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|Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad|
Rock Island system map, circa 1965
|Dates of operation||1852–1980|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge)|
|Length||8,158 miles (13,129 kilometres)|
|Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad|
Rock Island system map, circa 1965
|Dates of operation||1852–1980|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) (standard gauge)|
|Length||8,158 miles (13,129 kilometres)|
The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (reporting marks CRIP, RI, ROCK) was a prominent (Class I) railroad in the midwestern United States, commonly known as the "Rock Island." In 1854 when the line connected the Mississippi to Chicago and the East Coast, the event was marked by a large promotional voyage called the Grand Excursion. In 1856, the line crossed the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi, connecting farms in Iowa and beyond to Chicago. The line's abandonment in 1980 ranks as the longest and most complicated in U.S. railroad history. The company was originally founded in Rock Island, Illinois, and the railroad was popularized in the song "Rock Island Line."
In 1847 the Rock Island & La Salle Railroad Company was chartered to build between Rock Island, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, and La Salle, where connections would be made with the Illinois and Michigan Canal to Chicago. Contractor Henry Farnam persuaded the organizers to extend the railroad as far as Chicago to connect with other railroads. The charter was so amended, and the railroad was renamed the Chicago & Rock Island (C&RI). Construction began on October 1851. The first train ran southwest from Chicago to Joliet, 40 miles (64 kilometres), on October 10, 1852 powered by 4-4-0 Rocket.
The line was opened to Rock Island on February 22, 1854, and the contractors turned it over to the company in July of that year. By then the railroad had an agreement with the Northern Indiana Railroad (later part of the New York Central Railroad) for joint terminal facilities in Chicago; a branch from Bureau, Illinois, south to Peoria was nearly complete (it was opened in November 1854); and the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad (M&M) had been chartered in Iowa to build a railroad from Davenport, across the Mississippi River from Rock Island, to Council Bluffs, with branches south through Muscatine and north through Cedar Rapids.
In 1854, the railroad was made famous by a promotional voyage called the Grand Excursion, which marked the first railway connection between the East Coast and the Mississippi. Over a thousand people traveled in two trains from Chicago to Rock Island, where they boarded five steamboats for a trip up the river.
Money to finance construction of the M&M was hard to come by. Both Iowa City, then the state capital, and Muscatine wanted the railroad first. Iowa City offered a bonus if a train arrived by midnight, December 31, 1855. Muscatine got its railroad first, on November 20, 1855, but a frozen locomotive was pushed over hastily laid and barely spiked rails into Iowa City as church bells rang in the New Year, securing the bonus and providing the perfect scenario for a multitude of grade-B novels and movies.
A bridge across the Mississippi was necessary to connect the C&RI and M&M. The Mississippi had not yet been spanned, and the immediate reaction to the proposed railroad bridge was that it would be a hazard to navigation. However, the bridge was officially opened on April 21, 1856. On the evening on May the steamboat Effie Afton, which usually plied the New Orleans-Louisville run, cleared the open draw span and veered aside, turned around, rammed one of the piers, then suddenly and suspiciously burst into flames. The case of the bridge soon became one of railroad advocates versus steamboat advocates. The latter felt that even a single bridge would set an unfortunate precedent and soon there would be bridges every 40 or 50 miles along the length of the river. The railroad's case, argued by Abraham Lincoln, stated 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 case went one way and the other in successive courts, but in 1866 the U.S. Supreme Court held for the railroad. Several other railroads immediately applied to bridge the Mississippi at other locations.
The M&M, far behind its construction schedule, was sold to the newly incorporated Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad on July 9, 1866. On August 20 that company consolidated with the C&RI to form the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. The line reached Des Moines a year later and arrived at Council Bluffs on May 11, 1869 — one day after completion of the Union Pacific (UP) and Central Pacific railroads from Council Bluffs to the West Coast. The Rock Island was not the first railroad into Council Bluffs; the Cedar Rapids & Missouri River Railroad (later part of the Chicago & North Western Railway [C&NW]) had reached there more than two years earlier and established ties with UP.
