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

A Mighty Good Road: The Decline and Fall of the Rock Island Railroad
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) (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."


But decline was on its way. After World War II, the nation started slowly favoring personal motor vehicles over railroad, and Rock Island felt the heat. The company had already been bankrupt twice since 1915.

By the 1960s, passenger rail was declining, and one of the ways railroads kept afloat was by delivering mail along the rights-of-way. In 1965, the United States Post Office introduced its ZIP code system, championed by bus and truck associations. Mail moved to automobile networks. 1965 was also the last year the Rock Island made a profit.

Plagued by mismanagement, bad investments and competition with other railroads, the Rock Island started to roll downhill.

Bill Pollard, a dentist in Conway, is a rail historian who documented the life and decline of the Rock Island.

"I was on the outside looking in," he said. "I knew quite a number of employees. I think, until the end, it was a sense that the Rock Island was almost a family."

As the line slipped further and further down, its tracks overgrown and its cars constantly derailing, the workers banded together.

"Many of those employees had a sense that ... they were keeping things together with bailing wire and chewing gum because of such extreme budgeting constraints," Pollard said. "There was a sense of pride that they were able to keep the trains running as well as they did."

The Rock stubbornly continued its passenger services even through 1971, when Amtrak took over most of the nation's passenger lines. By then, however, the grand Choctaw Route station in Little Rock was closed and boarded up, and many of the line's other passenger depots stood derelict.

When it filed its third bankruptcy in 1975, the company owed $100 million and had an on-hand cash balance of $200. At the time, Rock Island still had about 1,000 employees in Arkansas.

"It was one of the few bankruptcies that paid more than a dollar for a dollar," said Steven Esposito of Mendota, Ill., publisher of Remember the Rock, a monthly magazine highlighting the line's history. "The principal debtors made a bunch of money. Some of it they're still selling today. They made a fortune."

Still, there was some hope of a future for the Rock Island. In the last five years of its life, Rock Island moved from its traditional red color schemes to a bright blue-and-white that became known as "bankruptcy blue," and the company rebranded itself to "The Rock." Even as its empire crumbled around it, the Rock's trains chugged on.

"No one really believed a railroad as big as the Rock Island would be allowed to go under by the government," Pollard said.

Ask any rail enthusiast about the Rock Island's collapse and they will say the same thing: "It shouldn't have happened." But it did.

The kiss of death came in 1979 when the Brotherhood of Railway & Airline Clerks went on strike and kept on striking even after a presidential order to return to work.

In January 1980, Bankruptcy Judge Frank McGarr of Chicago ordered the railroad liquidated.

"The finality of it ... didn't hit home until mid-'79, just at the end," Pollard said.


It was a shockingly quick end to a 128-year-long story. The company's skeleton crew of remaining employees - down to 600 in Arkansas - marched the line's engines and cars to their deaths in the scrap yards. Then the fight began for the Rock Island's tracks - but there was a curious lack of interest.

"It seemed this was a critical piece of transportation infrastructure that the state of Arkansas needed to pick up," Pollard said. "I and many people from that time - the unions, the rail employees, practically everyone - thought the east-west line of the Rock Island needed to be saved. It was the nation's shortest transcontinental rail route. It paralleled I-40. It seemed to be a no-brainer."

And yet, Pollard said, except for a few bits and pieces, the whole line was scrapped. Nobody stepped in to save it. The primary competitors of the time, Missouri-Pacific and Cotton Belt, actually opposed legislation to allow use of the lines. Union Pacific, the successor to the Mo-Pac name, now runs trains on some of the old east-west lines between Memphis and Brinkley, and the Little Rock & Western operates a short line between Little Rock and Perry. But the rest is gone, and it shows.

"If you look at the industrial development in places like Booneville, which was a division point on the Rock Island, the industrial development is stunted because there's no rail service available," Pollard said.

Randy Tardy, a business writer for the Arkansas Democrat, wrote about the rail's demise in 1983. He interviewed industry leaders along the route like Lee Rogers, a purchasing manager for the former Ace Comb Co. facility in Booneville.

"It is not likely that this area will ever develop without rail, as far as manufacturing companies with any inbound or outbound shipments are concerned," Rogers told the Democrat.

When the traffic converted to trucks, "we really didn't suffer as much as we thought we might. But the development of this community depends on rail, whether or not Ace Comb ever utilizes rail service."

A similar thing happened earlier in the state's history when, in 1946, the Missouri & North Arkansas line folded. Small towns like Pangburn, Kensett and Leslie that owed their existence to the M&NA fell into obscurity.

"The same process has happened and is happening along the Rock Island east-west," Pollard said. "Perhaps not as much because of I-40, but it is the same process."

The Rock Island is not entirely forgotten. Every day, visitors from all over the world cross the Bill Clinton Memorial Bridge in Little Rock and pass by the restored Choctaw Rocket station, now the Clinton School of Public Service: both memorials to the Rock Island's history.