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Founded from the creation of an amended charter issued by the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad company, the famous Chicago and Rock Island Railroad was established on February 7, 1851 with the first lines running between Chicago and Joliet, Illinois. The rail line was continued on to La Salle and finally reached Rock Island in 1854. The railroad continued building a huge empire that reached just about every major city in the central and midwestern United States.
Until it’s last days in 1980, the Rock Island Line reached into Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. By 1984, all the railroad’s remaining locomotives, rail cars, tracks, equipment, and property were sold to scrappers or other railroads in order to pay all remaining debts incurred by the line.
Railroad First to Connect Chicago to Mississippi River
In 1854, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad was the first railroad to connect Chicago to the Mississippi River, an important step in increasing commerce and making Chicago the hub of business in the Midwest. Mississippi River Steamboat operators did not like the railroad bridges because they made navigating the mighty river more difficult.
One steamboat was destroyed by fire after running into a bridge operated by the Rock Island Railroad. Abraham Lincoln, then a young attorney, represented the Rock Island in the case against the steamboat operator. Lincoln argued that the steamboat captain was at fault and helped to show that bridges across navigable rivers were an advantage to the country .
The Rock Island Railroad Rides Into the Popular Legend
The Rock island continued to grow throughout the latter half of the 19th century, buying up other, smaller rail lines and adding them to it’s own network. From the early 1900’s through the mid 1950’s, the Rock Island Line was a growing and prosperous railroad. Because the railroad covered such a large area of the Midwest, it was well known by most folks in the Midwest.
The rail line gained wide public popularity in the 1940’s when it was glorified in the song “Rock Island Line” by American blues/folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter, also known as Lead Belly. The song was later made more famous by popular singers Johnny Horton, Lonnie Donegan, Bobby Darin and even later by Johnny Cash. The first lines in the chorus of this song are still remembered today, “Rock Island Line, she’s a mighty good road, Rock Island Line is the road to ride.” The song was a hit in the U.S. from the 1940’s through the 1970’s.
Final Days of the Legendary Rock Island Line
During the first part of the 20th century, railroads were being built everywhere across the U.S. Until the advent of commercial aviation began to erode the passenger train business in the early 1950’s, trains were the primary mode of travel in this country. After the 1950’s, the glut of railroad companies and lines became apparent.
The Rock Island Railroad had been built in the 1800’s to serve the needs of that era. But the needs of a nation changed and the Rock Island found itself as just another of the many railroads that would eventually go bankrupt, sold, or merged with another railroad. In 1964, the Rock Island chose to pursue a merger with the Union Pacific Railroad, combining it’s midwest rail network with UP’s massive west coast rail network.
1965 was the last year Rock Island made a profit, and it continued to lose money until the merger with Union Pacific was finally approved to move forward in 1974. By this time, the UP was no longer interested and walked away from the merger, taking with it the last hope of Rock Island’s survival.
Things only got worse for the now nearly bankrupt railroad as creditors pressed for payment and operational costs continued to mount higher every year. Attempts to reorganize in bankruptcy were refused by the courts. On January 24, 1980, a judge ordered the Rock Island Railroad to be shutdown and it’s assets to be liquidated for much needed cash. On March 31, 1980, the final operational shutdown and liquidation of the great Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad occurred.
1. Donald, David Herbert; Lincoln (1999); Touchstone; New York, NY; p. 157