In the 1870s the Rock Island extended its Muscatine line southwest across Iowa and northwestern Missouri to Leavenworth, Kansas, and later negotiated trackage rights over the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad from Cameron, Missouri to Kansas City. Also during the 1870s, the railroad acquired several "firsts" — the first dining cars and Jesse James's first train holdup. The 1880s saw some corporate simplification, the acquisition of the Keokuk & Des Moines Railroad and the St Joseph & Iowa Railroad, and control of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway (BCR&N), which had a line from Burlington, Iowa, through Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls to Plymouth, near Mason City, with a branch through Iowa Falls and Estherville to Watertown, South Dakota. The BCR&N later acquired lines west out of Davenport and Clinton, Iowa, and lines to Decorah, Iowa, Worthington, Minnesota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
On December 5, 1883, the Rock Island made a tripartite agreement with UP and the Milwaukee Road for interchange at Omaha, Nebraska. The C&NW, which had been UP's preferred connection, quickly became a party to the agreement, as did the Wabash Railroad, St Louis & Pacific (a predecessor of the Wabash). The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad in Nebraska (part of the BCR&N) protested the agreement. UP suddenly found itself in financial difficulties, and Rock Island decided to build its own extensions rather than rely on interchange traffic with UP. Two years later the Chicago, Kansas & Nebraska Railroad (CK&N) was chartered to build from St Joseph and Atchison southwest across Kansas to Wichita, and another railroad of the same name was incorporated in Nebraska to build from the southeast tip of the state to Kearney. The two companies merged and were leased to the St Joseph & Iowa Railroad, a subsidiary of the Rock Island. A charter was approved for the extension of the southwest line from Wichita to Galveston, Texas, and from Liberal, Kansas, to El Paso, Texas. By the end of 1887 rails reached Caldwell, on the southern border of Kansas, and in February 1888 they reached Liberal. A year later the Rock Island had built west across northern Kansas and Colorado to Colorado Springs. Rock Island made arrangements to use Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad track north of Denver and south to Pueblo; in 1899 Rock Island began using UP tracks from Limon, Colorado to Denver.
Rock Island's Chicago-Colorado route via St Joseph was circuitous. To assemble a route through Omaha, the Rock Island constructed a line from Omaha to Lincoln and in 1890 traded McPherson-Hutchinson, Kansas trackage rights to UP for trackage rights on UP between Lincoln and Beatrice and use of UP's Missouri River bridge between Council Bluffs and Omaha. The Rock Island began Chicago-Colorado service via Omaha on August 16, 1891, and later built its own line west of Lincoln. Also in 1891, the Rock Island acquired the CK&N. Subsidiary Chicago, Rock Island & Texas reached Fort Worth in 1893.
In 1901, control of the Rock Island was taken over by the Reid-Moore syndicate: Daniel G. Reed, William H. Moore, his brother James H. Moore, and William Leeds, men who had put together the National Biscuit, Diamond Match, and American Can companies. The railroad continued to burgeon. It acquired the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad, (CO&G) a line from Memphis, Tennessee, through Little Rock, Arkansas, and Oklahoma City to Elk City in western Oklahoma, and the 70 mi (110 km) St. Louis, Kansas City & Colorado Railroad. Expansion then continued at breathtaking speed:
At the same time the controlling syndicate, which now included B. F. Yoakum, was busy acquiring control of the Chicago & Alton Railroad, the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad, the Toledo, St. Louis & Western Railroad, and the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway (SLSF) through holding companies and exchanges of stock. By 1909, though, the interest due on SLSF bonds far exceeded dividends received on SLSF stock — none. B. F. Yoakum bought Rock Island's SLSF stock at a considerable loss to the Rock Island.
