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The Rock Island Line

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This richly illustrated volume tells the story of a legendary railroad whose tracks spanned the Midwest, serving farms and small-town America for more than 140 years. One of the earliest railroads to build westward from Chicago, it was the first to span the Mississippi, advancing the frontier, bringing settlers into the West, and hauling their crops to market. Rock Island’s celebrated Rocket passenger trains also set a standard for speed and service, with suburban runs as familiar to Windy City commuters as the Loop. For most of its existence, the Rock battled competitors much larger and richer than itself and when it finally succumbed, the result was one of the largest business bankruptcies ever. Today, as its engines and stock travel the busy main lines operated by other carriers, the Rock Island Line lives on in the hearts of those whom it employed and served.

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Chapter 1 The Bridge

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The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad began, fittingly, with a journey across the Mississippi River. The small group of prosperous businessmen was crossing by boat, not bridge. That would come soon enough. For the moment they were focused on a swifter, more modern kind of transportation: a railroad. The year was 1845, and on this sultry June afternoon, they were headed from the Iowa to the Illinois side for a meeting with the wealthiest and most powerful man in the region, Colonel George Davenport.

The first Rock Island bridge, between its April 21, 1856 completion and May 6–when the steamboat Effie Afton struck just right of the draw span, setting the bridge on fire. A contemporary view of the Iowa side shows the draw span, right, and bustling Davenport, left, where Antoine LeClair donated his house and land for Rock Island’s station and yard. Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, Davenport, Iowa

Davenport beckons from across the Mississippi in this 1858 Rufus Wright lithograph depicting the arrival four years earlier of the first Rock Island train in its namesake city. Steamboats Ben Campbell and Tishomingo stand offshore. By 1856, a bridge will span these waters. Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, Davenport, Iowa

 

Chapter 2 A Bend in the Road

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Rock Island’s late arrival in Council Bluffs left it with a dilemma: Which way to turn? The way west was blocked by Union Pacific. Iowa was fertile ground for branch lines. Minnesota still beckoned from the north. To the south laid Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Texas. Which way to turn?

All of the above, it turned out.

Since the end of the Civil War, U.S. railroad mileage had grown from 36,827 to 53,399. Before the war, railroads had grown by laying track into virgin territory. Now more and more, they secured and expanded territory by gobbling up other railroads. In 1871 John Tracy cast a covetous eye on Chicago’s first railroad, the Chicago & North Western, whose line laid parallel to and north of Rock Island’s across Illinois and Iowa.

Tracy assigned the task of acquiring North Western to another one of those bright and ambitious young men of which New England seemed to have an unlimited supply. Henry H. Porter was only 15 when he arrived in Chicago from Maine. When Henry Farnham was laying track across Illinois, Porter was already a $400-a-year clerk for the Galena & Chicago Union, Chicago & North Western’s predecessor. In 1867, as Rock Island struggled across Iowa toward Council Bluffs, Porter became a director of the First National Bank of Chicago. He knew who owned stock in what, who was buying, and who was selling. A month after the first Rock Island train rolled to the banks of the Missouri River, Porter was named a Rock Island director. The following year, Tracy, Porter, and several others on the Rock Island board were elected to the North Western’s board, and Tracy became North Western’s president. He left it to Porter to work out details of a Rock Island—North Western merger. Then he turned to other matters.

 

Chapter 3 A Rocky Road

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The great era of railroad-building was ending.

On July 12, 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner addressed a distinguished gathering of colleagues at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s Jackson Park. Many of those present had ridden Rock Island trains to the fair, where they could stroll the grounds and view the railroad’s exhibit of the agricultural bounty being grown along its line.

Turner’s paper had far-reaching implications for the road’s future. In it, he declared that the western frontier, the possibilities it entailed, and the energies that it had called forth had made America unique among nations. But that source of uniqueness, of greatness, Turner told the assembled historians, was at an end. The West was being settled. The frontier, he announced, was closed.

Within a few years, the Los Angeles & Salt Lake laid rails across Utah and Nevada toward southern California. David Moffat began his final assault on the Rockies with construction of the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific. In 1905 Milwaukee Road’s directors approved extension of that line west to Seattle.

