When the "Choctaw Route," built by the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf, was completed to Tucumcari, New Mexico in 1910 the "Golden State Route" south of that point was leased to the EP&SW. The Choctaw was another important corridor, a southern gateway linking the Southwest and Southeast. It curved eastward from Tucumcari, headed to Amarillo and cut across Oklahoma and Arkansas before terminating at Memphis, Tennessee. Back along the Rock Island's eastern fringes service opened to St. Louis via Kansas City and finally accessed Galveston when the Trinity & Brazos Valley Railway was leased from the Colorado & Southern in 1906 (later known as the Burlington-Rock Island Railroad). South of Little Rock, Arkansas the syndicate tried to establish a through route to New Orleans but only made it as far as Eunice, Louisiana where it had to settle upon an interchange with Missouri Pacific. While Reid-Moore's efforts saw the railroad balloon into a network of 8,328 miles they also embarked upon a disastrous scheme of trying to leverage Rock Island's strong earnings power in financing a true transcontinental network. The incredibly complex and expensive boondoggle failed, and along with it the railroad, which entered receivership in 1915. It was reorganized on June 24, 1917 as the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad with the original system still intact.
Unfortunately, the company's newfound freedom was short-lived. After the United Stated entered World War I the Rock, and the entire industry, was placed under federal control on December 28, 1917 through the United States Railway Administration. There it remained until being returned to private management on February 28, 1920. The road spent the "Roarin' 20's" enjoying the decade's strong traffic and carried out some infrastructure improvements but its perennial infrastructure issues (light rail, poor ballasting, insufficient bridges, and circuitous routes) were not resolved when the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929. These problems, coupled with the country's economic condition, caused a second bankruptcy on June 7, 1933. This time, recovery was not as fast but a bright spot appeared, new president John Dow Farrington. The receivers brought him in to fix the problems and return the railroad to profitability. Without question, Farrington was the Rock Island's greatest leader.
The Modern Rock Island
Farrington was a no-nonsense manager, always on the hunt for ways of increasing efficiency and cutting waste. He loathed ignorance and brought quick retribution upon anyone who could not thoroughly answer questions. Farrington's high-rail equipped Ford sedan became a common, and dreaded, sight as it traveled around the Rock Island network hunting potential problems. Under his direction the railroad set about a system-wide infrastructure improvement program by replacing ties, pouring tons of new ballast, rebuilding bridges, laying heavy, 112+ pound rail on main lines, straightening bottlenecks, purchasing diesels, and expanding centralized traffic control/automatic block signaling systems. Within only a few years the results were being felt; annual revenues increased from $66 million in 1934 to $82 million in 1937. This number further increased to $96 million by 1941 and just after World War II had reached $178 million by 1947. A now healthy Rock Island exited receivership on January 1, 1948 as the road's future appeared very bright.
Farrington not only upgraded the property but was also a streamliner proponent. As John Kelly notes in his book, "Rock Island Railroad: Photo Archive," several new trains debuted from the late summer through early fall of 1937 including the Texas Rocket (August 29th), Peoria Rocket (September 19th), Des Moines Rocket (September 25th), Minneapolis-Kansas City Rocket (September 29th), and Kansas City-Denver Rocket (October 18th). These trains were adorned in an attractive livery of two-tone maroon with silver/aluminum pulled by matching locomotives, a unique four-axle passenger model from Electro-Motive known as the TA (#601-606). The Rocket fleet continued to grow in the succeeding years when the Twin Star Rocket debuted on January 15, 1945, followed by the Rocky Mountain Rocket on November 12, 1939, and finally the transcontinental Golden State. The latter had been operated jointly with Southern Pacific for years but was re-inaugurated as a streamliner in January of 1948. The modernization continued through the 1950's as steam was retired by 1954 and modern classification yards were built, most notably at Silvis, Illinois.
