ABC7 remembers the Rock Island Lines

Corn Gospel Trains, shown in this undated file photo, were the brainchild of the first Director of Iowa Extension, Perry G. Holden, who secured a train from the Rock Island Railroad in 1904 to travel to 97 Iowa counties singing the praises of hybrid corn. (Iowa State University Library/Special Collections Department)

April 1, 2010 9:47:02 AM PDT
As the nation's premier rail hub, Chicago has long been home to some of the country's best known railroads. One of them faded into history 30 years ago.

With the help of those who remember it fondly, ABC7's Paul Meincke takes us for a ride on the Rock Island Lines.

It was immortalized in song. The first railroad to cross the Mississippi. The first railroad robbed by Jesse James. The first to provide daily passenger service between Chicago and Los Angeles.

When steam gave way to diesel, the Rock Island called its passenger trains the Rockets. Many an engineer would push the throttle beyond 100-miles an hour across the Midwest flatland, and the rail was so good, the passenger getting the straight razor shave had no worries. It was grand.

"It was two o'clock in the morning in Blue Island. They put me on the Red Ball Express. I was 19. It was like - what am I doing here?" said George LaMore, Metra- Rock Island engineer.

That was 38 years ago for George LaMore who remains an engineer for Metra today running the Rock Island District. Five generations of George's family worked for the Rock Island - including his great, great grandfather -- who put in 55 years.

"The Rock Island has supported me all my life., raised my kids, educated my kids," said Donna Matteson, former RI Lines employee.

Before joining Metra, Matteson spent a long career with the Rock Island rising from steno clerk to supervisor. She has fond memories. As does Angella Allen, who remembers her boss.

"Before we started the day he wanted to know how was I? And how was my family? We discussed things for 15-minutes and then we got to work. He didn't have to do that. He took the time to be a person first," said Allen.

"It was very much a family. Everybody took you in and you were one of them," said Rich Soukup, chief Metra mechanical officer.

Thirty years after the lines' death, those recollections of family remain strong among. They remember a once very proud railroad and as for the other railroads, well, you could 'em or leave 'em, according to Matteson.

"But when you'd see the Rock Island going by with that red and yellow emblem - that was something," said Matteson.

The Rock Island Lines went belly-up for many reasons: competition, bad decisions and government indecision.

It was a tough day 30 years ago when the end came, but as LaMore says, "Even up to the end, everyday was a good time at work. There wasn't a bad day."