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R.I. Line `a mighty fine road'

By Leon Lagerstam, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Photo courtesy the Rock Island County Historical Society.
The streamlined cars and diesel engine of The Rock Island Rocket, the Rock Island Line's premier passenger train to Chicago, stands ready at the station. The Rocket wisked passengers to Chicago in three hours, or to Iowa City in about an hour.
People still sing the words of Woody Guthrie, remembering how the "Rock Island Line was a mighty fine road."

Many folks still remember "riding the Rocket," reaching Chicago by rail in three hours or Iowa City in about an hour.

Local historians have intently studied the repeated rise and fall of The Rock Island Lines, and one Augustana College graduate "tracked down" the bulk of the former railroad company's archives, saving the records from certain destruction.

"For 120 glorious years, the Rock Island Line hummed successfully across the national landscape carrying passengers, freight and commodities in a 13-state area from Chicago to the Rocky Mountains between the borders of Canada and Mexico," wrote Augie grad Scott Petersen in a report given last year to the Chicago Literary Club.

But the mighty rail system was found laboring, wheezing and dying in the 1960s, headed to its ultimate demise in the 1970s, he wrote in his report, copied to Augustana College professor Roald Tweet.

"In the early 1970s, the nation's economy was falling, interest rates were climbing, competition was cutting prices to the bone and the great and mighty Rock Island Line, like the unsinkable Titanic, began its inexorable descent into oblivion," Mr. Petersen wrote.

"At the height of its history, we had 74 trains coming and going from the Quad-Cities," Mr. Tweet said. "But when the company went bankrupt, it was the first major railroad to do so, and it sent shock waves across the nation."

Before that, however, it definitely put Rock Island on the map and it remains significant from practical and mythological perspectives, he said.

It represented a victory by the North in pre-Civil War days in a race with the South over which segment could cross the Mississippi River first, and later served as a major pipeline for slave travel.

Photo courtesy Special Collections, Augustana College Library.
A Rock Island switch engine sits in Coal Valley in the turn-of-the-century photograph.
When the first bridge across the Mississippi was built by the railroad in 1856, it signaled how nothing was going to stop the railroad from forging the frontier.

The railroad gave a giant boost to local economy and population figures. In Rock Island alone, population climbed from 3,475 two years before the first train's arrival, to 10,140 in 1857.

It played a vital role in industrial development in the Quad-Cities area, unmatched by recent times, local historian Art Zimmer said. Current deteriorated railroad conditions make it more difficult to attract large industries to the area today, but with no major industry to support a railroad, a resurgence of rail traffic is doubtful, he said.

The city of Silvis also owes its existence to the Rock Island Lines. Richard Shippen Silvis helped the railroad company purchase about 900 acres of land, which was later named after him. A complex of repair shops was built in 1904, which became the largest such complex in the nation.

Competition and court cases between the railroad and steamboat companies also directly tied Abraham Lincoln to the area, when he represented the railroad, and squared off against an attorney by the name of Thomas Lincoln, according to Dr. Zimmer.

Yet, for as many stories of its glory days, the tale of The Rock Island Lines contains nearly as many troubles, he said.

Pioneering civic leaders, including Col. George Davenport, Antoine LeClaire, and Henry Farnum, originally decided to build the railroad at a meeting on Arsenal Island, calling it the Rock Island LaSalle Railroad. Col. Davenport, however, was killed before the company was incorporated in 1847.

Trouble raising money forced the company to recharter in 1852, and it became known as the Chicago Rock Island.

Two weeks after the first train crossed the new bridge across the Mississippi River, the steamboat Effie Afton crashed into the bridge and caught on fire, destroying part of the new structure and prompting the steamboat company to sue for the bridge's removal.

Old newspaper articles were equally divided in calling the crash an accident or contending it was done on purpose, Dr. Zimmer said.

Several unscrupulous speculators "looted" the Rock Island Lines in the early 1900s, gathering the money to invest in other projects, and forcing the company into bankruptcy in 1915, he said.

Some recovery occurred in the 1930s until drought and the Dust Bowl killed off needed grain traffic.

"The railroad didn't develop as diversified of a business as it should have, so when crops were poor, it ran into a lot of trouble," Dr. Zimmer said.

Former Burlington Railroad executive John Farrington took over as the Rock Island Lines chief operating officer in the 1930s and began doing some necessary track upgrades and new equipment purchases. Under Mr. Farrington's reign, the company started buying diesel locomotives to replace the old steam engines.

By the 1950s, the Rock Island Lines featured some of the fastest trains in the county, Dr. Zimmer said. Its locomotives were capable of hitting 110 mph, and trains could travel 90 mph on long straights.

However, railroads faced stiffer competition after World War II, as automobile and airline traffic increased. The U.S. Postal Service also removed the mail from trains, costing the company business.

The lines went from laying about 100 miles of new track a year in the 1940s and 1950s, to a point in the 1960s, when it was lucky to lay 10 miles of new track, Dr. Zimmer said.

A proposed merger with Union Pacific in the mid-1960s led Rock Island's managerial team to hold off doing any equipment or track maintenance. However, it took 10 years before the Interstate Commerce Commission decided to allow the merger to occur, and Union Pacific officials backed away from the deal because of the lack of upkeep, Dr. Zimmer said.

"By the late 1970s, the railroad was losing $6-$7 million a year," he said.

The last passenger train ran Dec. 31, 1978. A 1979 strike by two labor unions exhausted any hope of the company's survival. The ICC and Department of Transportation declared the Rock Island Lines dead in March 1980, Dr. Zimmer said.

Officially, the last day of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Co. was May 31, 1984, when bidders spent $3 million to buy most of the railroad's last cars, according to earlier reports.

Mr. Petersen attended an earlier 1977 auction, where about 600 boxes of corporate records were put on the blocks.

"When the dust had settled, I was the proud owner of 45 boxes (three lots) at $3.50 per box," he wrote.

Going through them was like looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls, he said. Contents included dozens of letters from noteworthy politicians, Supreme Court justices, hundreds of tickets, timetables, and scores of old rate books, leases, articles of incorporation and pamphlets.

"Interestingly, most of the letters from the politicians were asking for free passes on the Rock Island for themselves and their family members," Mr. Petersen wrote. "Even the letters of the Supreme Court justices requested free passes on the railroad at a time when cases involving the Rock Island were pending in the Supreme Court! Is it too late for an expose?"

The find led him on a two-year search for the remaining archives, which he found in a 10-story, 100,000 square-foot building in Chicago. After months of negotiating, Mr. Petersen's offer to buy the building's contents for $500 was accepted if he agreed to remove all the records in three weeks, a job requiring eight, 48-foot tractor trailers to complete.

Mr. Petersen, in turn, sold the contents to the University of Iowa and University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla.

"Today, the Rock Island Line is only a memory, its archives were saved and are reposed in the holdings of two great universities and I am left with a few simple vestiges of my four-year quest. I have a cross-section of track, a railroad spike and a dining car cereal bowl.

"By maintaining their holdings of the Rock Island archives, the universities of Iowa and Oklahoma have insured that future generations of researchers, writers and balladeers will have food for thought, word and song," Mr. Petersen wrote. "It will help all to remember that the Rock Island Line was once a mighty fine road."

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.