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Brief Historical Overview of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad

What follows is a brief, company-issued history of the Rock Island Lines. It was one of the introductory sections of the “Yard Clerical Manual” issued by the RI around 1970. The manual, from the collection of Alan Kline, was apparently intended to serve as an introduction to the company, as well as to the duties of a yard clerk, and also included a review of the company’s geography and route structure.

The history is presented here as it appeared in the Yard Clerical Manual.

The Early Years–1845 to 1892


What is now the Rock Island system first came under discussion in June, 1845, at a meeting of civic leaders at Rock Island, Illinois. Conscious of the increasing migration to the West, these men felt a railroad should be built from La Salle, Illinois to Rock Island, to provide an overland link between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Visits were made to Springfield, the Illinois capitol, and a charter was drawn up.

By special act of the Illinois Legislature, the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad Company was incorporated on February 27, 1847, but raising the money to build the line was difficult because people had little faith in a railroad that merely connected two waterways. The organizers took another look at their maps, saw Chicago at the base of Lake Michigan, and decided to petition the Legislature to build the railroad all the way to Chicago. An amended charter was approved by a special Act of the Illinois Legislature on February 7, 1851 and the name was changed to the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad.

That October 1st, the first spade of dirt was turned at 22nd Street, the southern limits of Chicago and railroad construction officially was begun. The line was completed to Joliet, 40 miles away, by October, 1852. With the laying of the rail into Joliet, public clamor from people along the new line brought about a decision to operate the first train over the route despite the fact the depots along the line were non-existent.

So, on October 10, 1852, a gaily painted little American-type locomotive (4-4-0), called the Rocket, was coupled to six sparkling new yellow coaches. At ten o’clock in the morning the Rocket belched a cloud of wood smoke from its balloon stack and headed west over the 58-pound iron rails that had been imported from England. The trip took two hours and the train was cheered by thousands along the way. It had to make the return trip as a back-up movement because there was yet no turning facilities at Joliet. This date is now considered the Rock Island’s “birthday”.


The rails marched westward, through Morris, Ottawa, La Salle and Bureau, finally reaching Rock Island on February 22, 1854, the first railroad to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River.

In the meantime, on February 5, 1853, the railroad incorporators saw Ariticles of Association executed under the laws of Iowa to create the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company with authority to construct and operate a railroad from Davenport to Council Bluffs.

Now a railroad bridge across the Mississippi to connect the two lines was considered a must. The wood and iron structure was to be a Howe truss type set on stone piers. The corner stone of the bridge project was laid in Davenport on September 1, 1854.

While the bridge was being built, progress of the M&M in Iowa was very slow. Iowa City was its first goal, but Muscatine also wanted a railroad. Civic leaders there pleaded with builders to bring the line into that community. It was finally decided to split the road at Wilton, extend the main line to Iowa City and to build a branch to Muscatine.

Iowa Citians, fearful that the railroad might not reach their town, then the capitol of the state, decided to post a $50,000 bonus to the builders if the line was finished and a train run into the station on or before midnight December 31, 1855.

The line to Muscatine was finished first and on November 20, 1855 the first train ever to operate in Iowa departed from Davenport with six crowded coaches for the run to Muscatine.

But the builders had not forgotten Iowa City’s $50,000. On December 31, in a temperature of 30 degrees below zero, the rails were just 1,000 feet short of their goal. Crews worked feverishly to finish the job. Ties were dropped on the staked earth and rails spiked hurriedly in place. Finally, with only minutes to go, a signal was given for the engine to approach. It couldn’t move. It was frozen and dead on center. With the help of every available man, chains attached to the pilot and pinch bars under the wheels, the workmen pinched and pushed to slide the engine to the station seconds before the old year rang out.

The Mississippi bridge ran into difficulties. The first train ran over it from Rock Island to Davenport on April 22, 1856. Its construction, however, had maddened the steamboat interests and every legal obstacle had been put in its way. It had been condemned as a hindrance to navigation. But there it stood, a monument to engineering genius. Two weeks after the first train had run across, a steamboat – the Effie Afton – cleared the drawspan on an upstream journey, then suddenly veered out of control and drifted back against the span where it burst into flames. The draw portion of the bridge was destroyed.

