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 1975 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.

A significant amount of commuter operations did not help the Rock Island's financial situation in later years, as it was not allowed to drop the service. Seen here is F7A #630 boarding passengers with its train at Joliet on April 2, 1977.

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 RailThrough 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.

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.

CRI&P NW2 #4902 looks a bit worn as it pulls a short freight past the tower and station at Joliet, Illinois during September of 1977 just a few years prior to the road's liquidation.

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.

Rock Island Class M-50 4-8-2 #4045 flies under the signal tower at Council Bluffs, Iowa with an eastbound passenger train on July 4, 1948.

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 and Pacific. 

Still looking good in the railroad's late era of operations is Rock Island U30C #4592 as it heads southward along the FW&D/Burlington at Waxahachie, Texas with a freight train during October of 1976.

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.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
FA-1145-160194816
FB-1145B-152B19488
C415415-424196610
RS2450-45419485
RS3455-474, 485-4991950-195135
DL107A621, 6231940-19412
DL105A62219401
DL103A62519391
S2716-7291942-194814
RS1735-7491941-194415

The Baldwin Locomotive Works/Lima Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
VO-1000760-7641943-19445
LS-800800-80119502
S8802-80619525

This scene illustrates the hard times the Rock Island fell on during its final years of service as three worn-out locomotives of GE, EMD, and Alco heritage pull a freight through Joliet on April 2, 1977.

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
LWT-121-31956-19583
F2A38-49194612
FTA70-73, 70A-73A, 88-991944-194520
FTB70B-73B, 88B-99B1944-194516
F7A100-127, 675-6771949-195131
F7B100B-109B, 120B-123B, 675B-677B1948-195117
GP35300-333196534
GP40340-396, 4700-47191966-197077
FP7402-411194910
BL2425-42919495
GP7430-441, 1200-1237, 1250-13111950-1953112
SW500-5281937-193829
SW1529-5461942-194918
SW900550-563, 900-9141958-195929
TA601-60619376
E3A625-62619392
E6A627-6311940-19415
E7A632-6421946-194811
E7B632B-642B1946-194811
E8A643-6561949-195314
NW700-70719388
NW2765-774194910
SW9775-77919535
SW8811-8381950-195328
SW1200920-936196517
SW1500940-949196610
GP91312-13321957-195921
GP181256, 1329, 1333-13531960-196124
GP38-24300-4355, 4368-43791976-197868
SD40-24790-4799197310

Still clad in crimson and stainless steel is Rock Island E6A #630 as it has been downgraded to commuter duties rolling across the Pennsylvania Railroad diamonds at Englewood Union Station in Chicago on April 21, 1965.

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
H15-44400-40119482

One of the Rock's Class P-32 4-6-2s #836 boards passengers in Memphis, Tennessee on June 6, 1940.

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
U33B190-199, 285-2991968-196925
U25B200-2381963-196539
U28B240-281196642
U30C4582-4599197318

A CRI&P Class P-33 4-6-2, #908, is readying its passenger train at the yard in Colorado Springs, Colorado on September 27, 1942. This location was at the extreme western edge of the Rock's system.

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
R-67a/bNorthern4-8-4
S-29, S-33Switcher0-6-0
S-53Switcher0-8-0

Shutdown day is almost here and this scene carries historical significance; The final Rock Island train, so to speak, has navigated the road's Illinois Division as a trio of GP7s pass the depot in Bureau, Illinois during April of 1980. The locomotives have just delivered a cut of covered hoppers to a nearby railroad operator, which have purchased them through the bankruptcy sale. Technically, of course, this train is not part of the actual Rock Island, which had officially been liquidated on March 31st. Today, this trackage is operated by Iowa Interstate.

Notable Rock Island Railroad Passenger Trains

Golden State

Rocky Mountain Rocket

Choctaw Rocket: (Amarillo - Memphis)

Corn Belt Rocket: (Chicago - Omaha)

Des Moines Rocket: (Chicago - Des Moines)

Rock Island RS3 #487 rolls past Englewood Union Station and through the PRR diamonds with a morning commuter run on December 31, 1964. In their later years these Alcos were used to a greater extent in commuter service.

The Imperial: (Chicago - Los Angeles)

Kansas City Rocket: (Minneapolis - Kansas City)

Peoria Rockets: (Chicago - Peoria)

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.


Showing off the Rock Island's original livery of red, crimson, and white is GP7 #1298 as it pulls a cut of cars through the yard and past Oakland Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 4, 1964.

Finally, after many years there is a new, widely published book out that offers a complete, thorough history of the fabled Rock Island, The Rock Island Line by author Bill Marvel.   The title is released through Indiana University Press and provides 176 pages of history and background on the Rock from the line's earliest years to its collapse during the 1970s.  Another newer book on the company is Rock Island Railroad: Travel on the Rockets by author John Kelly which cover's the classic Rocket streamliners through photographs.  If you might be interested in picking up one, or both, of these books please visit the link(s) below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com.

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