The Rock Island created a Twin Cities-Kansas City route in 1913 by leasing the St. Paul & Kansas City Short Line Railroad and building a line between Allerton and Carlisle, Iowa, several miles south of Des Moines. In 1914 red ink caused by debt interest appeared on Rock Island's ledgers, and on April 20, 1915, the railroad entered receivership. On June 22, 1917, Rock Island was out of receivership and back in the hands of its stockholders. Shortly afterward the United States Railroad Administration took over management for the duration of World War I.
New management took over in the 1920s and placed considerable emphasis on paying stock dividends to the detriment of maintaining the property. Edward N. Brown, chairman of the board of the SLSF, began to buy Rock Island stock with the thought of using dividends to bolster the SLSF's situation. Soon Brown was chairman of Rock Island's executive committee. In 1927, Rock Island declared a stock dividend of 5%; in 1928, 6% and in 1929, 7% — even though Rock Island's annual interest on its debt was nearly $14 million. In 1930 Brown began to secretly acquire SLSF stock for the Rock Island. Revenue dropped as the Great Depression deepened. Then Rock Island's territory was struck with wheat crop failures and the effects of the Dust Bowl. The Rock Island declared bankruptcy on June 7, 1933.
Edward M. Durham, vice-president of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, took over as CEO in December 1935. He brought in John D. Farrington, general manager of the Fort Worth & Denver Railway, as operating officer in May 1936. Farrington started a scrap drive to finance a rail relay program and purchased ten diesel switchers and six diesel-powered Rocket streamliners. His program included line relocations between Davenport and Kansas City and a new bridge over the Cimarron River just east of Liberal, Kansas. The railroad turned a profit in 1941. Durhan retired in July 1942 and Farrington became CEO.
The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad emerged from a long and acrimonious reorganization on January 1, 1948. Farrington was still leading the company and pursuing a program of dieselization, line improvement, and industrial development. The railroad acquired approximately 40 miles (64 km) of the Wichita Falls & Southern Railroad, one of the Frank Kell and Joseph A. Kemp properties between Graham in Young County, Texas, and a point south of Breckenridge in Stephens County, Texas. This short line was operational until its abandonment in 1969. Rock Island rolled on through the 1950s and into the 1960s doing decently, although surrounded by stronger and faster railroads.
In 1964 Ben Heineman, chairman of the C&NW, proposed merging the C&NW, the Rock Island, and the Milwaukee Road into an Upper Midwest system and selling the lines south of Kansas City to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. The Union Pacific Railroad (UP) made a counterproposal; merger, which would put the UP into Chicago. That year — 1964 — was Rock Island's last year of profitability.
The proposal turned into the longest, most complicated merger case ever handled by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Most of the other railroads west of Chicago protested one aspect or another of the merger, petitioned for inclusion, or asked for a piece of the Rock Island. In 1970 the Milwaukee Road, which had fallen on hard times, entered the case, asking for inclusion in the UP or SP. In 1973 the ICC proposed a restructuring of the railroad systems of the West around four systems: Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Burlington Northern and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF). The railroads involved in the merger case other than the two principals petitioned the ICC to dismiss the case and start over.
The ICC finally approved the merger on November 8, 1974, with several conditions:
UP said it would have to re-evaluate the merger, since the Rock Island of 1974 was not the Rock Island of 1964. Rock Island filed for bankruptcy on March 17, 1975, and on August 4 of that year UP withdrew its merger offer. The ICC dismissed the case on July 10, 1976. By then the Rock Island was in terrible shape. During most of the ensuing merger process, Rock Island operated at a financial loss. With the merger with UP seemingly completed, the Rock Island cut expenses to conserve cash. Expenditures on track maintenance were reduced, passenger service was terminated as fast as the ICC would allow, and locomotives received only basic maintenance to keep them operating. The railroad took on a ramshackle appearance and derailments occurred frequently.
A new management headed by former Federal Railway Administration official John W. Ingram did its best, introducing a new image of sky blue and white and appointing John W. Barriger III, by then 76 years old, as Senior Traveling Freight Agent (Barriger's own title) and consultant.
