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The Rock Island Railroad's "Jet Rocket" Aerotrain.

Rock Island Locomotive No.627, circa 1880.

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Intercity Passenger Train Service
In common with most American railroad companies, the Rock Island once operated an extensive passenger service. The primary routes served were: Chicago-Los Angeles, Chicago-Denver, Memphis-Tucumcari, and Minneapolis-Dallas. The Rock Island ran both Limited and Local service on those routes as well as locals on many other lines on its system. In 1937, the Rock Island introduced Diesel power to its passenger service, with the purchase of six lightweight Rocket streamliners.

In competition with the Santa Fe Chiefs, the Rock Island jointly operated the Golden State Limited (Chicago—Kansas City—Tucumcari—El Paso—Los Angeles) with the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) from 1902–1968. On this route, the Rock Island’s train was marketed as a "low altitude" crossing of the Continental Divide. The Rock Island did not concede to the Santa Fe’s dominance in the Chicago-Los Angeles travel market and re-equipped the train with new streamlined equipment in 1948. At the same time, the "Limited" was dropped from the train’s name and the train was thereafter known as the Golden State. The local run on this line was known as the Imperial.

The 1948 modernization of the Golden State occurred with some controversy. In 1947, both the Rock Island and Southern Pacific jointly advertised the coming of a new entry in the Chicago-Los Angeles travel market. The Golden Rocket was scheduled to closely match the Santa Fe’s transit time end-to-end and was to have its own dedicated trainsets, one purchased by the Rock Island, the other by Southern Pacific. As the Rock Island’s set of streamlined passenger cars was being finished, the Southern Pacific abruptly withdrew its purchase. The Rock Island’s cars were delivered and would find their way into the Golden State’s fleet soon after delivery. The Golden State was the last first-class train on the Rock Island, retaining its dining cars and sleeping cars until its last run in 1968.

The Rock Island also competed with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad in the Chicago to Denver market. While the Q fielded its Zephyrs on the route, the Rock Island ran the Rocky Mountain Rocket. The RMR split at Limon, Colorado with half the train diverting to Colorado Springs, an operation known as "The Limon Shuffle". The Rock Island conceded nothing to its rival, even installing ABS signaling on the route west of Lincoln in an effort to maintain transit speed. The train was also re-equipped with streamlined equipment in 1948.

As the Rocky Mountain Rocket was downgraded due to non-rail competition, the route traveled by the train was shortened from the western terminal at Denver, first to Omaha, then to Council Bluffs and the train was renamed The Cornhusker. In 1970, the train was cut to a Chicago to Rock Island run, a run entirely within the confines of the State of Illinois and finally renamed the Quad Cities Rocket.

Other trains operated by the Rock Island as part of its Rocket fleet included:

The Corn Belt Rocket (Chicago—Des Moines—Omaha)
The Twin Star Rocket (Minneapolis—St. Paul—Des Moines—Kansas City—Oklahoma City—Fort Worth—Dallas—Houston) The Zephyr Rocket (Minneapolis—St. Paul—Burlington—St. Louis)
The Choctaw Rocket (Memphis—Little Rock—Oklahoma City—Amarillo—Tucumcari)
Rock Island The Rock logo

A Rock Island Slideshow. Color Photos by Roger Puta.

Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad
The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (CRI&P RR) (reporting marks RI, ROCK) was a Class I railroad in the United States. It was also known as the Rock Island Line, or, in its final years, The Rock.

At the end of 1970 it operated 7,183 miles of road on 10,669 miles of track; that year it reported 20,557 million ton-miles of revenue freight and 118 million passenger-miles. (Those totals may or may not include the former Burlington-Rock Island Railroad.)

History
Incorporation
Its predecessor, the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad Company, was incorporated in Illinois on February 27, 1847, and an amended charter was approved on February 7, 1851, as the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. Construction began October 1, 1851, in Chicago, and the first train was operated on October 10, 1852, between Chicago and Joliet. Construction continued on through La Salle, and Rock Island was reached on February 22, 1854, becoming the first railroad to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River.

In Iowa, the C&RI's incorporators created (on February 5, 1853) the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company (M&M), to run from Davenport to Council Bluffs, and on November 20, 1855, the first train to operate in Iowa steamed from Davenport to Muscatine. The Mississippi river bridge between Rock Island and Davenport was completed on April 22, 1856.

