The Rock Island Line

[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.

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The Library

In my post of February 10, 2013, I talked about a visit to Boca Grande, Florida. Wonderful. Memorable time.    And I alluded to the Boca Grande Public Library. 

Fast backwards about 32 years ago. Donna, Lauren and I were in Boca Grande with our dear friends Diane, Dave and Dave Jr.  Dave said “want to go check out the library?”  And we did.  The Johann Fust Community Library.  Nice library.  Lotsa books.  In the back on the far right, there was a cage of sorts.  A fenced area.  And a locked fence door.  I walked back and peered in.  Oh my socks and shoes

In that cage, on the shelves, I recognized books that were hundreds of years old.  I began to perspire. The librarian Pansy walked over.  “Can I help you?”  “Ummm. . . may I look in there (pointing)?”  “You’re in interested in that?”  Mmmmm. . . sure.   She opened the lock and let me in.  And I drooled. . . . .  Dozens of first editions (e.g. Origin of the Species – 1859) and books dating to the 1500’s.  Without appearing too enthused, I casually asked “what are you going to do with these books?”  Pansy folded her arms, shook her head and said “I just don’t know.”  Now I am not as dumb as I look so I offered – “you . . . ummm . . . want to sell them?”  And she looked at me incredulously “you would want to buy them?”  And I said yes.   And I did.   Suitcases and boxes full of rare books donated years before by Charles Goodspeed of Boston’s famed rare book shop.  All brought home.  And quickly deaccessed.   

It was a memorable “score.”  Like buying the Rock Island Railroad archives (5/15/14) and finding the amazing cemetery of books  (8/24/14).  I’ve always liked libraries. . . .   

The Cemetery of the Books

Years ago, in another life (and over the course of several years), I traveled to Spain and Portugal with some frequency.  I would normally come back with suitcases chock full of handwritten manuscripts. Many dated to the 1400’s. There were the garrison records for Gibraltar (all from the 1680’s and 1690’s), the thousand page manuscript history of the Church in Santiago de Compostela (1540-1822), the Jesuit activities in Goa (India) dating to the early 1500’s and so on.  As we all say when time marches on – “those were the days.” 

In Lisbon, during one visit, I found it.  I found a genuine cemetery of the books.  This was a term made popular by Carlos Ruiz Zafon in his must read book The Shadow of the Wind The cemetery of the books in Lisbon was a 3 or 4 story warehouse.  Chock full of manuscripts, rare books and manuscript books.   It was not a museum or archive.  It was literally a cemetery of rarities.  Which one could buy for a song.  Few people knew about this place.  And somehow I had stumbled upon it.  For those who are squeamish, stop reading here.  The books and manuscripts I would pull off the shelves were literally crawling with lice.  Crawling with insects.  Vermin scooted in the corners  and along the walls.  But oh my – the things that were there.  As good as the Rock Island Railroad warehouse (see May 15, 2014). 

I would load up a suitcase or two with books and manuscripts – carefully wrapping them in plastic bags – and bring them home.  Once home, I would put the plastic bags in a large freezer for a month or two (the recommended Rx for dealing with the creepy crawlers) and later leaf through what I had found.  And then dispose of the items.  But on one sad trip to Lisbon, I went to the cemetery and – it was no more.  It had burned to the ground a month or two before.  I still have an item or two or three left from these forays.  But I am sad that the cemetery of books is no more.  If it was still there, I’d likely be flitting off to Lisbon every few months. . . . . 

The Rock Island Line

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 car 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.  And there were 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, this squeaky wheel got the oil.  A gusher.  I was told the rest of the archives were housed in a 10 story, 100,000 square foot building at Polk & LaSalle.  No one had been in the building for 2 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 – some old letters.  In 1997, I delivered a paper to the Chicago Literary Club.  Telling the whole story.  It’s online at www.chilit.org/Papers%20by%20author/Petersen1.htm.  The Rock Island Line.  Was a mighty fine line.  And it was sure good to me.