Rock Island

A Mighty Fine Road

Since the collapse of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (Rock Island or simply the Rock) in 1981, this one-time Chicago-based inter-regional carrier has become somewhat of a “cult” railroad among enthusiasts.  Yet it has probably not reached the veneration bestowed on the Colorado Midland or the New York, Ontario & Western, but that could change.

Various reasons explain why the Rock Island has become a popular “fallen flag” road.  Most of all, it holds the dubious honor of being the largest railroad in the United States to have been liquidated.  Although the Rock’s route mileage at the time of its dismemberment stood at appropriately 7,000, large chucks, however, remain in operation.  Pieces of the Rock are owned by former competitors, regional, and shortlines.  But portions of the once strategic Golden State and Choctaw routes have become brush chocked or have had their naked grades physically destroyed.

Then there were the much beloved named trains.  While the public can’t recall having seen the Rocky Mountain Limited, for example, many remember the Rocket streamliners.  These ultra-modern trains appeared during the closing years of the Great Depression and for years created the image of a “progressive” company.

Those who know the sweep of Rock Island history recognize that in its earliest decades, it too was a progressive railroad and a profitable one.  It was a company where the assets of widows and orphans could be safely invested.  Unfortunately that changed during the early years of the 20th century when the Moore-Reid Syndicate over extended and looted the property and threw it into its first of three bankruptcies.  Inept management followed.  Better days came after a 1933 bankruptcy, headed by John Farrington, the company’s “Rocket man.”  After World War II the Rock Island enjoyed a decade or so of relative prosperity, but a weak on-line traffic base, modal competition, and failure to consummate a long sought merger with the Union Pacific led to its final bankruptcy in 1975.

If no one knows aspects of Rock Island history, that catchy “The Rock Island Line” folk song, which musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter made famous, is often remembered.  When the folk-music revival of the 1950’s was in full swing, it became popular on both sides of the Atlantic.  The Ledbetter version continues to be sung, whether on stage, in schools, or around campfires.  Still the Rock Island’s past remains an important part of American rich transportation history, and it should be recalled.

Written by H. Roger Grant