In 1857, Abraham Lincoln represented the Rock Island in an important lawsuit regarding bridges over navigable rivers. The suit had been brought by the owner of a steamboat which was destroyed by fire after running into the Mississippi river bridge. Lincoln argued that not only was the steamboat at fault in striking the bridge but that bridges across navigable rivers were to the advantage of the country.

The M&M was acquired by the C&RI on July 9, 1866, to form the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company. The railroad expanded through construction and acquisitions in the following decades.

Territory
The Rock Island stretched across Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. The easternmost reach of the system was Chicago, and the system also reached Memphis, Tennessee; west, it reached Denver, Colorado, and Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Southernmost reaches were to Galveston, Texas, and Eunice, Louisiana while in a northerly direction the Rock Island got as far as Minneapolis, Minnesota. Major lines included Minneapolis to Kansas City, Missouri, via Des Moines, Iowa; St. Louis, Missouri Meta, Missouri, to Santa Rosa via Kansas City; Herington, Kansas, to Galveston, Texas, via Fort Worth, Texas, and Dallas, Texas; and Santa Rosa to Memphis. The heaviest traffic was on the Chicago-to-Rock Island and Rock Island-to-Muscatine lines.

The Rock Island's Rocky Mountain Rocket.  Photo by Roger Puta.

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The Rock Island Railroad's Jet Rocket Aerotrain.
The Rock Island's Rocky Mountain Rocket. Photo by Roger Puta.
Rock Island herald.

The Rock Island did not join Amtrak on its formation in 1971, and continued to operate its own passenger trains. The government assessed the "Railpax" entrance fee based upon passenger miles operated in 1970. After concluding that the cost of joining would be greater than operating the two remaining intercity (and now intrastate) round trips (the Chicago-Peoria Peoria Rocket and the Chicago-Rock Island Quad Cities Rocket), the railroad decided to "perform a public service for the state of Illinois" and continue intercity passenger operations. To help manage the service, the Rock Island hired National Association of Railroad Passengers founder Anthony Haswell as Managing Director of Passenger Services.

The last two trains plied the Rock Island’s Illinois Division as the track quality declined from 1971 through 1977. The transit times that were once a fairly speedy 2½ hours in the 1950's had softened to a 4½ hour run by 1975. Despite this, the State of Illinois continued to subsidize the service to keep it running. The track program of 1978 helped with main line timekeeping, although the Rock Island’s management decreed that the two trains (down to two coaches and a beat-up EMD E8 for power, were not to delay freight traffic on the route. Eventually, with the trains frequently running with as many paying passengers as coaches in the train, the state withdrew the subsidy and the two trains made their final runs on December 31, 1978.

Chicago commuter passenger train service
The Rock Island also operated an extensive commuter train service in the Chicago area. The primary route ran from
LaSalle Street Station to Joliet along the main line, and a spur line, known as the "Suburban Line" to Blue Island. The main line trains supplanted the long-distance services that did not stop at the numerous stations on that route. The Suburban Line served the Beverly Hills area of Chicago as a branch leaving the main line at Gresham and heading due west, paralleling the Baltimore and Ohio Chicago Terminal Railroad passenger line before turning south. The Suburban Line made stops every four blocks along the way before rejoining the Main Line at Western Avenue Junction in Blue Island.

From the 1920's on, the suburban services were operated using Pacific-type 4-6-2 locomotives and specially designed light-heavyweight coaches that, with their late 1920's build dates, became known as the “Capone” cars. The suburban service became well known in the diesel era, as the steam power was replaced, first with new EMD FP7’s and ALCO RS-3’s, with two Fairbanks-Morse units added later. In 1949, Pullman-built 2700-series cars arrived as the first air conditioned commuter cars on the line.

In the 1960s, the Rock Island tried to upgrade the suburban service with newer equipment at lower cost. Second-hand Aerotrains, while less than successful in intercity service, were purchased to provide further air conditioned accommodations that had proven popular with the 2700 series cars.

