B&O displayed the tower’s call letters prominently in the second story window.

“CF” Confluence, Pennsylvania – Baltimore & Ohio – Photographer unknown
“HO” – Hancock, West Virginia – Baltimore & Ohio – Photographer unknown

Chesapeake & Ohio

Chesapeake and Ohio’s towers with their two-story brick design, complete with iron overhangs, were some of the handsomest towers ever built. Somewhere along the line C&O changed their plans and built solid, one story, brick towers. As a side note, C&O referred to their interlockings as “cabins”

“NJ Cabin” – Edgington, Kentucky – Chesapeake & Ohio – Joe Ferguson photo
“C Cabin” – Carey, Ohio – Chesapeake & Ohio – Charlie Whipp photo
“A Cabin” – Millard Ave, Toledo, Ohio – Chesapeake & Ohio – Dan Maners photo

New Haven

The New York, New Haven and Hartford’s towers were beautiful structures. They were constructed of concrete with their call letters cast into a “shield” mounted under the window line and topped off with a distinctive pagoda-style roof. Some of their older towers were simple wood structures.

“SS#38” – Stamford, Connecticut – New Haven RR – Tom Donahue photo
“SS#202” (Bank Street) – Waterbury, Connecticut – Hew Haven RR – Tom Donahue photo
“SS#80” (Air Line Jct.) – New Haven, Connecticut – New Haven RR – Tom Donahue photo
“SS#79” (Mill River Jct.) – New Haven, Connecticut – New Haven RR – Tom Donahue photo


The last railroad I will mention is the Erie. They were easy to identify. Like other railroads the Erie in later years went to a concrete block design.

“GS” – Kingsland, Indiana – Erie RR – photographer unknown
“Newton” – Newton, Indiana – Erie RR – Bob McCord photo

Dan ManersText Copyright 2018 – Photographs Copyright as credited.


Blowing the Past Away

I was driving down Highway 4, between Rosetown and Swift Current, Saskatchewan, when I saw the old abandoned wood crib elevator in a farmer’s field just off the highway. How, I wondered, did it come to be there, all alone?

As it turns out, the elevator was once on a railway line—the old Canadian Pacific Railway McMorran Subdivision. Built in 1923, it was one of at least two elevators in the hamlet of Thrasher. But on this summer day in 2015, there is only one elevator left, abandoned like the rail line, and like Thrasher itself. Read more

Last Stand on the Topeka Sub

The cantilever at Eudora, Kansas. with one US&S searchlight, stood for nearly a century. It is now gone.

Since 2015, I have lived on or near the BNSF’s former Santa Fe Topeka Subdivision. This proximity has allowed me to watch firsthand the replacement of the searchlights, color light signals, and the code lines that have governed the subdivision for decades. All over the country, on busier lines, the old signals have been falling, rapidly replaced by Positive Train Control (PTC) and the new, “Vader” style color light signals. The BNSF’s former Santa Fe Topeka Sub is no exception. Running from Holliday to Emporia, Kansas (KS), this portion of the BNSF has acted as a relief valve for the busy Emporia Sub. It also hosts Amtrak’s #3 and #4, the east and westbound Southwest Chiefs. While the signals on many lines have been upgraded on many parts of the BNSF system, the Topeka Sub has largely been untouched. That is until now. Read more

The New River Gorge

Part Five
A wet autumn day in Thurmond.

Any time I visit the New River Gorge I almost always spend some time in Thurmond. For rail fans visiting southern West Virginia, Thurmond is certainly a must see place. Almost all of the railroad structures which crowded this narrow strip of flat land are gone. Still, there is much about this place which carries you back a hundred years to the boom times of the New River coal fields. A great deal has been written about Thurmond, much of it available on-line, and I’ll not do a history summary here. But I will touch on some of the highlights. Read more

Ten Grain Elevator Towns

Manitoba, Canada

I have wanted to write a “top 10” grain elevator post for this site for a while. I wasn’t sure exactly what the criteria would be to choose the “top 10.” Obviously it would be subjective. I started going through the list of almost 200 grain elevators that still exist in Manitoba, eliminating the modern concrete elevators right away. I started compiling a “favorites” list but it had significantly more than 10 elevators in it!

Then I thought… Trackside Photographer . . . trackside . . . maybe I should choose the top 10 grain elevators that are still trackside! Brilliant!  However, that eliminated a lot of my favorite elevators from contention. That wouldn’t do.

In the end, I chose a mix of actual trackside elevators plus a few that have not had railway tracks beside them for decades. It’s all subjective. I hope you like them. Read more

Materials of Yesteryear

In 1967 young people were told that plastics were the future and the future did not disappoint. Today the world is made out of plastic, carbon fibre, corrosion resistant lightweight alloys, high strength concrete and LEDs. This technology has generally converted our world from one where stuff is expensive and people are cheap, to exactly the opposite. I could go on and on about the many economic ramifications of this, but in essence “things” went from being crafted and artisan, to being so invisible that they might as well not matter. Back in the day the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was the largest private employer in North America with over 300,000 employees, roughly the same as WalMart. This vast army of workers was needed to polish, paint, lubricate and generally maintain all of the expensive, labor intensive technology that allowed humans to move at speeds faster than brisk walk. Replacing the materials of old was part and parcel to being able to replace the workers that cared for them, however as we charge into the middle of the 21st century some of these materials have soldiered on in the service of railroad signaling and, until their inevitable replacement, they provide a window into the pre-digital industrial age.

Steel and Iron
CSX Washington Sub – South Orange Interlocking

Steel and iron are the stereotypical railroad materials as demand for bridges, rails and locomotives practically created the modern steel industry. Of course steel wasn’t just used for girders and boilers. Back in the day this was the only metal one had available for structural components of any size, and before the advent of plastic or other composites, metal was one of the only materials available with an adequate strength to weight ratio. Stronger, weather proof and more durable than wood, iron and steel became the materials of choice of railroad signals and signal structures. The US&S style N color light signal mast shown above is almost completely made of iron and steel, right down to the base. Cast iron housing and brackets, sheet steel backing, steel pipe mast, strap iron ladder work, heck, even the signal wires are sheathed in iron. Read more