A Mighty Good Road: The Decline and Fall of the Rock Island Railroad

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Jul. 30, 2012 12:00 am  

A Rock Island train rumbles past the passenger station in Little Rock, already closed and board up in 1973. The railroad's liquidation in 1980 was the largest the nation had ever seen. (Photo by Bill Pollard) (Photo by Bill Pollard)

(Editor's Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future "Fifth Monday" articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or by email at GMoritz@ABPG.com.)

As the song says, the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific Railroad - known by most as simply the Rock Island - was "a mighty good road." It was the road to ride: By the middle of the 20th century, the Rock Island had 8,000 miles of track across the United States, with 700 in Arkansas.

The first Rock Island train ran from Chicago to Joliet, Ill., on Oct. 10, 1852. By 1883, the company boasted revenue of $13 million. That grew to $61 million in 1909, to $176.7 million in 1941, then finally to its peak of $214 million, with profits of $25.9 million, in 1953.

Just a few decades later, the whole empire would collapse under a bankruptcy that in 1980 resulted in the biggest liquidation the country had ever seen.

Now there's little left of the Rock's 8,000-mile empire save for a few stretches of tracks, old depots, derelict bridges and memories.

But let's return to the beginning. The seed for Rock Island's Arkansas network goes all the way back to 1853, when the Arkansas General Assembly authorized the construction of the Memphis & Arkansas Railroad Co. The 41-mile stretch wasn't completed until after the close of the Civil War. In 1898, the Choctaw Oklahoma & Gulf Railroad Co. bought that stretch of track. In 1903, it changed hands again to the Rock Island line but kept the "Choctaw Route" name.

Soon the Rock Island had a network extending from Hartford (Sebastian County) in the west all the way east to Memphis and from Little Rock south through El Dorado and into Louisiana, as well as several short lines stretching to towns like Hot Springs, Camden, Crossett, Searcy and Stuttgart.

The line was a vital part of Arkansas' transportation network.

"The Rock Island itself provided a lifeline for people that came through here from Memphis all the way west," said Craig Christiansen, a railroad historian who runs a hobby shop and train museum in Bald Knob. "It provided a mid-continent route that was an alternative to other carriers who either had to go to the southern tier or went through Pine Bluff on the Cotton Belt to Texarkana."

The Rock Island was a lifeline for towns like Booneville, Ola and Stuttgart that had no other railroads nearby.

Rock Island's main business was freight, but it maintained passenger trains along all its major routes. The Choctaw Rocket, for example, raced from Memphis through Little Rock. Arkansas Gazette writer Bill Glasgow rode the inaugural Choctaw Rocket, a gleaming streamliner, out of Memphis in 1940.

"It was not until the Harahan Bridge had been crossed that the throttle was opened and the Rocket sped forward, its speedometer hovering around the 70-mile-per-hour mark most of the way to Forrest City," he wrote. "Despite the high speed it was scarcely evident to the passengers in the colorful chromium-trimmed cars."

 

 

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