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The Rock Island Line

Never one of the truly prestige passenger carriers, the Rock Island (officially, Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific) was a solid bread and butter line that, famous in the world of folk songs, served its riders and communities well. It ran very view star quality trains, but provided solid comfort and its Rocky Mountain Rocket, between Chicago's Lasalle Street Station and Denver/Colorado Springs, and Golden State Ltd., between Chicago and LA, with a little help from the SP, offered all the amenities. Until the late 60s its silky race course across Iowa hosted some of the fastest trains in the land at speeds that would make today's corridors proud. And, its Jet Rockets between Chicago and Peoria didn't slouch on design, marketing and a fast ride. It's fair to say that the Rock finally ran out of gas, probably hurt more by its passenger business than most lines, but unlike some of its counterparts and partners (eg., the Southern Pacific), it seldom alienated its riders to shut down the passenger business.

It was also important in my life. After riding it to a church conference in the Midwest from my New Jersey home when I was in high school, I decided to attend Grinnell College,  where the conference was held, with thoughts of the Rock Island and easy connects from the New York Central, Pennsy and Nickel Plate not irrelevant (and all taken advantage while I was an undergrad and, later, when I worked on the college admissions staff). I met my wife of almost 50 years, a fellow Grinnell student,  in one of its dining cars, and later was given a free ride by an accommodating Des Moines ticket agent back to visit her as part of a cross-country hitch hike immediately after the Kennedy assassination. Though the night train through Grinnell was not scheduled to stop I was booked as a casket and was helped off the train as it slowed to 2-3 mph, the normal privilege for those who returned home to unscheduled stations in boxes.

Alas, now I wish I had taken more photos and grabbed more paper, but here's what I have, from roughly 1960 to the early 80s, taken mainly in and around Grinnell, Iowa, the Southwest and then at the remnants of the once bustling LaSalle Street Station, where I would change trains from the New York Central to the Rock Island or hotfoot it to and from Union Station and the Pennsy -- having been robbed at the Englewood Station, where one could grab the Pennsy east. As you can see, consists became shorter and shorter and express and mail cars more common as the company tried to balance its books. Though it survives in name -- the Rock Island District -- as part of Chicago's METRA system, the Rock Island, like its midwestern competitors the Milwaukee Road and Chicago and North Western,  is long gone.

Train #7, the Cornhusker                                                                                            Train #18, the Twin Star Rocket, From Minneapolis to Fort Worth,
                                                                                                                                        and Train #10, Corn Belt Rocket from Omaha to Chicago, at Des                                                                                                                                                  Moines,  mid-60s.
Train #10, the Corn Belte Rocket, near Grinnell, late 1960s.
Photos of Train # 7, formerly the Rocky Mountain Rocket, now the Cornhusker,  in and near Grinnell, late 1960s
The Corn Belt Rocket, near Grinnell, late 1960s
Grinnell Depot, 1968 and 1982. It is now a restaurant.
The Rock Island ran football specials from the Chicago area, Des Moines and other Iowa points to Iowa City. Here are scenes in Grinnell and
Iowa City in 1961. My recollection is of a large number of drunken Iowans who never got to see their Hawkeyes beat the stuffing out of Notre Dame.
The Rocky Mountain Rocket, near Limon, Colorado in 1965, shortly before its death .         Late 1960s snack lounge car on the Cornhusker
The Rock Island and Southern Pacific teamed up to run the Golden State Limited - Sunset Limited train from Chicago to El Paso and New Orleans - Los Angeles, meeting in El Paso, Texas. On the left and below is the combined train in Palmdale, California, heading east, and the two trains waiting to be combined in El Paso. Both photos are from approximately 1967. As a reckless youth I chased the Golden State north of El Paso at speeds well in excess of 100 mph. These were not Amereica's greatest long-distance trains, but they look very inviting in these old photos

These photos were taken in the remains of LaSalle Street Station, Chicago, in 1983, shortly after the main station with its waiting rooms and restaurant were demolished. For a history and fine photos of the station see Craig Bluschke's Vintage Rail Photo site.


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