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Day Trips: a rare ride on the Rock Island line



The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad went out of business in 1980. After a long futile struggle against competing railroads, trucks on the interstate, and high labor costs, Rock Island's stockholders finally persuaded U.S. District Court Judge Frank McGarr that their railroad--operating in bankruptcy since 1975--was worth more dead than alive. The offices at 332 S. Michigan were closed, the freight trains and switch engines stopped operating, the employees were laid off, and the Rock's court-appointed trustee, William Gibbons, began liquidating company assets: real estate, rolling stock, locomotives, and 11,000 miles of line running across 13 midwestern and western states.

Chartered by the Illinois General Assembly in 1847, the company broke ground for its first right-of-way at Clark and 22nd in 1851. A primitive steam locomotive called the Rocket pulled the inaugural train of dignitaries out to the end of the track at Joliet on October 10, 1852, but no facilities for turning a locomotive had yet been built there. The return trip to Chicago was made with the engine pushing.

The original end of the Rock Island line had been its namesake city on the Mississippi, site of the U.S. Army's Rock Island arsenal. But the directors had ambitions. They extended the road to Omaha, the starting point of the railroad Union Pacific had begun building toward the west coast after the Civil War.

Trying to reach Omaha may have been the Rock's undoing. At the peak of the nation's 19th-century railroad- building lunacy, no less than six different carriers built lines between Chicago and Omaha, all vying for the California traffic that needed connections east. In the 1960s an Interstate Commerce Commission report called the Chicago-Omaha railroad corridor the most overbuilt in the nation. It predicted a shakeout.

The 1970s and '80s proved the commission correct. Two big companies closed their routes in the corridor. A third sold its route to entrepreneurs who secured employee give-backs that made the line successful. But the Rock went bust, and all its lines shut down.

Angry partisans of the railroad hinted at skulduggery. They said billionaire Chicago industrialist Henry Crown, who had gained control of the Rock after World War II by snapping up its moribund mortgage bonds at ten cents on the dollar, wanted the carrier dead because its real estate was worth more than its value as a functioning railroad. Critics charged that Crown, who died August 14 at the age of 94, effectively pushed the Rock into bankruptcy by slashing budgets for track improvements that could have made the railroad competitive.

"Back in the 1960s," says one ex-employee, "the engineering department bought a whole bunch of new ties to be installed in the main line between Blue Island and Joliet. The ties were distributed along the right of way and were waiting for the crews to install them when Henry Crown cut the budget for track labor. The ties never were installed, and eventually the home owners along the tracks picked them up and dragged them away. You can go out to Tinley Park today and see some lovely vegetable gardens that have Rock Island ties for borders. Perfect ties--not a spike hole in 'em."

Deferred maintenance took its toll on the Rock's traffic. As the track and roadbed got rougher, train speeds had to be cut to avoid accidents. Even at lower speeds the trains derailed with increasing frequency. Disgusted shippers switched to trucks. After Easter weekend in 1975 a spokesman told the papers, "We filed for bankruptcy on Good Friday, and there was no resurrection on Easter."

Yet there was a resurrection of sorts in the following decade. Gibbons sold the railroad piecemeal to a variety of bidders, and four-fifths of the Rock's tracks are still being used. Metra, for example, carries 33,000 riders a day in the Chicago-Joliet commuter corridor, which it totally rehabilitated. Traffic is growing at a rate of 1.4 percent per year. The 61 miles between Joliet and Bureau was sold to the Baltimore-based CSX Corporation, which uses it to serve businesses in the Morris-LaSalle-Peru industrial corridor. The line from Bureau to Omaha is owned by the Iowa Interstate Railroad, a robust new company started up in 1984 by Maytag, which feared closing the line would disrupt the movement of the 1,000 carloads of steel it buys each year to feed its appliance plant in Newton, Iowa.

But the resurrected Rock has no passenger trains. Amtrak's sole Chicago-to-Omaha train uses the competing Burlington Northern tracks. That's something of a shame. Rail enthusiasts agree that of the six lines running west from Chicago to the Union Pacific line, the Rock's was the prettiest. The 61 miles paralleling the Illinois River west of Joliet are postcard stuff--mingled water, foliage, farms, and villages. West of Bureau the line leaves the river, twisting along the Illinois' tributaries as it climbs out of the valley and up onto the plateau of cornfields. For 15 miles it follows the old Hennepin Canal, which connects the Illinois with the Rock River. Recreational boaters sail through the old wooden lock gates into a time warp.

Until 1987 only train crews got to view these obscure wonders from the old Rock Island main line. Then two Quad Cities housewives, Pam Siegert and Rose Ann Hass, decided the railroad was too good to be wasted on railroad men. They established Rails to the River and began chartering a special Amtrak excursion train to bring Chicago day-trippers to Rock Island each year during the height of the fall color season. They also chartered the paddle wheeler Quad City Queen to give their passengers a three-hour river cruise and lavish buffet lunch as the centerpiece of the trip.

A year ago I took the ride with my six-year-old daughter, her seven-year-old boyfriend, and his father. The route charmed both age groups. As the train rumbled over the drawbridge at Joliet, you could see that the surface of the water in the Sanitary and Ship Canal was higher than the roofs of the houses next to the dike--sort of like New Orleans or Holland. At Starved Rock the river behaved as rivers should, running safely between natural banks, placid and beautiful. At Sheffield the train passed a gigantic pig farm, where 50 or 60 piglets, unaccustomed to a speeding passenger train blaring its air horn, fled to their farrowing sheds and the safety of their enormous mothers, ears flapping like huge pink butterflies. Everyone in our car laughed hysterically.

The 1989 train was a sellout. This fall Rails to the River is repeating the trip Saturday, October 13. The fare--which includes breakfast and dinner on the train and lunch on the boat--is $140. Details are available by calling 1-800-383-0283.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Fahrenwald.

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