Riding the Peoria Rocket
Come along with me on a trip back to Saturday, June 25, 1977, aboard the woebegone Peoria Rocket of the destitute Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.
Like any story of a journey, this one has a context. In June 1977, I was in the first year of my first fulltime job after graduating from college. At last I had money of my own to spend on train trips. And man did I hit the rails that year.
I had received the previous Christmas an SLR camera from my parents. It was a Vivitar camera body that came with a 55 mm lens. Vivitar in those days was better known for selling lenses and I had been disappointed that I had not received something made by Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Minolta, Pentax or some other “better known” camera company. But one of the owners of the camera store where my parents bought my present had convinced my dad that the Vivitar camera body was just as good as those ‘name” brands, which he said were overpriced.
The images that accompany this post were made with that camera and print film. I scanned the images from the original prints. Hence, the less than stellar quality of many of the images. Of course, I was also a less than stellar photographer then.
I was living and working in my hometown in east central Illinois. I made plans to visit a friend in Peoria and ride the Peoria Rocket to Chicago.
This train, which operated daily to LaSalle Street Station, was funded in part by the State of Illinois, which also funded another Rock Island train that operated to Rock Island, Ill. (Quad City Rocket), and Amtrak trains operating to West Quincy, Mo., St. Louis, Dubuque, Iowa; and Champaign, Ill., a.k.a. the Illinois Zephyr, Statehouse, Black Hawk and Illini respectively.
In the previous year, I had served an internship in the Illinois General Assembly where one of my assignments had been to research transportation issues.
In that capacity I researched state funding of passenger trains and had the chance to speak with Anthony Haswell – who at the time was head of passenger services for the Rock Island – about the Peoria Rocket and Quad City Rocket.
Haswell might be better known as a founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and a long-time passenger train advocate.
There had been discussions about Amtrak taking over the Rock Island trains and re-routing the Peoria train via the Santa Fe for part of its route. But those ideas never came to fruition.
So I knew a fair amount about the Rockets, but I had never seen these trains, let alone ridden them.
The small Peoria passenger station was located north of downtown in a freight yard. I was one of just two passengers who boarded that morning.
The other passenger was a guy named Stu Eidson. He is one of those railroad enthusiasts who you meet just once, but you never forget.
The Peoria Rocket was a major part of his life; he rode it on most weekends.
I bought my ticket walked to the platform to take some photographs. The Rocket was two coaches (Photos 1 and 2), one of which was still lettered for the Golden State, the Rock Island’s one-time premier train between Chicago and California.
On the point was a battered looking E unit (Photos 3 and 4). I also snapped a photograph of a freight geep in the nearby yard (Photo 5).
I don’t remember what I expected, but I was taken aback by how decrepit and depressing everything seemed.
I was used to riding Amtrak’s Midwest corridor trains with their new Amfleet equipment whose interiors resembled that of a jetliner. I had also ridden the French Turboliners that operated between Chicago and St. Louis for a time. Compared to those, the Rocket left much to be desired.
The Rocket slowly made its way out of Peoria and north along the Illinois River. Photo 6 shows the “food service car” on the Rocket, a table set across a pair of coach seats with a limited menu. A uniformed crewman manned this setup, but he sold very little on this day and probably on most days.
Photo 7 shows the mostly empty coach seats. Note that the windows still had curtains.
The train rocked and rolled its way on track that desperately needed to be rebuilt. The ride was bumpy and the train would lurch and grind to a halt periodically. If my memory is correct, that was because a block signal read stop, but then would go to clear shortly after we stopped.
At the time of my trip on the Peoria Rocket, the Rock Island was seeking approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission to end it and the Quad City Rocket, saying they were losing $1,700 each per day.
The railroad said the Peoria train averaged less than 13 passengers a day. Given the conditions that I observed, I could see why.
Photo 8 shows the state of RI track on the Peoria line. It wasn’t much better on the mainline that we reached at Bureau Junction.
At Ottawa, we stopped for passengers – I think there might have been one or two – and to pick up train orders. They were mostly more slow orders.
I stepped off briefly to photograph the station and train order board. It could easily have been the 1950s or earlier. I wonder if this station still stands today. If so, is the Rock Island logo still there?
I spent time talking with Stu and the crew members about the state of the Rock Island.
The crew seemed indifferent to the plight of the Rocket. They knew that few people rode it and it likely was going to disappear some day. One of the crew members shrugged at that prospect, saying he would just go back into freight service if it happened.