Rock Island's clerks walked off their jobs on August 28, 1979, over a pay dispute, and United Transportation Union (UTU) members followed the next day. President Jimmy Carter issued an order September 20 creating an emergency board to settle the dispute. The UTU members then returned to their jobs, but members of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks stayed off. On September 26 the Kansas City Terminal Railway (KCT) was ordered by the ICC to operate the railroad. KCT's owners plus DRG&W and SP began operating the Rock Island. On March 2, 1980, the ICC refused to extend its directed service order, and the Rock Island ceased operation March 31, 1980.
The railroad industry had never before seen an abandonment of the magnitude of Rock Island. Other railroads had been abandoned in their entirety, but they were companies like the sickly, 541-mile New York, Ontario & Western Railway in 1957, the 250-mile Fort Smith & Western Railway in 1939, which essentially went nowhere, or the 338-mile Colorado Midland Railway in 1918, which suffered from steep grades (and 1918 was ancient history in the railroad industry). The 7,000-mile Rock Island connected large cities like Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, and Kansas City. It had no major operating handicaps, like mountains. It had long routes, unlike the regional Reading Railroad or Central Railroad of New Jersey. Railroad historian George Drury commented that "industry reaction to the abandonment ranged from 'Someone has to take it over and run it' to 'Can I have the Kansas City-Minneapolis line?'"
When the dust began to settle it turned out that what was abandoned was the operating company and the financial structure, not the physical plant. Rock Island's locomotives, rail cars, equipment, tracks, and real estate were sold to other railroads or scrapped. 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.
The estate of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad expired on June 1, 1984. 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 Company. In 1988, the company would be acquired by the Maytag Corporation.
Ironically, through the mega mergers of the 1990s UP ultimately ended up owning and operating more of the Rock Island than it would have acquired in its attempted 1964 merger. The two lines it currently does not own (or operate regularly, other than detours) are the Chicago-Omaha main line that drove it to merge with the Rock Island in the first place. That line is now owned by the Iowa Interstate Railroad and the St. Louis-Kansas City line, owned by the Ameren Corporation and leased to the Central Midland Railway.
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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 neighborhood of Chicago as a branch leaving the main line at Gresham and heading due west, paralleling the Baltimore & 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 1920s on, the suburban services were operated using Pacific-type 4-6-2 locomotives and specially designed light-heavyweight coaches that, with their late 1920s build dates, became known as 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 bi-level cars in 1961, the Rock Island elected to add to a subsequent order and took delivery of its first bi-level 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 UP 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 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 falling apart.
In 1976, the Chicago commuter rail system began to receive financial support from the state of Illinois through the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). 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 bi-levels 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 RTA purchased the suburban territory and remaining Rock Island commuter equipment from the estate. LaSalle Street Station was replaced with the Chicago Stock Exchange building with a small station for commuters retained one block south of the old station. 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.
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 SP from 1902 to 1968. 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 train sets, 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 and sleeping cars until 1968.
The Rock Island also competed with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (Q) in the Chicago-Denver market. While the Q fielded its Zephyrs on the route, the Rock Island ran the Rocky Mountain Rocket. The train 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, 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 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) and the Choctaw Rocket (Memphis-Little Rock-Oklahoma City-Amarillo-Tucumcari).
The Rock Island did not join Amtrak on its startup in May 1971, and continued to operate its own passenger trains. The government assessed the Rock Island's Amtrak entrance fee based upon passenger miles operated in 1970 (which included the Cornhusker). After concluding that the cost of joining would be greater than operating the two remaining 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. Food and beverage service was maintained until the end due to union labor agreements which made severance pay to the affected employees uneconomical relative to retaining them, although after 1976 (when end-of-life equipment failure and post-bankruptcy economy measures forced the retirement of the dining cars) sandwiches, snacks and beverages were provided from a quartet of seats at one end of one of the two coaches.
Former Rock Island depot at Chillicothe, Illinois, now a railroad museum
Metra LaSalle Street Station
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