Random notes on the Rock Island

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, April 9, 2020

In a scene from the late Paul Schneider's landmark article on the final months of the Rock Island (March 1983 Trains), MofW Foreman Steve Lewis watches as a GP38 pushes a snowplow just north of Herington, Kans., in February 1980. Paul D. Schneider
Last week’s anniversary of the end of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific — March 31, 1980 — had me reaching for Rock memories. I couldn’t find many. I’d grown up in Michigan, on the entirely wrong side of Chicago, and to me the Rock Island was the stuff of myth, informed by the song sung by Lead Belly and the Weavers, by pictures of the Rocket and the Golden State in Trains magazine, and by glimpses of commuters hustling past the window of my New York Central train at La Salle Street.

That’s nearly the extent of my Rock experience, although not all of it, as I’ll explain below. To best mark this bittersweet anniversary, I sought the memories of others more qualified than me, people for whom the appeal of the Rock endures. 

The first place I turned to was an old friend, writing in the March 1983 issue of Trains. The late Paul D. Schneider penned a number of classic magazine pieces, none more memorable than “In the Violet Hour,” his account of chasing down Rock Island employees in the bankrupt company’s last weeks. The story was a haunting obituary, filled with the plaints of betrayed railroaders and the sad visual evidence of derailments and bad track. But there was one glimpse of sunlight, when Paul chased a freight train east of Abilene, Kans. 

“It is February 11, 1980 — the eve of the Rock Island’s destruction — yet can you believe this scene? The Salina local is skirring over the sun-slicked desolation of the Kansas winter-scene, its unrelated, variegated, multicolored diesels dropped into the slot and floating along at 50, 60 mph; looking for all the world like the embodiment of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony . . . triumph incarnate . . . and exultation!” 

Most of the time, Schneider was pinching himself, unable to believe that something so big as a 7,500-mile railroad system could just up and disappear. “Dying,” he wrote. “The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Company is dying. You’re quite cognizant of this, and still . . . you’re amazed. Amazed.”

Amazed, indeed. That’s some of what I felt when I encountered another Rock Island story, in the June 1986 issue of Trains. This time it was “Disaster du Jour, and Other Stories,” by Ed King, writing about his three years as the Rock’s manager of suburban operations. Ed’s uproarious account was a tale of stressed-out train crews, broken-down diesels, and wintertime mayhem, but he never lost his sense of humor.

Five of the Peoria Rocket's ten passengers walk past the train's E8 at Chicago's La Salle Street Station, its trainshed denuded of protective roof panels, on November 19, 1978. Henry M. Hulsberg
“When I joined the Rock Island in January 1977,” Ed wrote, “I quickly found that I was the de facto curator of the country’s largest operating railroad museum.” His was a railroad populated by open-window, steam-heated Harriman coaches, ancient E7, E8, E9, and F7 diesels, and even the world’s last active E6, the venerable No. 630. He couldn’t even count on reliable old La Salle Street Station, as he discovered on one inbound winter trip when, as one of his employees reported to him, “the whole damn depot’s full of snow.” 

“We eased into La Salle Street right on time, and I looked up at the open gridwork that used to support the roof slabs. The Rock Island trustee had decreed the slabs’ removal after several of them had cracked and dropped onto the platforms, fortunately without causing injury. But I remembered the problems that we’d have with an open depot in the winter.” 

Ed looks back with pride on his years with the Rock, especially in defense of the “much-maligned” workforce that kept his trains running. “The number of times in those three years that the poor old Rock ran when others didn’t is the proof,” he wrote.

Nostalgia hasn’t clouded his analytical skills, though. “For the most part, I had fun at the Rock,” he told me this week. “I found out later that the Rock’s trustee and bondholders had decided long before I got there in 1977 that the Rock was worth more dead than it was alive. But they were saddled with an operating railroad that wouldn’t go away easily. They had a lot of valuable property around the system that couldn’t be liquidated as long as the railroad ran, and getting rid of the railroad wasn’t easy. They finally goaded the clerk’s union into a strike, which they were able to use to get it done.”

Rock Island's striking Bicentennial unit, E8 652, departs Chicago with one of the road's two remaining intercity trains (to Peoria and the Quad Cities) in mid-1976. The impoverished carrier stayed out of Amtrak because it could not afford the entrance fee. Robert Caflisch
Even in its death throes, the Rock Island never lost its ability to draw fans, even those too young to have known it in any state other than decrepitude. One of my longtime Kalmbach colleagues is Hal Miller, editor of Classic Toy Trains, and a lifelong Rock devotee. A print of Ron Hatch’s fine painting of E6 630 hangs in his office today.

“I saw bits and pieces of the Rock Island as a kid growing up in Oklahoma City, which means I experienced it only toward the end of its life,” he recalls. “I remember its track being uneven and weedy in the 1970s and, knowing nothing of the business of railroading, wondering if it were already abandoned. The locomotives weren’t as clean as the ones blasting through town on the Santa Fe, or even the ones switching on the Katy or the Frisco. To me, though, the grit and the oil and junk made the Rock just a little bit cooler than the rest.”

For my part, I did get a taste of the Rock Island, I’m happy to report. I was a regular at Track One, a restaurant the Rock Island operated inside the trainshed at La Salle Street in the early 1970s. There, they kept open a pair of former Golden State cars, outfitted with linen tablecloths and CRI&P china and manned by uniformed veterans of dining-car service. The train never moved, but it was fun to look out over the tracks, bite into a club sandwich, and imagine you were about to depart for Des Moines. 

Better yet was a trip I took on Sunday, May 16, 1976, when the railroad cooperated with Chicago’s 20th Century Railroad Club to run a fantrip out to Bureau, Ill., to celebrate the Bicentennial paint scheme worn by E8 No. 652. The happy occasion caused more than 300 of us to board the train at La Salle Street and forget the Rock’s troubles for a while.

The E unit looked great with its huge white star on the nose, cast against the powder blue of the railroad’s latest “The Rock” livery. The Bicentennial design, with its huge “Independence” on the diesel’s flanks, came from Andy Romano, of way-off-line Edison, N.J. Romano was among 70 people who had entered designs as part of a contest that had won the blessing of Rock officials. 

One of the paint-scheme contestants was Mike Schafer, now editor of Passenger Train Journal and always a Rock fan. Mike was also along for the E8 trip that day in May, although he did me one better by chasing one way and riding the other.  

“Several of us had decided to chase — not an easy feat considering Chicagoland traffic,” Mike recalls. “But we did well, even if we did break the law by pulling over on Interstate 80 to photograph the westbound train going under us. Once at Bureau Junction, I opted to ride the train back. It was a festive run, and I recall a nice meal served in the train’s dome diner by Jack Ferry, a friend of mine who used to work for Illinois Central (and now the Chicago Cubs).”

Mike and I remember the trip as a smooth-running affair. The train rocked and rolled a bit on stretches of unsteady track, and wying the train at Bureau seemed to take inordinately long, but we also did some fast running on the way back to Chicago, highballing through Ottawa and Seneca before easing into Joliet and then La Salle Street. On that promising spring day, the Rock’s date with destiny four years later seemed a long way off.

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