When the Milwaukee Road purchased new Budd Company stainless steel bilevel cars in 1961, the Rock Island elected to add to a subsequent order and took delivery of its first bilevel equipment in 1964. Power for these new cars was provided by orphaned passenger units: three EMD F7’s, an EMD E6, and the two EMD AB6’s. The power was rebuilt with head end power to provide heat, air conditioning, and lighting for the new cars. In 1970, another order, this time for Pullman-built bi-level cars arrived to further supplement the fleet. To provide the power for these cars, several former Union Pacific EMD E8 and EMD E9 diesels were rebuilt with head end power and added to the commuter pool.

The commuter service was not exempt from the general decline of the Rock Island through the 1970s. Over time, deferred maintenance took its toll on both track and rolling stock. On the Rock Island, the Capone cars were entering their sixth decade of service and the nearly 30-year-old 2700’s suffered from severe corrosion due to the steel used in their construction. LaSalle Street Station, the service’s downtown terminal, suffered from neglect and urban decay with the slab roof of the train shed literally falling apart, requiring its removal. By this time, the Rock Island could not afford to replace the clearly worn-out equipment.

In 1976, the entire Chicago commuter rail system began to receive financial support from the State of Illinois through the Regional Transportation Authority. Operating funds were disbursed to all commuter operators and the Rock Island was to be provided with new equipment to replace the tired 2700 series and Capone cars. New Budd bilevels that were near copies of the 1961 Milwaukee Road cars arrived in 1978. New EMD F40PH units arrived in late 1977 and, in summer, 1978, briefly could be seen hauling Capone cars. The Rock Island’s commuter F and E units were relegated to freight service or the dead line.

With the 1980 end of the Rock Island, the Regional Transportation Authority purchased the suburban territory and remaining Rock Island commuter equipment from the estate. LaSalle Street Station was torn down and replaced with the Chicago Stock Exchange building with a small station for commuters retained one block south of the old station. The RTA gradually rebuilt the track and added more new equipment to the service, leaving the property in better shape than it was in the Rock Island’s heyday, albeit with less track. The Rock Island District, as the Rock Island’s suburban service is now known, now operates as part of Metra, the Chicago Commuter Rail agency.

Rock Island's survival challenge
As the glory years of the Farrington era waned into the late 1950s, the Rock Island found itself once again faced with flat traffic, flat revenues and increasing costs. The property was still in decent shape and the Rock Island made an attractive bride for a rail suitor looking to expand the reach of their current system.

The Rock Island was known as "one railroad too many" in the plains states, basically serving the same territory as the Burlington, only over a longer route. The Midwest rail network had been built in the late 19th century to serve that era's traffic. The mechanization of grain hauling gave larger reach to large grain elevators, reducing the need for the tight web of track that crisscrossed the plains states such as Iowa. As for available overhead traffic, in 1958 there were no less than six Class I carriers serving as eastern connections for the Union Pacific at Omaha all seeking a slice of the flood of western traffic that UP interchanged there. Under the ICC revenue rules in place at the time, the Rock Island sought traffic from Omaha, yet preferred to keep the long haul to Denver, where interchange could be made with the Denver and Rio Grande Western, a connection to the Western Pacific for haulage to the west coast.

The only option for the Rock Island to grow revenues and absorb costs was to merge with another, perhaps more prosperous railroad. Overtures were made from fellow Midwest granger line Chicago and North Western and granger turned transcon Milwaukee Road. Both of these never advanced much beyond the data gathering and initial study phases. In 1964, the Rock Island selected Union Pacific to pursue a merger plan to form one large "super" railroad stretching from Chicago to the West Coast.

Facing the loss of UP's traffic at the Omaha gateway, virtually every railroad directly and indirectly affected by this combination immediately filed protests asking that the transaction be denied. With these filings began the longest and most complicated merger case in Interstate Commerce Commission history. Faced with failing granger railroads and large Class I railroads seeking to expand, ICC Hearing Examiner Nathan Klitenic, presiding over the case, sought to balance the opposing forces and completely restructure the railroads of the United States west of the Mississippi River.

The UP-RI merger case
After ten years of hearings and tens of thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits produced, now-Administrative Law Judge Nathan Klitenic approved a plan for rail service throughout the west to be covered by four mega-systems: The Chicago-Omaha main would go to the Union Pacific. The Kansas City-Tucumcari Golden State Route would be sold to the Southern Pacific. The Memphis-Amarillo Choctaw Route would be sold to the Santa Fe Railway. The Rio Grande would have an option to purchase the Denver-Kansas City line.

