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Rock Island Lines

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

How could you and I have let America's railroads die?

We Rock Islanders have more reason to ask that than most. The Rock Island road was not only a mighty fine road, it was named after us and we owed it all those things godparents owe. The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad became the first train to reach the Mississippi River in 1854; two years later it crossed the Mississippi, and headed west as the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, and later, as the Rock Island Lines.

By the 1920s, some 74 trains a day were arriving and departing from stations within sight of Rock Island, moving out along the river or climbing through valleys between the bluffs, an octopus, the writer Frank Norris called it, deciding which towns flourished and which died.

That is why none of us could believe the news in 1975 when the Rock Island Lines declared bankruptcy. What measly matter of a few dollars could take down these mighty machines on their iron rails? The Rock had just traded in its old red engines for a modern logo and a new blue, white, and black color scheme.

We knew, of course, that the Rock had only one passenger train left, a slower and slower round trip from Rock Island to Chicago as the rail bed gave way, but that trip was still a popular stress reliever: breakfast on the train at 6:40, shopping or theater in Chicago, and dinner on the return trip that evening at 5:30, civilization even students could afford.

In 1979, the trips to Chicago stopped. Storms that year killed harvests and dried up shipping revenues.  We still did not believe. This was our Rock.

Then, early in 1980 a federal judge ordered the line liquidated, the first liquidation of a Class 1 railroad in U.S. history. Seven thousand workers were out of jobs and the great Silvis Shops, once the largest and most modern railroad repair works in the country, lay silent.

I am reminded of that famous tombstone epigraph: "I told you I was sick."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.