The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad: Route of the Rockets!

The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, better known as simply the Rock Island was a legend even during its own time (the railroad even had a song named after it!). And perhaps this is what makes it’s ending so depressing. For all of the railroad’s fame and recognition, this did not translate into wealth and power. Several times throughout the railroad’s history it would go into receivership, its last in 1970 when it would be liquidated five years later in 1980.  During its height the CRI&P stretched all across the Midwest connecting Chicago with Minneapolis, Omaha, St. Louis, and Memphis as well as reaching Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Galveston.  Ironically, despite being sold off and cutup many of the Rock Island's principal routes are still in use today.  

The Rock Island had its earliest beginnings in the 1840s as the Rock Island & La Salle Railroad Company, commissioned to connect Rock Island, Illinois with the Illinois & Michigan Canal at La Salle, Illinois. The railroad soon understood that greater profits would be gained by connecting directly to Chicago instead of via the canal. With state authorization in 1851 the work began and the next year the railroad was renamed to the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad.  Through the early 1900s the Rock Island would continue to grow, build, and acquire railroad lines through either construction or outright purchase of other smaller railroads.

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Rock Island's Unique AB6 Locomotive

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Chicago & North Western

Chicago Great Western

The Milwaukee Road

The Soo Line

Rock Island's "Rockets" And Other Trains

Choctaw Rocket: (Amarillo - Memphis)

Corn Belt Rocket: (Chicago - Omaha)

Des Moines Rocket: (Chicago - Des Moines)

The Imperial: Operated between Los Angeles and Chicago in conjunction with the Southern Pacific.

Golden State:  (Chicago - Los Angeles)

Kansas City Rocket: (Minneapolis - Kansas City)

Peoria Rockets: (Chicago - Peoria)

Rocky Mountain Rocket: (Chicago - Colorado Springs/Denver)

Texas Rocket: Originally served Fort Worth and Houston, although later connected Kansas City and Dallas.

Twin Star Rocket: (Minneapolis - Houston)

Quad City Rocket: (Chicago - Rock Island)

Zephyr Rocket: Connected Minneapolis and St. Louis in conjunction with the CB&Q.

The railroad gained its final name as the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad in May of 1866 when the railroad set out to complete its subsidiary, the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad, to Omaha, Nebraska to connect with the newly created Union Pacific Railroad which was building west to link with the Central Pacific Railroad to complete the Transcontinental Railroad (the Rock Island was also created as a holding company for both the C&GI and M&M). At the peak of the railroad’s size it operated over 8,000 miles of track between cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver, and Memphis.

However, the railroad’s grid is a factor that would haunt it throughout its history. While it served most of the largest cities in the nation’s Heartland, stretching between the Midwest and southwest, unfortunately it was the most circuitous allowing competitors with much more direct routes to out compete the Rock Island for traffic such as the Union Pacific and Santa Fe. Perhaps what made the Rock Island most celebrated was its streamlined passenger train fleet known as Rockets.

Adorned in both a red, yellow, and white, and red, maroon, and silver livery; the trains were pulled by new Electro-Motive streamlined diesels. Soon after debuting these trains quickly became renowned for both their looks and high speed.  However, even with an eye-catching and famous passenger train coupled with a number of aggressive management teams over the years, the railroad’s very network continued to haunt it. The Rock Island’s days were not good as traffic retreated after World War II. This traffic loss was a result of competing railroads and the emergence of the Interstate highway system.

The “unofficial” end for the Rock Island began in 1964 when the Union Pacific approached the railroad interested in merger. What resulted was an extremely drawn out and complicated merger proposal that would end in the Interstate Commerce Commission changing its policies on future proposals to take much less time to complete. After ten years of proceedings the ICC finally granted the Union Pacific the right to merge with the Rock Island. However, there were so many stipulations still attached, coupled with the fact that after ten years of proceedings the Rock Island had literally fallen apart, that not only did the Union Pacific not want it but also no other railroad.

After the Union Pacific declined its offer to purchase the Rock Island the railroad continued operating for the next few years as management desperately tried to improve the railroad’s situation, even going so far as applying a new sky blue and white image known as “The Rock” and embargoing lines that were earning few profits. The end for the Rock Island came in the late 1970s when a labor dispute and resulting strike literally shutdown the company as it was unable to move freight.  The argument of who was at fault over the strike, management or part of the workforce (although not all), continues even today although factors seem to point to it being a combination of the latter and political forces. However, what cannot be disputed is that the railroad was actually pulling out of its financial mess, which was caused by the ongoing merger discussions, prior to the strike; freight trains were steadily improving their transit times and what maintenance/upgrades could be done to the physical plant was being performed.  

Furthermore, the Rock Island needed to cut the salaries of the workers to further help the company get back on its feet. However, with the clerk's union not accepting such a cut and an unsympathetic judge, the Rock Island was doomed. For more reading about the final days from someone who was there please click here.  The result of this along with the railroad’s precarious financial and physical condition proved fatal. In perhaps one the most disheartening and rare cases that ever results in our nation’s rail industry, courts ordered in early 1980 that the railroad be shutdown and liquidated and its remaining assets sold off to nearby railroads. And thus ended the story of one of our country’s most popular railroads, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific. 

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
RS3455-474, 485-4991950-195135
DL107A621, 6231940-19412
Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
FTA70-73, 70A-73A, 88-991944-194520
FTB70B-73B, 88B-99B1944-194516
F7A100-127, 675-6771949-195131
F7B100B-109B, 120B-123B, 675B-677B1948-195117
GP40340-396, 4700-47191966-197077
GP7430-441, 1200-1237, 1250-13111950-1953112
SW900550-563, 900-9141958-195929
GP181256, 1329, 1333-13531960-196124
GP38-24300-4355, 4368-43791976-197868

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
U33B190-199, 285-2991968-196925

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
10, G-19Mogul2-6-0
A-24, A-29Atlantic4-4-2
B (Various)American4-4-0
C (Various)Consolidation2-8-0
D (Various)Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
K (Various)Mikado2-8-2
N-78Santa Fe2-10-2
P (Various)Pacific4-6-2
S-29, S-33Switcher0-6-0

Today, one happy note about the railroad is that while it was considered to be the most circuitous and having the worst routes throughout the Midwest and southwest, ironically many of its lines continue to be operated today, a number of which are quite important and see more traffic now than they ever did at any point during the Rock Island’s ownership (for instance, even Class Is like Union Pacific operate some ex-Rock Island lines). Not bad for a railroad that was shrugged off by most during its final days of operation! Overall, it is a testament to the railroad's strength despite its poor financial status during the 1960s and 1970s. Had the Rock allowed to remain in operation it would have quite likely, eventually regained a level of profitability.

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