The visionary plan would not be realized until the mega-mergers of the 1990s with the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific remaining as the two surviving major rail carriers west of the Mississippi River. From the vantage point of the 1974 railroad industry, Klitenic's plan was viewed as an unmanageable and far too radical solution to both the granger railroad issue and the larger issue of the future of rail freight transportation in general.

During most of the ensuing merger process, Rock Island operated at a financial loss. In 1965, Rock Island would earn its last profit. With the merger with Union Pacific seemingly so close, the Rock Island cut expenses to conserve cash. Expenditures on track maintenance were cut, passenger service was reduced as fast as the ICC would allow, and locomotives received only basic maintenance to keep them running. Rock Island began to take on a ramshackle appearance and derailments occurred with increasing frequency. In an effort to prop up its future merger mate, UP asked the Rock Island to forsake the Denver gateway in favor of increased interchange at Omaha. Incredibly, the Rock Island refused this and the UP routed more Omaha traffic over the Chicago and North Western.

By the time of the 1974 approval of the merger, Rock Island was no longer the attractive bride it had once been in the 1950's. The Union Pacific viewed the cost to bring the property back to viable operating condition to be prohibitive. The conditions attached to the agreement for both labor and operating concessions were also viewed as excessive. Union Pacific simply walked away from the process, ending the merger case.

The Rock Island's last attempt to survive
In 1974, the road adopted a new color scheme proclaiming "The Rock." No. 4340 was among several
EMD GP38-2 units acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad when the Rock Island shut down in 1980, and became MoPac No. 2278.

Now set free and adrift, both operationally and financially, the Rock Island assessed their options. Rock Island hired a new president and CEO, John W. Ingram, a former Federal Railway Administration (FRA) official. Ingram quickly sought to improve efficiency and sought FRA loans for the rebuild of the line, but finances caught up with the Rock Island all too quickly. With only $300 of cash on hand, on March 17, 1975, Rock Island entered its third bankruptcy under Chapter 77 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act. William M. Gibbons was selected as receiver and trustee by Judge Frank J. McGarr, with whom Gibbons practiced law in the early 1960s.

With its debts on hold, Rock Island charted a new course as a grain funnel from the mid-West to the port of Galveston, Texas. The Ingram administration estimated that the Rock Island could be rebuilt and re-equipped at a cost of $100 million and sought financing for the plan. Caboose-less grain shuttles were one cost effective way to gain market share and help finance the plan internally.

Nevertheless, new and rebuilt locomotives arrived on the property in gleaming blue and white to replace some of the tired, filthy power. Track rebuild projects covered the system. Main lines that had seen little or no maintenance in years were pulled from the mud. Rail and tie replacement programs attacked the maintenance backlog. However, the FRA-backed loans that Ingram sought were thwarted by the lobbying efforts of competing railroads, who considered a healthy Rock Island as a threat. By 1978, main line track improved in quality. For example, at the end of that summer, the Illinois Division had no slow orders: freight velocity was rising. The sale of the Golden State Route to the Southern Pacific had been agreed to. The Rock Island slowly inched towards a financial break-even point, despite the financial malaise that plagued the late 1970s.

Creditors, such as Henry Crown, advocated for the shutdown and liquidation of the property. Crown declared that the Rock Island was not capable of operating profitably, much less paying its outstanding debts. At the same time, Crown invested as much as he could in Rock Island bonds and other debt at bankruptcy-induced junk status prices.

For the previous two years, while the Rock Island invested heavily into its physical plant, the Rock Island brotherhoods had been working under expired labor agreements. The front line operating employees had not had an increase in pay since the existing contracts expired yet remained on the job during extensive contract negotiations. By the summer of 1979, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union had accepted new agreements. The Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC) held firm to their demand that pay increases be back dated to the expiration date of the previous agreement.

The Rock Island offered to open the books to show the precarious financial condition of the road in an effort to get the BRAC in line with the other unions that had already signed agreements. Fred J. Kroll, president of the BRAC, declined the offer to audit the books of the Rock Island. Kroll pulled his BRAC clerks off the job in August, 1979. Picket lines went up at every terminal on the Rock Island's system and the operating brotherhoods honored the picket lines. The Rock Island ground to a halt.