This started a historic court action. Abraham Lincoln defended the railroad’s right to bridge the river. The first jury disagreed and was discharged. A second trial resulted in a court order to remove the bridge. This, however, was carried to the Supreme Court and, in an opinion handed down in 1862, the court found for the railroad establishing a railroad’s right to bridge a navigable stream.

During this period of time the Mississippi and Missouri Road had bogged down and its rails only got slightly beyond Marengo. The line to Muscatine had been extended to Washington where it came to a halt. The outbreak of the Civil War had stopped railroad building.

1863 – 1872

The Mississippi and Missouri, by the end of 1865, had reached Kellogg, still 40 miles short of Des Moines. It was having economic troubles and was finally acquired by the Chicago and Rock Island on July 9, 1866. The two became the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company. Construction from Kellogg to Des Moines was completed in 1867 and the line reached Council Bluffs on May 11, 1869. That June, a decision was made to extend the line westward from Washington to Leavenworth, Kansas.

By the end of 1872, Rock Island mileage in Illinois had grown to 317, in Iowa to 718, and in Missouri to 139. This included the line of the Keokuk & Des Moines which was the first railroad to reach Des Moines, when it operated an excursion train into that city from Keokuk on August 29, 1866.

1873 – 1882

During these ten years the system expanded in various directions. Entrance into Kansas City was made in December, 1879, through an operating agreement with the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad which connected with the Rock Island at Cameron Junction, Missouri. Plans were made to build into Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma.

1883 – 1892

In 1885, the Rock Island purchased the majority of the outstanding stock of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway. It later was to take over the line completely. The road, extending from Burlington to Manly Junction, Iowa and including lines to Estherville and Sioux Falls and Watertown, South Dakota, provided entry into Minnesota and the Twin Cities.

On March 19, 1886, a charter was issued to the Chicago, Kansas and Nebraska Railway Company to build the Kansas and Colorado mileage practically as it exists today. It also included most of the Nebraska mileage and a line from Lost Springs, Kansas to Caldwell. The intention was eventually to extend this line across Oklahoma and Texas, but Oklahoma was then Indian Territory and construction had to await approval by Congress.

Mileage from Horton to Liberal was placed in operation on February 26, 1888; from Herington to Pond Creek, Oklahoma, on July 15, 1888, and from Horton to Colorado Springs on November 5, 1888.

An Act of Congress, approved o March 2, 1887, granted the charter the right to cross Indian Territory and pass through Texas to Galveston. The charter also approved another line from Liberal -: again across Indian territory – to Texas and New Mexico Territory to El Paso.

On March 19, 1887 a contract was signed between the Union Pacific and the Chicago, Kansas and Nebraska Railway Company for joint use of the U.P. tracks between Kansas City and North Topeka for a period of 999 years.

Construction of the line south from Herington moved rapidly through fall of 1887 and in December the first train pulled into Caldwell, “the last outpost of the white man’s country” and gateway to the Indian domains of Oklahoma.

The Railroad reached Pond Creek on July 15, 1888. The survey followed roughly along the old Chisholm Trail. El Reno was reached early in 1890 and from there the track stretched on, reaching Minco on February 14, 1890 where construction, for the time being, came to an end.

At this same time, lines were being extended west from Horton toward Jansen, Nebraska, just east of Fairbury. This was completed in 1888. From Jansen, construction moved on through Limon, toward Colorado Springs. A contract was entered into with the Union Pacific for the use of its line from Limon to Denver in 1889.

Then on June 10, 1891, through various consolidations, the lines in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado all were brought into the Rock Island System, a total of 1,476 miles of new railroad line.

In 1892, building was resumed on the line from Minco, Oklahoma and the Texas state line was reached before year’s end. Construction also had been started westward from Omaha, through Lincoln, for a connection with the Colorado line at Jansen.

