I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

[A summer repeat from May 15, 2014]

In 1845, the Chicago Rock Island Railroad began with a charter penned in the City of Rock Island, Illinois. For 130 years, the Rock Island Line hummed and drummed across the landscape of America. Until 1975 when a federal judge in Chicago ordered the famed railroad into bankruptcy. On December 10, 1977, a one day auction was held in the old LaSalle Street Station in Chicago. Tables, chairs, paintings, rolling stock and office supplies were sold off from the old railroad. There were also several hundred “tote” boxes full of archives of the railroad. All were filthy dirty and all were sealed. Any bid was on the contents. Sight unseen. The local news touted that perhaps the boxes contained a letter of Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas – both of whom worked for the railroad. I was drawn – like a moth to flame – and I bought 45 boxes of “stuff” at $3.50 a box. I crammed the boxes into the trunk and interior of our Plymouth Valiant. And drove home. Donna thought I was nuts. Until I opened the boxes. . . .

There were hundreds of letters of U.S. Congressmen, Senators, Vice Presidents of the U.S., members of the U.S. Supreme Court, Chicago mayors. There were Aldermen like “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and “Hinky Dink” Kenna. Original letters of Clarence Darrow. It was a trove of major value. And I ended up selling most of the material to the University of Iowa. For many times what I paid for it. It was then I went on a three year quest – to acquire the rest of the defunct railroad’s archives.

After scores (hundreds?) of phone calls over three years, the squeaky wheel got the oil. A gusher. I was told the rest of the Rock Island Railroad archives were housed in a 10 story, 100,000 square foot building at Polk & LaSalle. No one had been in the building for several  years. “I’ll buy it” I said. And did. I bought the entire contents of the building for $500. They handed me the keys and it was mine. The only hitch — I had to get it out in 4 weeks. Within a few hours, I had the contents sold – to the Universities of Iowa and Oklahoma (Norman). Iowa had first choice and Oklahoma got the remainder. I walked alone through the 10 floors. File cabinets. Boxes of files. Empty desks. Coffee cups ringed with dried coffee. A mausoleum. Over the next few weeks, I orchestrated eight 48 foot over-the-road tractor trailers. Loading up the goodies. I looked back, walked out and locked the door.

I still have a few things from the RI. A ceremonial spike. A slice of track. Oh – and yes – a few old letters. In 1998, I delivered a paper to the Chicago Literary Club. Telling the whole story. It’s online at http://chilit.org  The Rock Island Line. Was a mighty fine line. And it was sure good to me.