CRI&P-Rock Island Rail Diesel Repair Shop

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City/Town: El Reno
Location Class: Railroad
Year Built: 1920's
Year Abandoned: 1980's
Status: Demolished
Photojournalist: David Linde

Founded from the creation of an amended charter issued by the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad company, the famous Chicago and Rock Island Railroad was established on February 7, 1851 with the first lines running between Chicago and Joliet, Illinois. The rail line was continued on to La Salle and finally reached Rock Island in 1854. The railroad continued building a huge empire that reached just about every major city in the central and midwestern United States.

Until it’s last days in 1980, the Rock Island Line reached into Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. By 1984, all the railroad’s remaining locomotives, rail cars, tracks, equipment, and property were sold to scrappers or other railroads in order to pay all remaining debts incurred by the line.

Railroad First to Connect Chicago to Mississippi River
In 1854, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad was the first railroad to connect Chicago to the Mississippi River, an important step in increasing commerce and making Chicago the hub of business in the Midwest. Mississippi River Steamboat operators did not like the railroad bridges because they made navigating the mighty river more difficult.

One steamboat was destroyed by fire after running into a bridge operated by the Rock Island Railroad. Abraham Lincoln, then a young attorney, represented the Rock Island in the case against the steamboat operator. Lincoln argued that the steamboat captain was at fault and helped to show that bridges across navigable rivers were an advantage to the country [1].

The Rock Island Railroad Rides Into the Popular Legend
The Rock island continued to grow throughout the latter half of the 19th century, buying up other, smaller rail lines and adding them to it’s own network. From the early 1900’s through the mid 1950’s, the Rock Island Line was a growing and prosperous railroad. Because the railroad covered such a large area of the Midwest, it was well known by most folks in the Midwest.

The rail line gained wide public popularity in the 1940’s when it was glorified in the song “Rock Island Line” by American blues/folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter, also known as Lead Belly. The song was later made more famous by popular singers Johnny Horton, Lonnie Donegan, Bobby Darin and even later by Johnny Cash. The first lines in the chorus of this song are still remembered today, “Rock Island Line, she’s a mighty good road, Rock Island Line is the road to ride.” The song was a hit in the U.S. from the 1940’s through the 1970’s.

Final Days of the Legendary Rock Island Line
During the first part of the 20th century, railroads were being built everywhere across the U.S. Until the advent of commercial aviation began to erode the passenger train business in the early 1950’s, trains were the primary mode of travel in this country. After the 1950’s, the glut of railroad companies and lines became apparent.

The Rock Island Railroad had been built in the 1800’s to serve the needs of that era. But the needs of a nation changed and the Rock Island found itself as just another of the many railroads that would eventually go bankrupt, sold, or merged with another railroad. In 1964, the Rock Island chose to pursue a merger with the Union Pacific Railroad, combining it’s midwest rail network with UP’s massive west coast rail network.

1965 was the last year Rock Island made a profit, and it continued to lose money until the merger with Union Pacific was finally approved to move forward in 1974. By this time, the UP was no longer interested and walked away from the merger, taking with it the last hope of Rock Island’s survival.

Things only got worse for the now nearly bankrupt railroad as creditors pressed for payment and operational costs continued to mount higher every year. Attempts to reorganize in bankruptcy were refused by the courts. On January 24, 1980, a judge ordered the Rock Island Railroad to be shutdown and it’s assets to be liquidated for much needed cash. On March 31, 1980, the final operational shutdown and liquidation of the great Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad occurred.

Sources:

1. Donald, David Herbert; Lincoln (1999); Touchstone; New York, NY; p. 157

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Gary Browning
Gary Browning
6 years ago

Just turned 71. When I was 19-20 I worked out of Amarillo, Texas' on Rock Island B&B # 4 ( Bridge and Building Gang Number 4 ) Lots of memories. Worked Texas, Okla, Kan and New Mexico. Primarily building Wooden pile driven bridges. I doubt there are many old Builders left who used a coal fired, steam driven Pile driver. I can't remember if it had a 6,000 or 8,000 hammer. Later we got a diesel and they were on the light side. When I was 12 to 15 we lived in Rawlins, Wyo. Dad was a brakeman and on… Read more »

Paul_Morphy
Paul_Morphy
7 years ago

I I ran acrossran across this website August 14, 2013…I'm retired from the Cotton Belt but worked as a system Maintenance of Way machine operator for the Rock from 1974 to the last of the show in 1980. I carried my seniority to the St. Louis Southwestern until 1987. Most of these posts go way back but if anyone adds anything new here I'll be notified. I like to browse Rock Island history here on the web..

