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2484 53 St
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Train depots bustled with history

By Evan Harris, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

The Rock Island Line's namesake depot still stands at 30th Street and 5th Avenue in Rock Island, but passenger trains no longer travel through it. The station opened almost 100 years ago now in 1901.
It could be heard in the distance, the faint, rhythmic chug. Though familiar to us now, it was foreign to most of the anxious crowd gathered at 20th Street and 2nd Avenue in Rock Island.

The growing sound charged the crisp, cold air, stirring the crowd. Within minutes it was deafening. A shrill whistle blasted and the crowd erupted in cheers.

Decorated with billowing flags and garlands, and pulling six cars of ecstatic passengers, "The Rocket" roared into Rock Island Feb. 22, 1854. It was the first train to reach the Mississippi River.

The arrival of "The Rocket" was not without controversy, most notably from the steamboat industry, which foresaw construction of a bridge across the river.

The train signaled the beginning of something important for the Quad-Cities. For the next 100 years, the scene throughout the Quad-Cities was of full passenger trains pulling into a crowded, bustling depots.

Even before the construction of any standard stations, the Quad-Cities was recieving railroad passengers. The tracks on either side of the river were in place before any rail bridge's construction, and passengers arriving in Rock Island continued their journey westward after being ferried across the river to Davenport.

In 1855, 900 Mormons passed through the Quad-Cities in this manner, arriving by train from the east and, after staying overnight, leaving Davenport for Salt Lake City. Though this method was feasible, it was never considered permanent, and used only in lieu of the construction of a faster and more efficient bridge.

Once this bridge was completed in 1856, the industry which `The Rocket' had brought exploded, and the Quad-Cities received a huge influx of traffic. This growth continued over the second half of the 19th century.

In 1901, the Rock Island Lines Depot opened at 3101 5th Avenue, in response to the thriving railroad industry in the Quad-Cities. The railroad was quickly becoming the main form of transportation in the United States, and the Quad- Cities area was an essential part of that system, says Tom Jackson, Rock Island resident and railroad enthusiast.

`I'd say the heyday for the railroad was the turn of the century on. For passenger trains, it was really the late 1920s and the 1930s,' he said.

Although smaller than its Rock Island counterpart, the Rock Island Lines Moline station stood for many years at 19th Street and 4th Avenue. It was razed in 1972.
According to Mr. Jackson, the Quad City train depots were busy places during these decades. Two stations in Davenport, two in Rock Island, two in Moline and a seldom-used station in East Moline were enough to make the trains frequent and familiar.

During this railroad boom, few, if any, places in the Quad-Cities were quite like the train stations. Interesting and unique in their own right, the depots were always busy, says Mr. Jackson. Regardless of the particular engine arriving, the reception was just as crowded.

`There were probably at least six trains a day, and there were always quite a few people waiting to get on them. The depots were very crowded when the trains arrived,' said Mr. Jackson.

Albert Zimmer, railroad afficinado and lifetime Quad-Cities resident remembers the scene in the station during these years. `Typically, it was very crowded in the station. A typical train would be ten cars, and some times there was standing room only,' he said.

Mr. Jackson noted that not all of the passengers started or ended their journies in the Quad-Cities area. Many were simply passers-through, some stuck with layovers, either to switch trains or wait while a new crew took over.

But these people weren't forced to just sit idly, for the stations were accommodating (and enterprising) when it came to their bored travellers. The Rock Island Lines Depot included a waiting room with benches, a lunch counter, a cigar store and a magazine rack for the weary passenger's distraction.

Dr. Zimmer recalls the same scene, including some of the renovation made over the years:

"In the station in Rock Island, the ticket agents had two windows, over on the north side; the track side. Down at the west end there was a lunch counter where you could get things like sandwiches and soup, and at the east end there were restrooms. The rest was taken up by wooden benches for those people who were waiting.

"In 1952, which was the 100th anniversary of the line, the Rock Island station was renovated externally. They moved the entrance door to the south side, where there were three big windows. They turned one of those into a door. There was also a drop ceiling put in at that time, because the building was basically a big barn with a very high ceiling. "The Moline station was smaller, and did not have a lunch counter. It was basically just benches and a ticket window."

The passengers coming through had many different purposes and destinations. For some, the diversions within the stations were enough to occupy their small delay, but for some the stay was a little longer, says Mr. Jackson.

