Our Saturday goal: Flatonia, home of the well-preserved SP Tower 3.
Saturday, we headed off towards Houston, where we would spend most of spring break entertaining the kids. Since I was never too crazy about driving Interstate 45 from Dallas to Houston, where drivers are bumper to bumper at 85 miles per hour south of Madison--talk about your NASCAR driving expericene--I sent us on a mostly rural, two-lane route, coincidentally (yeah sure!) roads that would parallel railroads: I30 to Temple, US190/TX 36 along the Santa Fe to Caldwell, and then along the former Southern Pacific Dalsa (Dallas-San Antonio) line along several roads to Flatonia, where we'd spend the night.
Northbound grain empty passing roadside memorial near Heidenheimer, east of Temple.
Lots of trains on the Santa Fe, as you'd expect, but we only stopped to photograph one of them. We were traveling without a radio scanner, so what we'd see would be strictly what we'd stumble onto. By around 6pm, we arrived in Flatonia, where we'd made reservations at the locally-owned Carefree Inn motel. This was my first visit to this small town halfway between Houston and San Antonio, and a strategic junction on the former Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific), where the east-west Sunset Route crossed the Dalsa from the north and the line south to Victoria and Corpus Christi. Among Texas railfans, the place is a Must-See for its preservation of the 1903 interlocking tower #3 next to the tracks in town and at the junction, 1/2 miles west of the business district, a "photo pavillion" where one can watch the action without trespassing.
Flatonia is capitalizing on its attraction to the railfan. . .
The pavillion was the brain-child of Tommy Shults, who'd moved to Flatonia in 2000 from the coast so he could retire next to the tracks. Aware of the attraction of the place to visiting railfans--who spend money on food, gas and lodging while on these excursions--Tommy convinced the Chamber of Commerce to spend money to build a place for fans to congregate and watch trains. The city put up the rest of the money and donated the land, and it's been a good deal for the community. Tommy is a regular presence at the junction. He made sure we signed his visitor's log book, and met us the next morning to take us up in the preserved tower for a look around. He's a wonderful ambassador for both Flatonia as well as the railfan community.
But first--the trains! Flatonia is quite the busy place. In addition to the east-west UP transcontinental traffic, there's trackage-rights trains from the BNSF as well as Kansas City Southern using the junction. We saw a west and an east UP in the 90 minutes before sunset, but the trackage-rights traffic was busy as well: an eastbound BNSF train from Eagle Pass, taking the long trip through San Antonio and then north onto the Dalsa en route to Temple (coming back to home rails at Caldwell). Right before sunset, a KCS train out of Laredo came up from Victoria and waited for a UP west before throttling off towards Houston and eventually over to Beaumont and home rails once again. Everyone seemingly uses everyone else's tracks in south east Texas.
I. gives the eagle eye at the photo platform to the Eagle Pass train. . .
Right at Sunset, a westbound UP rock train. . .
and after he cleared, an eastbound KCS swings off the Victoria sub towards Houston. . .
Sunday morning, eastbound passes preserved Tower 3 at Flatonia. . .
Sunday, after a little more photography, we met Tommy at the tower and fiddled around with the Armstrong levers upstairs and looked inside their preserved International Car bay-window SP caboose. Then, it was east towards Houston under skies getting cloudier by the mile--along the secondary highways paralleling the old Espee, of course. We paid a visit to the railroad museum in Rosenburg, where another 1903 SP tower, tower 17 retired just a few years ago, is also on display (this one, an electro-mechanical interlocking machine which once guarded the crossing with the Santa Fe), then stopped in Sugar Land for a shot I'd always wanted: a westbound train passing the defunct Imperial Sugar processing plant. We didn't have to wait long, as a KSC grain train soon appeared. Then it was off to get our motel room in Webster, not far from NASA's Johnson Space Center, our home for the next few days.
E. breaks in as a towerman at Flatonia, under the watchful eye of M. and Tommy Shults.
Another eastbound UP train passes the preserved SP caboose at Flatonia, as seen from Tower 3.