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The Rock Island Line

The Rock Island Line

5.0 1
by Bill Marvel

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This richly illustrated volume tells the story of a legendary railroad whose tracks spanned the Midwest, serving farms and small-town America for more than 140 years. One of the earliest railroads to build westward from Chicago, it was the first to span the Mississippi, advancing the frontier, bringing settlers into the West, and hauling their crops to market. Rock


This richly illustrated volume tells the story of a legendary railroad whose tracks spanned the Midwest, serving farms and small-town America for more than 140 years. One of the earliest railroads to build westward from Chicago, it was the first to span the Mississippi, advancing the frontier, bringing settlers into the West, and hauling their crops to market. Rock Island’s celebrated Rocket passenger trains also set a standard for speed and service, with suburban runs as familiar to Windy City commuters as the Loop. For most of its existence, the Rock battled competitors much larger and richer than itself and when it finally succumbed, the result was one of the largest business bankruptcies ever. Today, as its engines and stock travel the busy main lines operated by other carriers, the Rock Island Line lives on in the hearts of those whom it employed and served.

Editorial Reviews

John Spychalski

"This is a superior book and will appeal to a wide range of readers including business history, transportation historians, Rock Island fans, rail enthusiasts, and general readers." —John Spychalski, Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University

William J. Watt

"A concise, factual, and highly readable account of a major Midwestern freight and passenger railroad." —William J. Watt, author of The Pennsylvania Railroad in Indiana

From the Publisher
"The image selection is impressive and makes this title worthy of purchase.... The Rock Island Line is a great combination of a typical history book and color guide in one release." —Model Railroad News

"Marvel's fine balance between photos and a concise telling of the Rock Island's long history will strongly appeal to both rail fans and general readers interested in railroad history." —Library Journal

"The book possess a high quality of production, and it contains some wonderful photographs, dating mostly from the more recent past." —Railroad History

"This is a superior book and will appeal to a wide range of readers including business history, transportation historians, Rock Island fans, rail enthusiasts, and general readers." —John Spychalski, Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University

Model Railroad News

"The image selection is impressive and makes this title worthy of purchase.... The Rock Island Line is a great combination of a typical history book and color guide in one release." —Model Railroad News

Lexington Quarterly

"Bill Marvel's The Rock Island Line is a breezy and captivating short history of the Rock Island Railroad from its inception in the 1850s until its liquidation in 1980. Heavily illustrated with photographs from a diverse cross section of the Rock Island itself, the book makes for a pleasing introduction to history of a railroad which was always one railroad too many, serving an area other railroads served, usually by a more direct route." —Lexington Quarterly

Library Journal
Newspaper and railroad writer Marvel's illustrated history of the Rock Island Line spans the railroad's existence from its planning in 1845 through its growth phase, financial upheavals, reorganizations, and finally to its 1980 liquidation. He concentrates on the railroad's business developments as it adjusted routes, equipment, and services to compete. As Marvel says, "The Rock Island was usually not the shortest, nor the fastest, nor the most prosperous railroad between the cities it served. So it had to try harder." He includes several interesting sidebars such as the railroad's hiring of Abraham Lincoln as the attorney to defend it after a steamboat hit its bridge over the Mississippi River. There are 150 outstanding color and black-and-white photographs with many occupying full spreads. Although the photos don't always relate to the surrounding text, the lengthy captions provide a wealth of supplementary information. VERDICT Marvel's fine balance between photos and a concise telling of the Rock Island's long history will strongly appeal to both rail fans and general readers interested in railroad history. Gregory Schneider's in-depth business history, reviewed below, will be preferred by specialists and those seeking details on the Rock Island's last years.—Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA

Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Railroads Past and Present Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.40(w) x 10.70(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Rock Island Line

By Bill Marvel

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Bill Marvel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01131-2


The Bridge

The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad began, fittingly, with a journey across the Mississippi River. The small group of prosperous businessmen was crossing by boat, not bridge. That would come soon enough. For the moment they were focused on a swifter, more modern kind of transportation: a railroad. The year was 1845, and on this sultry June afternoon, they were headed from the Iowa to the Illinois side for a meeting with the wealthiest and most powerful man in the region, Colonel George Davenport.

Davenport had been railroad-minded ever since 1839, when he and a 300-pound half-Potawatomi Indian named Antoine LeClair laid out the town that would bear Davenport's name. Canals were fine, and Davenport had promoted his share. However, they froze in winter and were subject to drought and flood in summer. A railroad, on the other hand, could reach out from canals and rivers, link them, and even cross them. A network of railroads was already racing across the land from Baltimore. Soon it would reach Chicago. If riverfront towns like Rock Island and Davenport were to thrive, they too would have to reach out, not just downriver to St. Louis, but east to Chicago and eventually to the West, where the nation was headed. Iowa's population was already 96,088; in a year and a half, it would be a state.