Amtrak’s inbound Lone Star from Houston was in the station at Joliet when we crossed the diamonds with the Santa Fe and the ex-Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (then the Illinois Central Gulf).
Stu knew the crew well enough that he had spent some time in the cab during the trip.
After we reached LaSalle Street Station, I asked one of the crew members if I could take some pictures in the cab. He agreed to let me do it.
Photos 10 and 11 aren’t high quality, but they give an idea of what the interior of the E unit looked like on the engineer’s side.
Photo 12 shows the Peoria Rocket and the Quad City Rocket, which were scheduled to arrive in Chicago about five minutes apart.
I no longer remember what I did in Chicago during the layover. I do remember that I decided to ride Amtrak to Joliet and catch the Peoria Rocket there. I wanted to ride a *real* train.
My choice was the Lone Star, where I rode in an ex-Santa Fe Hi Level coach.
The trip was fairly routine save for a couple of passengers getting into a shouting match. A woman apparently took exception to something that the other passenger said or did to one of the woman’s children.
The motive power was SDP40F Nos. 505 and 514. Photo 13 shows No. 505.
Photos 14 and 15 show the train in the station at Joliet.
During my time at Joliet, an inbound Rock Island freight train passed (Photos 14, 15 and 16). Note the three different liveries in the motive power.
If you look carefully at Photo 13, you’ll see an intermodal train just beyond the nose of the Amtrak locomotive. Photo 19 shows the caboose of that Santa Fe train.
Photo 20 shows the outbound Statehouse for St. Louis. Leading is a P30CH and its string of Amfleet cars.
In summer 1977, the Midwest corridor trains had Amfleet equipment pulled by either a P30 or an F40PH, the latter having been in the Midwest for about a year.
Amtrak’s long distance trains serving Chicago still had conventional equipment with the exception of the Panama Limited to New Orleans and the James Whitcomb Riley to Washington, D.C. Both of those had Amfleet equipment.
The last image in this sequence shows the Peoria Rocket coming into Joliet for its stop. More than any other photo in this essay, this one shows how much I didn’t know about photography back then. I shot the train far too soon. I should have backed up and waited for it to come out of the shadows and into the early evening sunlight.
For an example of what such an image might looked like, see the cover of Passenger Train Journal issue 2013:1
Patronage on the Rocket back to Peoria was slightly higher than it had been that morning. The fireman came back to one of the coaches and spent quite a bit of time talking with a young woman there. She then went forward for a cab ride.
I even got a chance to speak with him a bit. Things were rather relaxed on the Rock Island. Maybe I should have asked if I, too, could ride in the cab for a while.
Stu’s had various rituals that he performed on the ride home. During the Chicago layover, he would buy a few copies of the early Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune that he would “deliver” to people he knew who lived along the Rock Island.
There was a retired Rock Island railroader who would flash his back porch lights when the Rocket passed and Stu would take out a small flashlight and acknowledge by waving it up and down.
Stu would later co-author with Edward Brunner an article for Trains magazine about the Peoria Rocket that was published in the December 1981 issue.
This trip would be my last time to ever see the Rock Island in action. The Rockets soldier on for more than a year as the Rock Island became mired in regulatory efforts to end the trains. They left Chicago for the last time on December 31, 1978, in the midst of a snowstorm that shut down O’Hare Airport. The Rock Island became the first non-Amtrak member railroad to end intercity passenger service.
The Rock Island Railroad itself shut down in 1980 and its routes, equipment and other assets were sold to other railroads or scrapped.
Time has a way of changing your perspective and so it has been with my views of that long ago trip aboard the Peoria Rocket.
At the time, I panned the Rock Island service as schlock. That probably was why I never made the effort to ride the Quad City Rocket. Instead, I focused on riding Amtrak.
I had no use for locomotives and passenger equipment from another era. Give me Amfleet and F40s. E units were old fashioned and antiquated. Or so I thought at the time.
Today I know better. How I wish I had better appreciated and documented what I saw that day in 1977. How I wish I had gone back to see it again. I didn’t appreciate that the Rocket was the last vestige of an era that I knew about but didn’t really understand. Nor did I recognize that the days of that era were short. Major changes were already underway and flags were falling like confetti at a victory parade. Many things were about to vanish for good.
But despite my shortsightedness, I at least came back with some photographs that I can enjoy looking at today even if they aren’t the best. I also gained a lot of memories. You can never have too many of those.