Iowa History
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Iowa History

A History of the Rock Island Line

The clack of the wheels, the roar of the engine, and the wail of the whistle are sounds that are imbedded in our culture. Even though most Americans no longer travel by train, the allure remains.

Many Americans are familiar with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company, better known as the “Rock Island Line.” Because of a popular folk song, many will add that the Rock Island was a “mighty fine road.”

Thanks to historian H. Roger Grant, we now have a history of that railroad and its impact on the economic and social development of Iowa and the Midwest. In a masterful narrative of boom and bust, “A Mighty Fine Road: A History of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad Company” (Indiana University Press, 2020) traces the history of a troubled but iconic transportation company.

For the author, the story is both professional and personal. Grant is an exceptional scholar and has written numerous books, many of them on other railroads. So it is no surprise that “A Mighty Fine Road” is rigorously researched and well-articulated. It’s not too much to call this is a definitive account of the company.

But Grant is also a railroad aficionado. He recalls the first time he saw a Rock Island “Rocket” bring President Harry Truman through Iowa back in 1948. Grant also remembers his brother coming home from boot camp on the Rocket — “a joyous occasion,” he adds. Even in his college days, Grant enjoyed watching the Rock Island crews switching cars at local grain and feed mills.

“A Mighty Fine Road” begins with a reminder of the power and importance of the railroad in the history of the United States in the 19th century. Grant sets the Rock Island Line in the context of that development and traces the company through its various iterations and consolidations. The first three chapters in the book show the Rock Island as an almost organic entity.

But the 20th century brought new challenges. The middle chapters start with “Rough Tracks” and take the company though bankruptcy and reorganization. The book ends with a chapter appropriately titled “Liquidation and Legacy.”

But even tragedy has its day, and this is handsome, well-illustrated book merits the attention of any reader interested in the history of Iowa. Benjamin Shambaugh would be pleased.

This book is one of three finalists for the Shambaugh Award, which honors the year’s best new book about Iowa history and is named for a former superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa. The 2021 winner will be announced in late May.

— Reviewer Timothy Walch is the director emeritus of the Hoover Presidential Library and a volunteer at the Iowa City Center of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

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