Downfall And Decline
Unfortunately, the 1950's were a tough decade for the entire industry which dealt with declining traffic brought about through increased competition (highways and airlines) and a 1958 national recession. The Rock's legendary leader retired in 1955 but was replaced by Downing Jenks, an equally accomplished railroader. Unfortunately, his tenure was short-lived when he left for the Missouri Pacific. This brought Farrington back briefly before his death in 1961 at which time R. Ellis Johnson assumed the presidency. As the 1960's dawned the Rock was showing signs of trouble; in a region overbuilt with railroads it relied heavily on dwindling agricultural traffic. To make matters worse it was not heavily diversified in other areas such as coal, manufacturing, or petrochemicals and did not enjoy the C&NW's healthy interchange business through the Council Bluffs/Omaha gateway. At this time, talks with a merger between Milwaukee Road and Southern Pacific were briefly carried out before discussions with Union Pacific began. In September of 1964 UP formally applied to acquire the Rock Island. Its relationship with the Chicago & North Western at the time was strained and the CRI&P would provide it a direct link into Chicago. For a complete history of the Rock's final years, Greg Schneider's "Rock Island Requiem," is strongly recommended. The author superbly articulates how the company collapsed during its final decade and a half of operation.
Struggling Through The '70s
The Rock Island's final decade of operation could best be summed up as grim, both physically and internally. As Doug Kroll's photo at Joliet, Illinois illustrates, the motive power was in sorry condition. The Rock was too poor to upgrade its roster except for some new Electro-Motive units, and cheaper General Electric "U-boats," picked up during the 1960's and 1970's. In its final days it was still running dilapidated covered wagons dating back to just after World War II. In addition, E6A #630, continued working the commuter pool throughout the 1970s, a locomotive which had been outshopped in October of 1941! (Today, it is preserved.) The physical plant was an equally sad situation with rotten ties, insufficient rail, slow orders, and derailments a common occurrence throughout the system. If the railroad was an up-to-date, modern operation it quite likely would have been profitable. One of president John Ingram's initiatives in cutting costs and revamping the company's image was adoption of a cheaper light blue and white livery with "The Rock" emblazoned across locomotives and equipment.
In the absence of new power the company carried out its so-called Capital Rebuild Program on venerable Geeps to extend their service lives. During a power shortage in the early '70s it also picked up elderly F9's from Union Pacific while even first-generation Alco road units, re-engined with Electro-Motive model 567 prime movers, continued to see service throughout that decade. To say the least, it's fleet was eclectic. Perhaps more than any other state, Iowa was most proactive in saving the Rock's operations within its borders. It formed the Iowa Energy Policy Council in 1973, whose duties included (among other things) saving branch lines for continued rail service. While the state ultimately set aside several million dollars to carry out these improvements (which also included rehabbing lines of the Milwaukee Road and Burlington Northern), interestingly, it was the shippers themselves which sometimes ponied up funds for rebuilding the branches.
There has been great blame laid on the Interstate Commerce Commission for dragging out the proceedings that eventually led to the company's collapse. In truth, the ICC was only part of the problem. When the merger was announced, Chicago & North Western's Ben Heineman immediately challenged the UP-Rock Island marriage. Instead, he proposed his own takeover of the Rock or at least a three-way union with the Milwaukee Road. If the UP-Rock merger was approved the C&NW would stand to lose considerable interchange business through the Omaha gateway so its opposition was justified. As the hearings wore on and the years passed the Rock Island simply fell apart. As Mr. Schneider notes, in 1959 the railroad was still a well-respected corporation boasting gross annual revenues of $219.5 million with a ranking of 22nd in Fortune magazine's Top Fifty Transportation Companies. Barely two decades later the picture had changed dramatically as the road carried a stunning annual deficit of $400 million when it was liquidated in 1980.