The little group from across the river must have had something like this in mind as members stepped ashore and made their way to Colonel Davenport's mansion. Separated from mainland Illinois by a narrow stretch of river called "The Slough," Rock Island had been the site of an army fort until 1836, and much of it was still federal property. But with a population of 4,000, the town was growing.

Packed into Davenport's parlor that evening were LeClair—a crowd by himself—who operated a ferryboat on the river; attorney James Grant; lawyer and banker Ebenezer Cook; and miller and real estate promoter A. C. Fulton. All were from the Iowa side. W. A. Whittaker and Lemuel Andrews were Rock Island businessmen. Charles Atkinson, who had platted the town of Moline, and N. D. Elwood, who had ridden the stagecoach all the way from Joliet, rowed across The Slough from the Illinois mainland to attend. With them was Richard P. Morgan, a civil engineer with some experience in railroads. The men talked late into the night and, when they emerged, they had agreed to send Lemuel Andrews to the state legislature at Springfield to obtain a charter for a railroad company. The line was to reach 75 miles from Rock Island to the banks of the Illinois River at La Salle. From there, boats of the Illinois and Michigan Canal would connect with Chicago.

Eight years before, the Illinois legislature appropriated the then-enormous sum of $10 million for a package of internal improvements that included canals, bridges, and a railroad network. However, a financial panic that year killed that ambitious scheme. Now, a more cautious legislature waited almost two years before issuing a charter to the Rock Island & La Salle Rail Road Company. Capital stock was set at $300,000, and a board of commissioners was chosen to oversee sales.

Almost four years passed before the needed capital was raised from local farmers and businessmen along the proposed route. With the money finally at hand, in November 1850, the commissioners met in Rock Island and elected directors of the new railroad. Two weeks later the directors elected James Grant president. Colonel Davenport did not live to see his dream realized; within weeks of the June 1845 meeting, he was murdered in his home by robbers.

Grant's first task was to find someone to build the road. With several directors in tow, he traveled to Chicago where he sought out Henry Farnam, who was just building the Michigan Southern Railroad westward toward Chicago. One of the most brilliant civil engineers the young Republic had produced, Farnam had experience laying out and building canals and railroads in the East, and he understood that the future lay with rails. The new venture appealed to him. Almost immediately he set out on horseback to scout the proposed route. When he returned, he told directors he would build their railroad, provided the line extended from the Mississippi River not just to the banks of the canal at La Salle, but all the way into Chicago, where it would meet the rails of the Michigan Southern. The result, he pointed out, would be a continuous line of railroad from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean.

The directors agreed and dispatched Grant to ask the legislature in Springfield to amend the original charter to reflect the new destination. Legislators were reluctant. The Illinois and Michigan Canal Company had been built by the state; a railroad to Chicago would siphon off business. Finally, a compromise was reached: The railroad would pay a toll to canal operators on the traffic it carried between La Salle and Chicago. Farnam urged a reluctant Grant to accept the compromise. (As it turned out, the canal operators failed to approve the agreement by the deadline, and no tolls were ever paid.) On April 4, 1851, the directors approved the new charter, reincorporating the Rock Island & La Salle as the Chicago & Rock Island Rail Road. They asked the Iowa legislature to grant a charter for construction of a depot at Davenport—not coincidentally on land owned by Antoine LeClair. Clearly, their eyes were not only on Illinois.

With Henry Farnam had come a bonus: his astute and resourceful business partner, Joseph Sheffield. If the Rock Island was to build all the way to Chicago, 181 miles, it would need money, and plenty of it, and Sheffield had connections to eastern bankers. In August 1851, members of the railroad's executive committee met with Farnam and Sheffield in New York to negotiate a contract. The finished document reveals Sheffield's sharp pencil. The railroad company would buy the right-of-way and fence it. Farnam and Sheffield would build and equip the entire line for $3,987,688. This lump sum would cover grading and track-laying, all rails and ties, bridges, stations, freight houses, engine houses, and 500 feet of docks on the Chicago riverfront. The work was to be completed by January 1, 1856.

The contract was signed in September. A shipment of iron rails arrived from England in December, and in April 1852, construction began in earnest, with Farnam personally overseeing the work.

The contract with Farnam and Sheffield meant that control of the railroad would rest not in the hands of the Illinois businessmen who had first promoted it, but in the portfolios of eastern bankers, the money men. In February, Michigan Southern track gangs spiked down the final 6 miles into Chicago. Those miles, by agreement, were to be jointly owned with Rock Island. By then, James Grant had resigned the presidency to devote his time to the Iowa legislature, where he was speaker of the house. In his place, directors elected John B. Jervis, a gifted civil engineer and Farnam associate who, like Farnam, had forged his reputation building canals and railroads in the East. A. C. Flagg of New York became treasurer.

