Rock Island Trail: Why has the Rock Island Line been unused for over 30 years?

Most of the Rock Island Railroad through Missouri hasn't seen railroad traffic since 1979. This summer there is the opportunity to turn the unused line into a rail trail that could be over 200 miles in length, rivaling the Katy Trail and connecting with the Katy in two places.

The end of active railroad service meant economic hardship for the towns along the Rock Island corridor--many of which had been created because of the railroad.

Now we have the chance to turn the Rock Island corridor into one of the premier rail trails in America.  The new trail will bring tourism dollars and economic development to the Rock Island communities, just as we have seen the Katy Trail do for its communities.

Sign the petition in support of the Rock Island Trail here.

How did the Rock Island line come to be unused for over thirty years? What did the railroad mean to the communities it served?

The Miller County Museum re-published a 1982 Missouri Life article that has a wealth of information about the railroad and the causes of its demise in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Missouri Life Magazine has been kind enough to give us permission to reprint the article - and reminds everyone that Missouri Life is sponsoring Big BAM - a ride across Missouri in 2015.

Ties That Blind: The Fate of the Rock Island Line

Mary Ann Gwinn

Published in MISSOURI LIFE/January-February 1982 

Missouri LIfe Cover: The Fate of the Rock Island Line, Jan/Feb 1982
Missouri LIfe Cover: The Fate of the Rock Island Line, Jan/Feb 1982

Casey Carrender rode the Rock Island line in the days before the Route of the Rockets became the Ribbon of Rust. He’s retired now and lives with his wife Lucille, who once starched and ironed the overalls he wore as a brakeman on “The Rock’s” line between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Their modest brick home sits at the west end of Maple Street in Eldon. The east end of Maple dead ends into the “new” aquamarine Rock Island cinder block terminal, built after the railroad tore down its wooden two story mustard colored predecessor.

“Rock Island didn’t want to have to pay for a crossing,” Casey says, so where the terminal sits, so ends Maple Street.

Such are the woes of Eldon, once the Rock Island’s division point when it ran Pullman cars, World War II troop trains and locals along the route from St. Louis to Kansas City.

Eldon was some town in those days. . . .

Eldon itself began when the Rock Island came through in 1903; the railroad giant bought up a small line called the St. Louis, Kansas City and Colorado Railroad to transport Missourians back and forth to the World’s Fair in St. Louis.

People moved whole houses up to Eldon from nearby Aurora Springs to be in the railroad town with its bustle and steady work. Casey’s father, a fireman and machinist helper, took his horse and buggy up from Aurora to stoke the steam engines. On cold mornings, Casey watched the steam and the sweat roll off his father’s shoulders when he shoveled coal into the “clinkers,” or coal burners.

“Until they started cutting back in 1932, there were five or six hundred men working on the line,” the former brakeman says. “That was the bread and butter for this town, and that’s been my bread and butter, all my life.”

If the Rock Island was Casey’s bread and butter, he was its eyes and ears.

West of Eldon, the line ran along Highway 52, through Versailles, Cole Camp, Chilhowee, into Raytown before it ended in the Kansas City switchyards.

Along the high flat land, nestled in a dark tunnel of trees, the elevated roadbed exposed for Casey farmhouses, grain silos, bales of hay and goat farms.

East of Eldon, the line ran over gravel bed streams lined with white sycamores and through groves of dark cedar. From the hazy hills that sheltered the old German communities…Argyle, Koelztown, Freeburg…the train roared into the Freeburg-Koelztown tunnel. . . .

Map of the Rock Island route
Map of the Rock Island route

 Ross and Ingle share a hope that the Rock Island can reopen, making the central Missouri communities along its route come alive again. Although Ingle works for the Southern Pacific now along the remaining open portion of the railroad, he dreams that the company will someday make good on a three year old promise.

That promise has gotten lost in the halls of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which opposes reopening the route. Southern Pacific itself prefers to forget its words to the coalition that it would resurrect the 300 mile route, as the cost of rehabilitating any railway spirals.

The odds are long.

“Don’t call us a dying breed, call us a dead breed,” says David Crane, a brakeman who works with Ingle on the only open section of the route…from Owensville to Olivette.

That pessimism masks a hope…that as long as there’s rail, there’s a railroad. Until they take up the track, they refuse to let the Rock Island die.

“In 1979, the Rock Island was so desperate they couldn’t even pay their fuel bills,” says Ingle. It was a bitter end for the railroad that has grown up with the Midwest.

“The Rock Island was one of the premier railroads in the country,” says Ross, “a Granger railroad” whose steam engines chugged and puffed through the rich agricultural land of Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and into the far West, out of its terminal in Rock Island, Illinois.

The agricultural heritage of “The Rock” was its undoing. The railroad concentrated on rural shipping and failed to establish toeholds in urban areas. It “always had to depend on other railroads to return cars to it,” Ross says. “There was not a large concentration of industries on its lines anywhere.”  . . .

George Ross worked for MFA then and represented the company as an interested party to the merger proposal. The company’s shippers depended on the Rock’s hopper cars to take grain to market and fertilizer back to the farmers.

“The hearings were held in Chicago,” Ross recalls. “I thought the evidence was strongly in favor of the merger.”

Other railroads, however, “didn’t want a strong company…they opposed it,” Ross says. “The judge suffered a broken leg. The hearings dragged on for years. The ICC was very much at fault.” . . .

The route had earned its sardonic moniker: Ribbon of Rust. Track conditions had deteriorated so badly that what trains did roll did so at a maddeningly slow pace.

“You could only work 12 hours, and then they’d relieve you.” says Casey, who retired in 1978, the year before the Rock Island closed. A 10 mile an hour limit required by unsafe conditions on the deteriorating track forced Casey to put up for the night in a St. Louis hotel before he could return to Eldon.