marc shields
marc shields
7 years ago

it was so sad to see the deferred track maint. while greedy upper mgmt. deferred maint. to this once mighty fine line since 1963….in hopes of merging w/up. all up had to do is wait it out….until the track was junk/and get it for pennies on the dollar…and thats exactly what they did. but greed and corrupt r.i. mgmt. was the underlying culprits that destroyed this once mighty line. up has it now, and refuses to put any ctc or anything on it. now here on bnsf in arkansas city ks, we see numerous up trains running that should be… Read more »

marc shields
marc shields
7 years ago

i have heard recently, the engine house has been razed, much to my dismay. anyone know if this is true? i certainly hope not.

marc shields
marc shields
7 years ago

my name is marc shields/i posted above. if interested call 620-307-6544/ leave a message and number and i will return your call. i have photos to share of el reno shops while still in service, plus, i love the old rock island.

rezman
rezman
7 years ago

Also, where the wash track was, west of the overpass, was a company called Sunbelt Rail Car Repair, and the operated out of an old boxcar that sat on the ground. Don't know if they're still there.

I had blue prints of the yard at one time. We had a house fire a couple years ago, and I think they were consumed, but we may still have some at work. I also recall an aerial photo of the yards as well.

rezman
rezman
7 years ago

I'be been in that building. Back in the late 80's the company I worked for leased out the RIP shop at the west end of the yard to set up an operation resurfacing portable runway for the Navy. Part of the old yard to the east and west of the shop was fenced off for this operation. At one time early in the planning, my boss looked into leasing out the diesel shop for the operation. What killed that idea was that he would have had to go in with earth moving equipment and take out six feet of soil… Read more »

marc
marc
7 years ago

i am a rock island fan/grew up 2 blocks from the mainline in wellington, ks. got to be such good friends while watching trains/the crews would let me ride to caldwell from wellington & back/took my bicycle on board too. i met them when they stopped for beans. next day, when coming back, northbound/they stopped the train pick me and bike up/stop right at the 16th street crossing and help me off w/my bike. seems to me, they didnt care who was watching. last time i ever rode a revenue freight, i was 25 they were almost to shutdown and… Read more »

Lawrence Ridge
Lawrence Ridge
Reply to  marc
7 years ago

Marc I operated a Nordberg track liner in Wellington back in 1974…did you know Al Monday? It's nice to meet folks who remember the Rock.

Mike
Mike
8 years ago

I was Fireman (hoslter) at the shop from Oct. 1979 until closing March 1980. Before that I was Brakeman from June 1977 until Oct. 1979. Good days at El Reno, OK. I'm currently a Conductor in Amarillo, Tx. with the BNSF Railway.

Kevin
Kevin
8 years ago

In case this thread is still alive, Does anyone have a graph or something with its original layout?

marc shields
marc shields
Reply to  Kevin
7 years ago

no, but the rock island tech society put out an aerial series of photos covering the entire tracks/complete/it is awesome. i have the magazine.

Dave
Dave
9 years ago

For those of you who have been in the building, is access restricted? I pass by this location a few times a year and would be interested in photographing it.

Mike
Mike
Reply to  Dave
7 years ago

Access is definitely restricted. There's almost always an unmarked police cruiser or SUV sitting just under the bridge on US 81 just past the barbed wire fence.

Nick
Nick
9 years ago

who wants to take a dip in the bogie bath? That water is awfully green and toxic looking!

Samuel
Samuel
Reply to  Nick
8 years ago

Did you happen to know Bert L Markham in Oklahoma City? He is listed as a fireman/hostler from 1921-1937.

El_Reno_Shops_Fan
El_Reno_Shops_Fan
10 years ago

(Continuation of original comment)
The City of El Reno has expressed their desire to see the property bought and subsequently cleaned up – a major undertaking. Who knows how much diesel fuel, oil, and paint solvents still contaminate the soil 30 years after the RI shutdown. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years.

If anyone has any further info on the old shops post-1980 please leave a comment!