 

Chapter 4 Planned Progress

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The man who saved the Rock Island railroad was a understood every detail of the railroad. And he was a square-jawed, flinty-eyed railroader’s railroader, a slow-talker who chose his words carefully and meant every syllable of each.

John Dow Farrington despised incompetence. When he encountered it in an underling, he would fix the man in a gray, unblinking stare, a crocodilian smile would tug at the corners of his mouth, and he would begin a reaming-out the employee would never forget. Farrington understood every detail of the railroad. And he was a demon on track maintenance. So as he rode north out of Fort Worth in the office car Edward M. Durham Jr. had sent to fetch him to his new job, he learned what he was up against. Rock Island’s line to El Reno—and almost everywhere else—was a bone-shaking ordeal.

The first thing Farrington did when he came on board as chief operating officer—at $25,000 a year, the equivalent of $382,000 today—was take to the rails for six months in a V-8 Ford sedan equipped with flanged wheels. Everyone ducked when they saw it coming down the track.

 

Chapter 5 The Road to Ride

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The Rock Island was usually not the shortest, nor the fastest, nor the most prosperous railroad between the cities it served. So it had to try harder.

Even in the worst of times, the railroad did its best to field a fleet that gave passengers a run for their money. And when times were flush, the Rock Island often ran ahead of the pack. It was among the first with onboard dining and streamliners. It innovated restlessly, if not always wisely. Its trains might run in the red, especially toward the end, but they ran.

As soon as the track was down and open for business in 1852, two daily trains left Chicago for Joliet. Within months the dozen passenger cars provided by contractors Henry Farnam and Joseph Sheffield could no longer meet demand, and 16 additional cars were ordered. Trains ran full, hauling passengers from Chicago’s passenger house to the end of track, wherever that might be. By 1856 the road was advertised “the Shortest, Quickest and Safest Route” to Kansas and Nebraska—though it had reached neither destination. The roadbed was raw, the crude wooden benches were hard, but tens of thousands of immigrants were already riding Rock Island trains on the first leg of their journeys to the Great American Frontier. Within the decade, they would ship their produce to eastern markets via Rock Island.

 

Chapter 6 The Road to Ruin

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By the late 1950s the signs were not good for the railroad business. The prosperity that had returned with World War II had largely dissipated. Jet airliners were scooping up the high-end passenger trade, and the growing interstate highway system would soon harvest what was left. Freight was going to trucks and barges. A railroad president in 1956 had to be on his toes, especially the president of a railroad with the systemic problems of Rock Island.

Most of what was wrong with the Rock went back to the beginning. Everywhere it went, some other railroad got there first and went there more directly. And when Rock Island did get there, it was over somebody else’s tracks.

The wheat harvest has been gathered, and on August 17, 1958, No. 9011 rests under the cottonwoods at Phillipsburg, Kansas. Not a doodlebug, but a boxcab freight engine, No. 9011 was one of seven turned out in 1929 by St. Louis Car Company. Tom Lee photo, Tom Klinger collection

 

Epilogue Pieces of the Rock

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More than three decades after its death, the railroad that Union Pacific President John C. Kenefick once called “a bag of bones” remains a pretty lively skeleton. An arm or leg might be missing, but thousands of former Rock Island rail miles still get regular exercise.

Most of the old Memphis-Tucumcari Choctaw Route has gone to weeds with the exception of a 74-mile Oklahoma segment operated since 1996 by Arkansas-Oklahoma, which, incidentally, decorates the nose of its red and yellow diesels with the familiar Rock Island herald.

The 57-mile Fordyce & Princeton and the 26.2-mile Ouachita Railroad operate two segments of Rock Island’s otherwise silent Arkansas and Louisiana lines.

The Kansas City–St. Louis line is being reclaimed by nature and by hikers. Only a few miles from Vigus to Pleasant Hill, Missouri, survive as the Missouri Central. Out on the rolling high plains of Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado, Rail America’s Kyle Railroad hauls grain and roofing material over the route of the Rocky Mountain Rocket. Kyle’s trains begin their trek in Belleville but stop well short of Denver and Colorado Springs in Limon, site of the old Limon do-si-do. Denver Rock Island, a switching road, serves a few miles of Rock Island trackage on the northern fringe of Denver.

 

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