With Farnam in command in the field and Sheffield watching the money, things began to move.

By October 10, rails reached Joliet, 40 miles out. A celebratory excursion was called for. On a blustery Sunday morning, a bright and beaming Rogers 4-4-0 named Rocket (not for Rock Island, but for the pioneering George Stephenson locomotive that had hit 29 miles per hour in the famous 1929 Rainhill trials in England) pulled six yellow coaches from the new 22nd Street depot to Joliet, a two-hour journey on still-raw trackage. Because there was nowhere to turn the engine, the train was backed to Chicago, arriving in time for an evening banquet at the Sherman House. Regular service to Joliet, two trains a day, began a week later.

Sixty miles beyond Joliet, La Salle was less welcoming. By March, track gangs began to spike down rail along the foot of the Illinois River bluffs. In anticipation of the railroad's arrival, local entrepreneurs had been buying up property, but that property was on top of the bluffs. City council demanded that the railroad redirect its line and, and when the railroad refused, the council threatened to forcibly move the tracks. Male citizens were enjoined, under threat of a $10 fine, to lend their muscle to the removal effort. The dispute was settled only after the state legislature affirmed the railroad's right to build along the river bottoms.

That May, Sheffield and Farnam signed a contract with a group of local investors to build a railroad from Peoria to a connection with the Rock Island. They were joined in the project, called the Peoria & Bureau Valley, by an erstwhile physician turned speculator, Thomas Clark Durant. Only 33, Durant had bought and sold a lot of Rock Island stock.

With no further problems, rails reached Bureau by September and Sheffield in mid-October 1853. By Christmas, when severe weather halted construction, the railhead was only 23 miles out of Rock Island. Business was very good, and the contractors were calling for additional locomotives and cars.

Rock Makes Tracks

With Rock Island rails advancing across Illinois, in February 1853, the Iowa legislature, meeting in Iowa City, granted three of the road's original founders—Antoine LeClaire, Ebenezer Cook, and A. C. Fulton—a charter to build another railroad. This new enterprise would reach from the banks of the Mississippi at Davenport across the state to Council Bluffs, and it would be called, logically enough, the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad. Capitalization was set at $6 million.

From the start, the M&M was created to continue the westward march of the Chicago & Rock Island. Besides LeClair, Cook, and Fulton, organizers included Rock Island's president, John B. Jervis; Farnam, who was the road's chief engineer and contractor; and Durant. Rock Island's treasurer, A. C. Flagg, became M&M's treasurer.

William Walcott, a Farnam associate, was placed in charge of acquiring right-of-way and looking into possible branch lines. His committee soon recommended that M&M build a branch south from Davenport to Muscatine and northeastward to Cedar Rapids and the Minnesota border. In June 1853, the charter was duly amended. On September 1, Antoine LeClair turned the first spadeful of earth in Davenport, and three days later a survey party led by Grenville Dodge began working westward. The surveyors arrived in Council Bluffs on November 22. Actual construction would not begin for a year and a half.

Across the river, however, track crews were busy. On February 22, 1854, citizens of Rock Island had something besides George Washington's birthday to celebrate. The first train from Chicago rolled up to the "passenger house" at 5 p.m., announced by church bells, cannon fire, and huzzahs. At a party that evening, N. B. Buford, a longtime Rock Island resident and member of the railroad's board, raised his glass to toast the "espousal ... of the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean." Less than 25 years had passed, he noted, since the first locomotive had run on American rails and less than two since rails had reached Chicago. Then citizens bundled against the cold to watch fireworks displays on both sides of the river. A larger celebration of the new railroad would wait for warmer weather.

On the morning of June 5, two special trains packed with Rock Island stockholders, investors, journalists, politicians, and distinguished guests (among them former President Millard Fillmore) rolled out of Chicago for the formal opening of the 181-mile line. In the evening there was the usual grand banquet with speeches and toasts, and the next day guests boarded five chartered steamboats for two days of excursions along the river. Among their destinations was St. Paul, Minnesota, where citizens were already talking about a railroad of their own.

In August, a full year and a half before the promised date, Farnam and Sheffield officially turned over the Chicago & Rock Island to its directors. Some track still awaited ballast, and a couple stations had not been finished; however, it was already a working, profitable business. In fact, more engines and cars were needed to handle traffic. Directors voted the necessary funds and elected Henry Farnam president. Farnam's financial associate, Joseph Sheffield, 61, wanted to devote his remaining years to philanthropy. One of his last official acts was to arrange for a first-day excursion train on the Peoria & Bureau Valley, now leased to the Rock Island. In November, he retired. To take his place, Farnam chose the energetic and ambitious Thomas Durant.