The Ingram management team operated as much of the Rock Island as they could. Trains slowly began to move, with more traffic being hauled every week of the strike. President Jimmy Carter issued a back-to-work order that BRAC dismissed. Still more traffic flowed on the strikebound Rock Island. Seeing the trains rolling despite the strike and fearing a Florida East Coast strikebreaking situation, the unions appealed to the FRA and ICC for relief. Despite that Rock Island management had been able to move 80% of pre-strike tonnage, at the behest of the Carter Administration, the ICC declared a transportation emergency declaring that the RI would not be able to move the 1979 grain harvest to market. The ICC issued a Directed Service Order authorizing the Kansas City Terminal Railway to take over operations.

The Directed Service Order enabled one-time suitors, via KCT management, to basically test operate portions of the Rock Island that had once interested them. On January 24, 1980, Judge McGarr elected not to review the Rock Island's final plan of reorganization. Instead, Judge McGarr initiated the shutdown and liquidation of the Rock Island Railroad. Not wanting to preside over an asset sale, Rock Island president John W. Ingram resigned, and Gibbons took over as president of the bankrupt railroad.

Kansas City Terminal began the process of embargoing in-bound shipments in late February, and the final train battled three days of snow drifts to arrive in Denver on March 31, 1980. Cars and locomotives were gathered in 'ghost trains' that appeared on otherwise defunct Rock Island lines and accumulated at major terminals and shops and prepared for sale.

Legacy
The railroad's locomotives, rail cars, equipment, tracks, and real estate were sold to other railroads or to scrappers. Gibbons was able to raise more than $500 million in the liquidation, paying off all the railroad's creditors, bondholders and all other debts in full at face value with interest. Henry Crown was ultimately proven correct, as both he and other bondholders who had purchased Rock Island debt for cents on the dollar during the low ebb in prices did especially well.

Gibbons was released from the Rock Island on June 1, 1984 as the estate of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad expired. All assets had been sold, all debts had been paid, and the former railroad found itself with a large amount of cash. The name of the company was changed to Chicago Pacific Corporation to further distance itself from the defunct railroad and their first purchase was the Hoover appliance company. In 1988, the company would be acquired by the Maytag Corporation.

Ironically, through the mega mergers of the 1990s the Union Pacific railroad ultimately ended up owning and operating more of the Rock Island than it would have acquired in its attempted 1964 merger. The one line it currently does not own (or operate regularly, other than detours) is the Chicago to Omaha main line that drove it to merge with the Rock Island in the first place. This line is now owned and prospers under Iowa Interstate Railroad.

Company officers

Presidents of the Rock Island Railroad included:
James W. Grant, November 27, 1850 - December 22, 1851.
John Bloomfield Jervis, December 22, 1851 - December 1854.
Henry Farnam, December 1854 - June 1863.
Charles W. Durant, June 1863 - August 1866.
John F. Tracy, August 1866 - April 14, 1877.
Hugh Riddle, April 14, 1877 - June 6, 1883.
Ransom Reed Cable, June 6, 1883 - June 1898.
Warren G. Purdy, June 1898 - December 31, 1901.
William Bateman Leeds, December 31, 1901 - March 26, 1904.
Benjamin L. Winchell, March 26, 1904 - December 1909.
Henry U. Mudge, December 1909 - April 20, 1915.
Jacob McGavock Dickinson appointed receiver trustee during bankruptcy, April 20, 1915 - June 21, 1917.
James E. Gorman, June 22, 1917 - June 7, 1933.
Joseph B. Fleming, Frank Orren Lowden (until his death on March 20, 1943) and James E. Gorman (until his death on March 25, 1942) appointed receiver trustees during bankruptcy, June 7, 1933 - December 31, 1947. Aaron Colnon replaced Frank O. Lowden as receiver trustee on April 19, 1943.
John Dow Farrington, January 1, 1948 - 1955.
Downing B. Jenks, 1956-1961.
R. Ellis Johnson, 1961-1964.
Jervis Langdon, Jr., 1965-1970.
William J. Dixon, 1970-1974.
John W. Ingram, 1974 - January 1980.
William M. Gibbons appointed receiver trustee during bankruptcy, March 17, 1975 - June 1, 1984.

See also:
Iowa Interstate Railroad
LaSalle Street Station
RailsWest Railroad Museum

Railroads of the U.S.A.