The System Develops–1893 to 1933

1893 – 1902

The Chicago, Rock Island and Texas Railway Company had been chartered in Texas in 1892, and laid track northward from Fort Worth to meet, at the Red River, with the line that had been built down from Minco. Thus opened through service from Chicago, through both the St. Joseph and Kansas City gateways, to the Lone Star State.

In Oklahoma, in the meantime, the Choctaw Coal and Railway Company had completed a line from Wister to McAlester in 1890. In 1888, this company had surveyed a line from El Reno, extending eastward via Yukon to the present site of Oklahoma City. Controversy developed over the right of way and this line was not finished until February, 1892.

In 1894, The Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad took over the Choctaw Coal and Railway Company and immediately launched a large scale expansion program. The gap between McAlester and Oklahoma City was closed in October, 1895. The El Reno to Weatherford extension was completed in 1898.

The builders of the Choctaw then decided to buy the Little Rock and Memphis Railroad which had been organized by a special Act of the Arkansas Assembly on January 11, 1853.

That line had been surveyed in 1854 and four years later the line had been completed from Memphis to Madison, Arkansas, 45 miles west. The next 40 miles to DeVall’s Bluff, including a big bridge across the White River, was not completed until 1871. Later that year, through rail service was put into operation between Memphis and Little Rock. So, in 1898, the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf bought the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad and then completed the Little Rock-Indian Territory boundary line trackage 151 miles long, including a bridge across the Arkansas River. The Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf then extended its Oklahoma lines to meet the Little Rock line.

By agreement of April 1, 1904, the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf, and practically all of its property, became the property of the Rock Island System.

In April, 1902, the Rock Island acquired the St. Louis, Kansas City and Colorado Railroad, which had been building a line west from St. Louis. At the time the line had been completed to Bland, 104 miles away, and the Rock Island advanced funds to finish the project.

Bland to the Gasconade River was completed in 1902, Gasconade River to Eldon in 1903, and Eldon to Hadsell in 1904. In the meantime, in late 1902, the Kansas City Rock Island Railway had been incorporated to build a rail line from Kansas City to Hadsell. Construction began and the two track laying gangs met at Hadsell in July, 1904 and the road put into partial operation.

A historic development occurred near the close of this decade, when on June 1, 1902, the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern leased its property to the Rock Island for 999 years. This added another 1,289 miles to the system.

1903 – 1912

In July, 1902, the Choctaw completed its line to Yarnall, Texas, just 17 miles east of Amarillo, and entered that city over trackage rights.

Construction of the Amarillo-Tucumcari mileage–113 miles in length–was begun in 1903 and completed May 9, 1910, establishing a through route from Memphis to Tucumcari, where a connection was made to the Pacific Coast.

In December, 1903, the important Texas mileage between Fort Worth and Dallas was completed and placed in operation by the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf Railway.

In the meantime down in Arkansas, a railroad had been built from Little Rock to Hot Springs by a colorful Chicagoan who was known as “Diamond Joe” Reynolds. The line, later known as the “Diamond Joe Line”, was completed in February, 1876, originally as a narrow gauge railroad but changed to standard gauge in October, 1889. The Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf acquired the Diamond Joe after the turn of the century and when the Rock Island took over the Choctaw, it of course, secured this mileage also.

The Rock Island then projected new construction which was to provide a new through route from Little Rock to New Orleans. The Rock Island, Arkansas, and Louisiana Railroad Company was incorporated in 1905. Into this company were incorporated several railroads and additional new trackage was built resulting in a railroad from Little Rock to Eunice, Louisiana. This was opened for operation February 1, 1908.

The Malvern-Camden Line, 55 miles long was begun in November, 1911 and completed October 1, 1913.

1913 – 1922

In the early part of the 1900’s a group of promoters known as the Reid-Moore syndicate secured control of the property. They set up two holding companies, one in Iowa and one in New Jersey. Because of certain financial manipulations the two holding companies could not meet their obligations and went into bankruptcy. A receiver was named on April 20, 1915 ending control by the syndicate and ending a great drama of empire, during which the Rock Island had acquired the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf, and the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern.