“It used to be,” Casey says, “We could do Kansas City and back in a single day.”

In 1979 the Rock Island folded for good; its assets were placed under the care of a trustee.

Southern Pacific, under its subsidiary, Cotton Belt, proposed to buy the entire Rock Island line from Santa Rosa, New Mexico, to St. Louis. Their only other westward route, which looped down through Little Rock, Arkansas, into Texas and beyond to the West Coast, was longer by 400 miles that the St. Louis –Santa Rosa route.

“There was no public support’ for the Union Pacific- Rock Island merger”, and Ingle reasoned that was why it failed. He determined to get the public behind the Southern Pacific.

Southern Pacific was happy to accept the help.

“We wrote thousands of letters to shippers and the shippers in return wrote the ICC, Ingle says. “The town of Eldon bought stamps, envelopes, sent letters to different shippers along the line. They unanimously supported the Southern Pacific.”

Ross and Ingle both testified at the ICC hearings in Kansas City at what they way was Southern Pacific’s urging. “They came on very aggressively,” says Ross. “Several Southern Pacific officers visited us in Columbia…they said, ‘your time will be rewarded with good service once we acquire the line.”

Perhaps Ingle had a portent of what was to come when he met with the ICC bureaucrats.

“If you’ve ever been around some of these people and you realize your life is in their hands…”

“An ICC lawyer said we got more mail on this than any other merger in history, boxcars of ‘em.”

“ ‘Do you read them?’ I asked.”

“He said, ‘If it has a reasoned argument, we do.’ I said that if there weren’t emotion involved, we would never even have had a constitution.”

The merger was approved. Southern Pacific did rehabilitate the track…from Santa Rosa to Kansas City.

At the Department of Transportation’s urging, however, Southern Pacific declined to rehabilitate the Kansas City-St. Louis portion of the line. The department reasoned enough railroad lines existed between St. Louis and Kansas City and directed Southern Pacific to apply for “trackage rights” on either the Missouri Pacific or Burlington Northern routes.

Those tracks run at least 30 miles north of the Rock Island route. If trackage rights are granted, shippers who supported the acquisition will be left without rail service. As they do now, they will pay extra for truck transportation to the line.

Ross says advocates of the Missouri Rock Island line never had an inkling of the department’s objections until the final merger approval was handed down. Southern Pacific was only too happy to comply; however, times were rough in the rail industry.

Inflation for rail materials was running at 20 percent a year. Further, the ICC’s approval of Southern Pacific’s acquisition stated that “the Rock Island St. Louis-Kansas City segment is no longer essential for local shippers…”

Against all the evidence and testimony, the approval document stated “there is no evidence that local shippers require service on this line.”

The company estimated that rehabilitating the low density, agricultural line would cost at least $110 million and applied for trackage rights.

If the ICC grants Southern Pacific the right to run its trains on either track, the company will have no reason to reopen the Rock Island line.

For Eldon, Versailles and all the other communities that line the Route of the Rockets, any hope for rail service will dissolve like a cloud of steam on a cold winter morning.

The small businesses and farmers who once shipped on the Rock Island say they are slowly being strangled by the Southern Pacific’s refusal to reopen the line.

Although the company has “railbanked” the line…agreed to keep the track intact for 10 years…that waiting period may be too long for the rails and ties that already have fallen into disrepair.

For the shippers, it may drive a final wedge of distrust between them and the railroad. . . .

An October 14 letter form Ben Biagini, the president of Southern Pacific, to Eighth District Congressman Wendell Bailey said Southern Pacific “contacted 37 industrial representatives in 20 different communities to ascertain their interest in rail service. The response was minimal.”

Jim Johnson of Southern Pacific’s Kansas City office points out that no one has come forth to offer to purchase the line…that, he says is sufficient evidence of lack of interest on the shippers’ part. . . .

 * * *

The sleek red and gray diesel backs up to the Allied Chemical Plant near Owensville, a plant that refines a pink gray clay used for water purification. The steam from the pastel plant wafts into the pearl gray sky.

Even if it’s Sunday, and even if the train will take 12 hours to get from Owensville to St. Louis, it’s a fine morning to be alive and on the line.

West of Owensville, however, the dull gray of the rails turns dull red, all the way through Eldon and beyond.

Casey Carrender has that certain style, too, with a red Rock Island belt buckle and a motoring cap perched jauntily on his head.

He walks the razed railroad yard at Eldon, where the turntable once pointed trains east and west. At the wash house, now leveled, he and his crew once washed up, punched in and out and went home to Lucille’s fine cooking and starched and ironed overalls.

The Eldon track is a graveyard. Rock Island hopper and freight cars stand gouged, twisted and bleeding with rust from the joints.

“This was the oil track, where we fueled up,” he says. “Now the ties are gone, the ballast (or road foundation)….gone.”

The only sound now on the wind where the trains once roared through is the chirp of a wayward sparrow. The yard is a palette of autumn tones: red rust, tall grass of burnt sienna.

Above is an excerpt of the article.  Read the full article, with many more interesting details about Rock Island workers and communities, on the Miller County Museum and Historical Society web site.

Find out more about the effort to convert a 145-mile stretch of the Rock Island corridor into a rail trail here; the trail would become part of 200+ mile Rock Island Trail that will interconnect with the Katy Trail in two places, creating a cross-state trail loop system of over 450 miles.

Sign the petition in support of the Rock Island Trail here.

One of the top goals in MoBikeFed's Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri is creating a world-class bicycle and pedestrian system in the state.  Supporting major initiatives like the Rock Island Trail is an important part of what we do, and your membership and generous support help make our vision a reality.