As the railroad came apart it is also truly perplexing why Union Pacific did not spend the capital for infrastructure improvements, or at least enough to maintain operations, considering the planned merger. The Rock's officials asked multiple times for such funds but were always denied. Union Pacific was the wealthiest railroad in the country at the time (and still-so today); in 1966 its net income, before taxes, was an impressive $109.7 million. As part of the takeover plan UP had agreed to spend $200 million on such improvements but only after the marriage was finalized. Nearly a decade passed before the ICC officially granted approval on November 8, 1974. As a condition of the merger, Rio Grande would acquire the Rock's Omaha-Denver main line and Santa Fe would pick up most of its Choctaw Route (Memphis - Amarillo) as well as be required to takeover the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. In addition others would be given additional traffic rights and interchange gateways to help shield them from potential traffic losses. Unfortunately, by then the Rock's property was in pathetic condition and UP was no longer interested. With no where else to turn the railroad entered bankruptcy protection on March 17, 1975.
The Rock Island's final years were sad to witness as the road attempted in vain to produce a profitable railroad beneath decaying infrastructure and a mountain of debt. It tried to apply for governmental assistance, notably through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), but with Washington busy with the Penn Central mess the Rock's situation was largely ignored (as was that of the Milwaukee Road, which entered bankruptcy in 1977). Adding insult to injury the railroad was still running passenger trains. It could not afford the entry feet to join what became the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) on May 1, 1971 and continued operating what was dubbed the Peoria Rocket and Quad Cities Rocket until service was finally suspended on December 31, 1978. The immediate elimination of these trains could have saved the railroad $1 million annually. The state of Illinois also forced it to continue running its money-losing commuter trains throughout the Chicago area. In a dire financial situation it threatened to immediately discontinue these, which were costing the Rock nearly $2 million annually, if the state did not either take over the service or provide a subsidy. Illinois finally relented by at first providing a stipend but eventually took over the services entirely.
Judge Frank McGarr, who headed the bankruptcy proceedings, had no experience with railroads. However, he was a good manager who understood the importance of the Rock Island's routes despite growing pressure from creditors to liquidate immediately. McGarr continued delaying liquidation as his team attempted to put together a profitable operation. Alas, time simply ran out. The railroad greatly needed to rebuild its failing infrastructure (which then totaled just over 7,300 route miles) but there was simply no money to do so. With its financial condition in tatters borrowing was impossible. The final blow came on August 28, 1979 when the Brotherhood of Railway & Airline Clerks, joined by the United Transportation Union, issued a strike and the railroad's fate was sealed. Their issue dealt with a new national labor wage agreement which they refused to accept. The move essentially put them out of work when McGarr ordered liquidation on January 25, 1980. It was a somber conclusion to a beleaguered road that had fought hard until the end.
Diesel Locomotive Roster
American Locomotive Company
Baldwin Locomotive Works
Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division
|FTA||70-73, 70A-73A, 88-99||1944-1945||20|
|F7B||100B-109B, 120B-123B, 675B-677B||1948-1951||17|
|GP7||430-441, 1200-1237, 1250-1311||1950-1953||112|
|GP18||1256, 1329, 1333-1353||1960-1961||24|
Steam Locomotive Roster
No single person was at fault for the Rock Island's liquidation; everyone in a leadership position in the last days tried their best to right the ship. As it turns out there was, indeed, a solvent road beneath the mess. Nearly all of the railroad's through routes were ultimately purchased and remain in operation today. Only one is not, the Choctaw Route (Tucumcari - Memphis). There were negotiations with Arkansas and Oklahoma to purchase 866 miles of the corridor to be operated as the Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad. The Trustee set a price of $100 million although the states only wanted to pay $21 million, the salvage value. In the end, the parties were too far apart and the property was abandoned. Various railroads picked up other segments, including the Iowa Interstate, a 1984 startup which spent a great deal of money and effort to resurrect the Chicago - Omaha main line. Today, it is an extremely successful Class II, regional. On May 19, 1984 the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad was reorganized as the Chicago Pacific Corporation, a non-operating railroad entity which branched out into the fields of investment and real estate. It began to grow by acquiring the Hoover Corporation in 1985 before being purchased itself by the Maytag Corporation in 1988.
Books Featured In This Article
Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific