The quiet passing of BO Tower

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, January 11, 2022

A July 3, 2014, detour sees train 49, the Lake Shore Limited, rolling through Kalamazoo. Mark Hinsdale photo
“Do you share the vision of the lonely tower operator, a solitary watchful sentinel, sitting in his dilapidated second-story ‘office,’ from which glows the only light in the darkened country crossroads town? Etch it well in your mind, because it’s history.”

With those eloquent words, my colleague J. David Ingles reported on the state of interlocking towers across the U.S., part of our special package on towers in the April 1995 issue of Trains. At that point, J.D.I. estimated there were fewer than 200 active towers left, and in the 26 years since that number has undoubtedly shrunk to a handful. Once they’re deactivated, the wrecking ball usually follows.

It’s a point driven home over the past few weeks when my home state of Michigan lost beloved BO Tower in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo. When it came to interlocking towers, Michigan was never in a league with neighboring states Ohio and Indiana, but it had some memorable ones: Delray, on the south side of Detroit, the junction of CSX, NS, and Conrail; Carleton, where CSX’s former Pere Marquette crossed Detroit, Toledo & Ironton, now Genesee & Wyoming’s Indiana & Ohio; and Trowbridge, a personal favorite, historically the junction of PM and Grand Trunk Western at the southwest edge of the Michigan State campus in East Lansing. 

Another gem was Kalamazoo’s BO, named for MC’s Botsford Yard a quarter mile to the east. A fairly large tower built by Michigan Central in 1914, it was very much in the style of MC’s parent company New York Central, a frame structure with deep windows across the second floor and the classic NYC black-and-bronze sign that said “BO.” It originally controlled the junction of MC’s Chicago-Detroit main line with NYC rival Lake Shore & Michigan Southern’s branch from White Pigeon, 39 miles to the south.

In July 1976, an eastbound Turboliner passes BO Tower on its way toward Detroit. Mark Hinsdale photo
Complicating matters was the presence until 1937 of Grand Trunk Western’s branch to Pavilion southeast of Kalamazoo. And just a block or so to the west was MC’s crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s former Grand Rapids & Indiana line, protected for many years by what was known as Tower 1. Just four blocks to the west: Kalamazoo’s sprawling MC depot, with its lustrous red tile roof and its spacious platforms — lots of railroading packed into a short stretch of track.

Surprisingly, BO Tower was manned by an operator until relatively recently, October 24, 2016, but it was not a busy place, at least over the past several decades. Back in 1958, NYC diverted virtually all of its Chicago-Detroit freight traffic to a route via Elkhart, Ind., and the former Michigan Air Line cutoff to Jackson, Mich., leaving the main line through Kalamazoo with just a handful of passenger trains and the occasional local freight.

Maybe that’s why recent owner Norfolk Southern didn’t close the place right away — too many other priorities. In 2012, NS sold the 135 miles of line between Kalamazoo and Dearborn to Michigan DOT for $145 million, leaving MDOT as a landlord likely keen on getting rid of the old tower. Despite a grassroots local effort to save BO, a demolition crew razed the place on December 28. 

Perhaps mercifully, the demise of BO Tower came quickly. Photographer Kyle Steinke came down from Grand Rapids and was on hand for its last hours. 

An Amtrak train passes the doomed BO Tower in its last moments. Kyle Steinke photo
“The morning started off quiet, but once the contractor showed up early in the morning and the excavator rolled over to the tower, the only thing extending BO’s life was track time, or lack thereof,” Steinke told me. “After train 350 rolled by, the flagman asked the crane operator if he thought he could get the tower down before 365 came through (about 15 minutes). The operator laughed, started the excavator, and had it on the ground in about 7 minutes.”

Seven minutes. Suddenly all that was left was a pile of timber and the gnarled wreckage of BO’s 44-lever Saxby & Farmer interlocking machine, buried amid splintered wood and shingles. A sad fate for what was once an ingenious bit of technology.

I have my own memories of BO Tower. In the summer of 1967, I attended a two-week high school music camp at Western Michigan University, just a couple miles west of the junction. The music-making was great, but I took every chance I got to steal away to the Kalamazoo depot and wander toward BO. 

Amtrak 334 passes BO at sunset on the tower's last day of operation, Oct. 24, 2016. Jeff Mast photo
With no freights and a thin schedule of downgraded NYC passenger trains, it was a quiet place to watch trains. Still, I attached special significance to the arrival every evening of trains 354 and 355, remnants of Central’s splashiest Chicago-Detroit trains, the east- and westbound Twilight Limited

Even its reduced state, that westbound Twilight made for quite a sight, clattering over the diamond at BO as it whistled for Porter Street and slowed for the station in a cloud of blue brakeshoe smoke. Up in the soft yellow light inside the tower, the operator dutifully would record its passing for the dispatcher in Dearborn. 

Yes, J.D.I., it’s etched well in my mind. 

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