Beyond the end of track rolled the waters of the Mississippi, and plans were already in place to cross them. A group of the road's directors had obtained a charter from the legislature for the Railroad Bridge Company. Farnam was president and chief engineer, and its bonds were guaranteed by the Chicago & Rock Island and the Mississippi & Missouri railroads. The new company would construct the Illinois side of the bridge to mid-channel; M&M would build the Iowa side, with the ever-helpful Antoine LeClair donating the needed land. Construction would occur in three segments: a short span across The Slough, right-of-way across Rock Island, and the main section. The wooden Howe truss superstructure would march across the river to Davenport on six granite piers, the largest anchoring a pivoting center span on the Illinois side.

In September 1854, the cornerstone was set in place in Davenport.

Almost immediately there was an outcry from steamboat interests along the river who protested that the bridge would interfere with navigation. U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis also opposed the bridge, for his own reasons. Its completion, he realized, would give impetus to a proposed northern transcontinental railroad route, isolating the South. Davis pressed the U.S. attorney for southern Illinois to file for an injunction, and in July 1855, the case of United States v. Bridge Company et al. came before U.S. Circuit Court. There John McLean, assistant justice of the Supreme Court, decided in the bridge's favor. Within nine months, the work was finished. On April 21, 1856, as Henry Farnam watched from the shore, Rock Island locomotive Fort Des Moines rolled across the 1,528-foot-long structure and into the Davenport depot. Two days later, to the sound of clanging church bells, regular service began between Rock Island and Davenport. Seven other railroads had reached the Mississippi, but only Rock Island had crossed it.

The steamboat interests did not surrender. On May 6, two weeks after the bridge opened to traffic, the steamboat Effie Afton, bound for St. Paul out of St. Louis with passengers, lumber, and livestock, passed upstream through the draw. The current was strong, and she had made only about 200 feet when a paddlewheel failed. Adrift, the boat fishtailed to starboard, slipped back, slammed into a pier, and caught fire. Flames destroyed the boat and one of the bridge's spans. Owners of the Effie Afton promptly filed suit for damages, but loss of the steamboat wasn't the issue. Damage to the steamboat interests was, and the suit's ultimate objective was the removal of the bridge and the competition it represented.

The dispute labored through the courts for six years—in the early stages the Rock Island was represented by a promising young attorney, Abraham Lincoln—until 1862, when the U.S. Supreme Court found for the railroad and the bridge. The decision effectively represented the end of the steamboat era. Henceforth rails, not water, would carry the nation's commerce. (Repaired in five months, the original wooden structure succumbed to age in 1866 and was replaced by a second wooden bridge. When that bridge was damaged by a tornado, a third bridge, this one constructed of iron, was built on a new alignment. Today, a fourth bridge spans the river.)

M&M: Beyond the River

Although traffic crossed the river—12,586 freight cars and 74,179 passengers by August 1857—it didn't move much beyond it.

The Mississippi & Missouri Railroad had made slow progress since June 1855, when the first spikes were hammered down on the line west toward Iowa City. The first locomotive, the Antoine LeClair, had arrived and pulled an excursion 12 miles to the end of track at Walcott. Then 13 miles beyond, at Wilton, track gangs veered south toward Muscatine. That town had been clamoring for a railroad, and it had Thomas Durant's ear. Iowa City and Council Bluffs would have to wait.

The first train slogged into Muscatine in mud and driving rain on November 20. To get railroad moving their way again, citizens of Iowa City raised a $50,000 cash bonus, to be paid M&M provided a train arrive before the end of the year. At Christmas, work gangs were still about 2 1/2 miles short, laboring to lay track across the frozen ground. Townspeople hurried out to help them. On the last day of December, temporary tracks were laid to the station, but the engine froze to the rails a scant 200 yards away. Workers and bystanders descended on the stalled locomotive and, with the minutes ticking away, managed to manhandle it the final yards. It was reported that the engineer collapsed beside his engine, either from exhaustion or hypothermia. The temperature was 18 degrees below 0.

With the nation sliding into a recession, there would be no further construction for several years. Over the next year and a half, more than 5,000 businesses would fail. Prospects were bleak for completion of the line, Farnam wrote to a New York associate. He was out of money and hoped only to salvage enough for "my dear wife and family."

The Land Grant Act, passed by Congress in May 1856, helped some. It assigned to states certain public lands that could then be passed on to railroads for sale or settlement. But with the M&M dead in its tracks at Iowa City, that state's citizens were not feeling very generous. Those to the west still waiting for rail service demanded that the state withdraw M&M's charter. In 1858 construction crews managed to push the Muscatine Branch 27 miles to Washington. But it would be 1862 before the main line from Iowa City would creep into Grinnell, 66 miles west. There was a war on.


Excerpted from The Rock Island Line by Bill Marvel. Copyright © 2013 Bill Marvel. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bill Marvel has been a newspaper journalist and freelance writer for 49 years. He is author (with R. V. Burgin) of Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific, a main selection of the History Book Club.

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