World War I had begun and at noon, December 28, 1917, the United States Government took over the railroads. They were turned back to their owners on February 28, 1920.

1923 – 1932

During this decade, the freight line between Amarillo and Liberal was begun in 1926 and completed in fall, 1929, opening up a rich grain country for a source of additional revenue. In 1930, the Dalhart-Morse line was opened.

In October, 1929, the memorable crash of the stock market took place and the Great Depression began. Railroad industry in general continued at fair level through 1930 but the following year the economic collapse began to take its toll.

Added to the company woes was the great drought that had begun in late 1931 and resulted in the well known “dust bowl”. The drought had a devastating effect on the railroad.

Route of the Rockets–1933 to Present (ca. 1970)

1933 – 1947

On June 7, 1933, the Rock Island, for the second time in its history, passed into recevership. The general economic depression and repeated crop failures had combined to weaken the system financially.

During the glum years of 1934-1935, the receivers decided to bring some new management to the property. The new management determined that what was needed was a program of “planned progress”.

Heavier rail, new ballast and tie replacement for main and secondary track was called for. New bridges were needed at various locations. Segments of the main line had to be relocated to reduce curves and grades. Shops were modernized or eliminated. The first diesels were purchased, the remaining steam power was modernized, and streamlined passenger cars and new freight cars were acquired.

Greatest of the bridge building projects were a new structure over the Cimmaron River, near Liberal, and another bridge built jointly with the Milwaukee Road that spanned the Missouri and provided a new and better operation into Kansas City. Eight and one half miles of new line were built and 12 miles of old were abandoned.

The first diesel switchers were acquired in 1937 and these were followed by the inauguration of Rock Island’s first streamliner, the Texas Rocket. Other Rockets – to Peoria, Des Moines, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul – quickly followed. Dieselized freights were inaugurated in 1945.

On December 31, 1936 the Rock Island had 1,160 steam locomotives. By the end of 1947 this number was reduced to half.

Then, in late 1941, the nation again went to war. Five years of progressive planning had brought the property, physically and competitively, to the point where it could accept its burden of wartime traffic.

1948 – 1952

At 12:01 AM on January 1, 1948, the railroad came out of receivership and the reorganized company took control of the railroad’s property under the name of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company. More new freight and passenger equipment was acquired and a heavy repair and building program in company shops was launched.

In 1948, the major building project was a new retarder yard at Armourdale with 43 classification tracks, flood lights and radio communications.

Another retarder yard was built at Silvis during 1949 and this facility, along with Armourdale, was the latest word at the time for efficient operation of the railroad’s fleet of Rocket Freights. As the Rock Island approached its centennial year of 1952, it was a strong railroad, and one of the best in the country. Total dieselization was acheived in the centennial year.

1952 – Present (ca. 1970)

Since then the railroad has progressed even further. No significant new lines have been built, but the personality of the railroad has been altered dramatically.

Heavier diesels now move along at near passenger train speeds with ever-longer trains. Freight cars reflect change too, with jumbo hoppers, 89-foot boxcars and triple decker auto loaders common on every train.

The nation’s travel habits have also changed from trains to autos and airplanes. The many glamourous streamliners which carried people over the countryside no longer exist.

Unproductive branch lines have been eliminated. Piggyback has “wed” the railroad and the truck into a profitable venture for both.

So today, the Rock Island, nearly a quarter of the way into its second century, looks toward the future with hope. Whatever may occur in the way of progress for the industry, the Rock Island will certainly be in its forefront.


The preceding history was issued by the company around 1970. The Rock Island entered its third and final bankruptcy in 1975, and despite the best efforts of management and trustee, and the flashy new blue and white “Rock” image, the company could not survive. The railroad was struck by its clerks in August, 1979, in a wage dispute. By order of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Kansas City Terminal railway took over operations of the Rock Island, under an ICC “directed service” order.

In early 1980, the bankruptcy court determined that the Rock Island could not be successfully reorganized and ordered the liquidation of the railroad, the largest such liquidation in U.S. history.

On March 31, 1980, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad operated its last train.