El_Reno_Shops_Fan
El_Reno_Shops_Fan
10 years ago

(This is a continuation of my original comment) The shops last saw activity circa 1985, when the Trustee concluded his work. The complex was sold, with the new owner intent on using the facility as a repair center for coal cars. An ex-UP GP35 was brought in for switching the refurbished cars around, but the business venture was stillborn. Since then the shops have not been used for railroad purposes. However, other activities have occured. Motorcycle cannibalization, scavenging for scrap metal (one teenager who was collecting scrap pieces fell through the roof of the diesel shop in February 2004, suffering… Read more »

El_Reno_Shops_Fan
El_Reno_Shops_Fan
10 years ago

For those who don't know, the Rock Island Trustee used the shop complex and yard after the March 31, 1980 shutdown, well into 1984. Some 1981 aerial photos I have seen show the yard crammed full of freight cars, but no locomotives, of course, around the diesel shop. The RI Trustee retained an SW8 for shop switching and went so far as to purchase an ex-P&LE GP7 to run the funeral trains of cars fixed up and moved to Kansas for interchange with the SSW. It is possible that the GP7, numbered 1504, was used to gather up stray cars… Read more »

marc
marc
Reply to  El_Reno_Shops_Fan
7 years ago

i was there in my powder blue pontiac/mustve passed as a co. vehicle/i photographed sw 830 and gp 1504 inside as well as 3 ri cabooses, 3 nyc gps & 830 running inside the bldg. outside, they had mostly wrecked and damaged cars scattered around the yard. i took nothing but photos. weeks later 1504 was dragging cars from el reno north, thru wellington,ks.supposedly to armourdale(kc). twice after that 830 brought 2 long trainloads of cars north through wellington, ks. it was the last r.i. freight i ever saw. so sad, but i do still have All the photos! even… Read more »

marc shields
marc shields
Reply to  El_Reno_Shops_Fan
7 years ago

i have photos of 1504 heading northbound in wellington, ks and sw 830. please see my posts if interested. they are trustee specials., marc.

marc shields
marc shields
Reply to  marc shields
7 years ago

i also have photos of 1504 in the engine house, and sw830 smoking it up inside the engine house between trustee special runs. the yard was almost cleared of cars at this time. lots of wrecked cars on flatcars were ready for the last 2 moves north to herrington and enroute to the "deadlines" at kc armourdale.

terry baker
terry baker
10 years ago

The idea that rail was "overbuilt" in the U.S. and that it was a good idea to walk away from all of that functional infrastructure is mad…a kind of madness that we've watched devour so much of what was good in this country, replacing it with the "latest" shady mix American Style Capitalism forces us all to drink down with a smile. Thus, air travel that is barely if anything more than being hurled inside a tightly packed aluminum tube from one point to another at a high carbon cost that should shame even the most shameless "consumer," with all… Read more »

AbandonedOK
Reply to  terry baker
10 years ago

Agreed Terry! I personally never fly, and always drive the backroads to see all the beautiful Americana!

I have also taken the Amtrak out of Oklahoma City and had such a pleasant experience. I could see us using rail in the future as a primary means of long distance travel. Bullet Train anyone?

Jim Cummins
Jim Cummins
Reply to  terry baker
9 years ago

I have pleasant memories of train travel. Two of my uncles spent most of their lives working for "Uncle Rock". One worked 45 years in boxcar maintenance in El Reno and went out on a disability!!

Susan D
Susan D
Reply to  terry baker
8 years ago

Well said Terry. Capitalism is not the wonderful be all for America that it has been talked up to be. The focus is the most money with the least amount input. Things seem to be made these days with built-in obsolescence. I have family in Colorado and since they began the "strip search" I have quit flying. I Never liked flying and all that goes with it. It was a once a year thing and fast. But I would take a train in a heartbeat.. I looked into it once and found it would take two days from Oklahoma City… Read more »

Tery
Tery
10 years ago

I love photos #18, 26 and 27.Too bad no one thought of anything cool to do with this old building!!! take care-Tery

scout80
scout80
10 years ago

WTF, the first and the last time I was in this building the P&H crane block was just over head high on the very west end of the building. Now I see it way higher than that….That was about 7 or 8 years ago.

Tom
Tom
10 years ago

Wish I had some to tell. They retired from Rock Island well before 80 and I wasn't old enough to appreciate the stories I wish I would of had. And unfortunately they have been dead and gone for awhile. I know it was a busy place when I was growing up, though.

psychosaw13
psychosaw13
10 years ago

Frickin Sweet! thats a big ole building!

Tom
Tom
Reply to  psychosaw13
10 years ago

I grew up like 3 blocks from the place. My grandpa and great uncle worked there for a long time. It's sad to see it like that. Great picture though.

psychosaw13
psychosaw13
Reply to  psychosaw13
10 years ago

Would love to hear those stories from that place. Tell us about you Grandpa & Uncle's experiences

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