Watch Tower Question

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at
Sat Apr 10 13:22:48 EDT 2021


Hopefully someone else can come up with some better answers, but I can give you a few details here.

You do, as usual, raise some interesting questions.

I was always told they were called “watchboxes” but that may simply be local. 

I’d suspect that folks were called “crossing watchman”.

Their responsibility was to watch for traffic, and trains, open and close the gates as needed. At Commerce or 2nd Street in Roanoke, since it was a crossing at the throat of the busy yard on the east end, the crossing watchman knew the moves of switchers and when not to put the gates down. I think early on, they were manually controlled gates, in other words, the watchman would climb down the ladder, put the gates down, wait for the train to clear, then raise them back up. He was also equipped with a metal black letters on white “stop” sign to watch while the gates were down. There is a standards drawing for those and I have one.

Later, the gates were controlled remotely from his watchbox. 

The crossing watchmen were in the earlier days, men who had been injured while working, and no longer able to be a brakeman or whatever. My father’s father was like this. He lost a leg on the North Carolina branch above the knee about 1910 as a brakeman. About 1928, he was hired as a crossing watchman for the tower on South Jefferson Street. Now, how he managed this with only a peg leg, I do know have a clue nor did my father or mother. Since he died in 1943, there was no record. He did not do the job for long, however, maybe a few months, but going up and down that ladder, I simply cannot imagine.

On communication, I’d suspect there was a phone line connection, at least in later days.

Hope someone else can offer more

Ken Miller

> On Apr 10, 2021, at 10:57 AM, NW Mailing List via NW-Mailing-List <nw-mailing-list at> wrote:
> List, 
> I’m putting together a presentation on the industries and rail-related structures along the N&W for a local “on the line” Historical Society (Pickaway County, Ohio), and am considering adding a section on watch towers.
> I have three photos of these structures in the county seat of Circleville, and it occurred to me that I don’t know much about them. I have a couple of questions that might lead to more; they are:
> 	• What is the correct name for these structures?
> 	• Is “watchman” the correct name for the person manning the tower?
> 	• What was the responsibility of the watchman?
> 	• If a crossing had gates, were the gates operated by the watchman from the tower, or would he have to descend to street level to pull them down manually?
> 	• If the crossing didn’t have gates, did he flag the crossing?
> 	• Did the watchman just watch, and have a separate person who did “on the ground” work? 
> 	• Was there any communication between the watchman in these towers and nearby interlocking towers?
> As you may be able to tell, I’m not sure what to ask, so pointers or answers to questions I didn’t ask are welcome. 
> Dad once told me that the Circleville interlocking tower operator could remotely control the gates at the adjacent highway (South Court Street / US 23) in the mid-fifties. My assumption is that the pictured towers were far less “high tech” than that.
> As a quick history aside, crossing towers were removed through Circleville in two batches; one in 1930, the second in 1938. One street retained watchmen/gate operators until an unknown later date. 
> Matt Goodman
> Columbus, Ohio, US
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