`Some people would come visit relatives for a few days, or some were just here overnight, like the traveling salesmen,' he said. During the '20s and '30s, most of the people who filled the Quad-Cities' train stations day after day traveled for pleasure or as a part of their business. Some were relocating, while others simply wanted to see the country. But early in the `40's the Quad-Cities depots assumed a significantly more serious role.

On December 17th, 1940, ten days after the news of the Pearl Harbor attack reached the Quad-Cities, 80 men and two officers from the Rock Island naval reserve division boarded a train at the 5th Avenue Rock Island station and left for San Diego. These men were the first from the Quad-Cities to be called to active duty in World War II.

Friends and relatives packed the station to say goodbye to the departing servicemen, and the cars of the crowd gridlocked 5th Avenue. From this point until the end of the war, the busy train stations of the Quad-Cities bore witness to many tearful farewells as servicemen departed. Even when the train departing wasn't full of Quad-Cities servicemen, it was most likely carrying servicemen from the east out to the west coast.

"There was a lot of troop traffic through here during World War II. There were two trains leaving all the time, especially for the war in the Pacific. Of course some of it went east, but mostly to the west,`' said Mr. Jackson.

For the better part of the '40s, the train depots of the Quad-Cities swarmed with military green. These servicemen were in addition to the already full crowds that had occupied the stations for years. The government's intervention caused some complications for many non-military passengers, says Dr. Zimmer.

"You couldn't just go down and get on a train. There were some restrictions because they were being reserved so much for troops and strategic things. If there was a big group of troops leaving, the train would be strictly a `troop train,' with no regular, paying passengers. There were a lot of troop trains that came through here. But if they were just moving a small group of troops, say only 30 or 40, then they would fill up the rest of the train with paying customers," he said.

This sudden increase in demand also had many consequences for the railroad industry itself, which had to take steps to provide for the greater amount of people it was now transporting.

"All the railroads were pushed to the maximum during the war. A lot of equipment that was in a `semi-retired' state, things that the railroad wasn't using anymore because they were wearing out, had to be pulled out and used again. And of course everything wore out even faster than before because of the necessary overuse," Dr. Zimmer said.

When the war ended, the depots saw many of the same men returning, sometimes to a happy homecoming right in the Quad-Cities. Later, these train stations would perform the same duties during both the Korean and Vietnam wars.

The passenger trains continued to roll through the Quad-Cities into the second half of the 20th century, but slowly the number of passengers dwindled, and each train was greeted with a smaller and smaller reception. Mr. Jackson said that alternative forms of transportation, such as cars, buses and air travel became increasingly affordable after the war, and the railroad suffered, turning in losses on its passenger service for years. Dr. Zimmer agrees.

"Basically passenger service was not a money-maker for the railroad. But one thing that kept it going was the Postal Service's use of the railroad to transport the mail. So on the trains you would have postal workers sorting the mail during the ride. When the Postal Service decided to transport the mail by air, it was a big blow for all the railroads, including the Rock Island Line. They started losing more money. The service declined, because the railroad didn't have the money to keep it up. As the service declined, people started using the train less. Then the conditions worsened, and so nobody wanted to use the trains. It was pretty much a downward spiral," he said.

He continued to say that, even with a subsidy from the state of Illinois, the Rock Island Lines was losing millions per year. Though there were negotiations with Amtrak, the two sides could not agree on a price for the Rock Island Lines to pay to join.

Eventually, says Mr. Jackson, the depots were forced to close all together.

`About 1979 or 1980, the Rock Island Line went bankrupt. Toward the end, they weren't making money on the passenger trains; they were actually losing money. Then the airplanes and buses and other forms of transportation really took over, and the trains couldn't recover,' he said.

Since March of 1980 when the Rock Island Lines 5th Ave. station closed for good, the Quad-Cities train depots have been empty of the passenger traffic with which they once overflowed. Some have been reopened with other businesses. Recently, plans to restore Rock Island's 5th Avenue station have surfaced, nearly two decades after its close. Perhaps this project will bring this important part of Quad-Cities history back to light, and give a reminder of the bustle and life that used to fill the train stations.

In researching this story, the Rock Island County Historical Society was a great help. Additionally, several texts were used, including: "An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island," by Thomas J. Slattery; "The History of Rock Island County," Vol. 1, Edited by Newton Bateman, LL.D. and Paul Selby, A.M.; "The Magnificent Mississippi" by Jim Arpy/John Zielinski; and "Rock Island: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow," edited by Bj Elsner.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.