The Rock Island Line system first came under discussion in June, 1845, at a meeting of civic leaders at Rock Island, Illinois. Conscious of the increasing migration to the West, these men felt a railroad should be built from La Salle, Illinois to Rock Island, to provide an overland link between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Visits were made to Springfield, the Illinois capitol, and a charter was drawn up. By special act of the Illinois Legislature, the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad Company was incorporated on February 27, 1847, but raising the money to build the line was difficult because people had little faith in a railroad that merely connected two waterways. The organizers took another look at their maps, saw Chicago at the base of Lake Michigan, and decided to petition the Legislature to build the railroad all the way to Chicago.
An amended charter was approved by a special Act of the Illinois Legislature on February 7, 1851 and the name was changed to the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. That October 1st, the first spade of dirt was turned at 22nd Street, the southern limits of Chicago and railroad construction officially was begun. The line was completed to Joliet, 40 miles away, by October, 1852. With the laying of the rail into Joliet, public clamor from people along the new line brought about a decision to operate the first train over the route despite the fact the depots along the line were non-existent. So, on October 10, 1852, a gaily painted little American-type locomotive, called the Rocket, was coupled to six sparkling new yellow coaches. At ten o'clock in the morning the Rocket belched a cloud of wood smoke from its balloon stack and headed west over the 58-pound iron rails that had been imported from England. The trip took two hours and the train was cheered by thousands along the way. It had to make the return trip as a back-up movement because there was yet no turning facilities at Joliet. This date is now considered the Rock Island's "birthday".
The rails marched westward, through Morris, Ottawa, La Salle and Bureau, finally reaching Rock Island on February 22, 1854, the first railroad to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River. In the meantime, on February 5, 1853, the railroad incorporators saw Articles of Association executed under the laws of Iowa to create the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company with authority to construct and operate a railroad from Davenport to Council Bluffs. Now a railroad bridge across the Mississippi to connect the two lines was considered a must. The wood and iron structure was to be a Howe truss type set on stone piers. The corner stone of the bridge project was laid in Davenport on September 1, 1854. While the bridge was being built, progress of the M&M in Iowa was very slow. Iowa City was its first goal, but Muscatine also wanted a railroad. Civic leaders there pleaded with builders to bring the line into that community. It was finally decided to split the road at Wilton, extend the main line to Iowa City and to build a branch to Muscatine. Iowa Citians, fearful that the railroad might not reach their town, then the capitol of the state, decided to post a $50,000 bonus to the builders if the line was finished and a train run into the station on or before midnight December 31, 1855.
The line to Muscatine was finished first and on November 20, 1855 the first train ever to operate in Iowa departed from Davenport with six crowded coaches for the run to Muscatine. But the builders had not forgotten Iowa City's $50,000. On December 31, in a temperature of 30 degrees below zero, the rails were just 1,000 feet short of their goal. Crews worked feverishly to finish the job. Ties were dropped on the staked earth and rails spiked hurriedly in place. Finally, with only minutes to go, a signal was given for the engine to approach. It couldn't move. It was frozen and dead on center. With the help of every available man, chains attached to the pilot and pinch bars under the wheels, the workmen pinched and pushed to slide the engine to the station seconds before the old year rang out.
The Mississippi bridge ran into difficulties. The first train ran over it from Rock Island to Davenport on April 22, 1856. Its construction, however, had maddened the steamboat interests and every legal obstacle had been put in its way. It had been condemned as a hindrance to navigation. But there it stood, a monument to engineering genius. Two weeks after the first train had run across, a steamboat "the Effie Afton" cleared the drawspan on an upstream journey, then suddenly veered out of control and drifted back against the span where it burst into flames. The draw portion of the bridge was destroyed. This started a historic court action. Abraham Lincoln defended the railroad's right to bridge the river. The first jury disagreed and was discharged. A second trial resulted in a court order to remove the bridge. This, however, was carried to the Supreme Court and, in an opinion handed down in 1862, the court found for the railroad establishing a railroad's right to bridge a navigable stream. The Mississippi and Missouri, by the end of 1865, was having economic troubles and was finally acquired by the Chicago and Rock Island on July 9, 1866. The two became the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company.
By the end of 1872, Rock Island mileage in Illinois had grown to 317, in Iowa to 718, and in Missouri to 139. This included the line of the Keokuk & Des Moines which was the first railroad to reach Des Moines, when it operated an excursion train into that city from Keokuk on August 29, 1866. In the early part of the 1900's a group of promoters known as the Reid Moore syndicate secured control of the property. They set up two holding companies, one in Iowa and one in New Jersey. Because of certain financial manipulations the two holding companies could not meet their obligations and went into bankruptcy. A receiver was named on April 20, 1915 ending control by the syndicate and ending a great drama of empire, during which the Rock Island had acquired the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf, and the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern. As a result of the commencement of World War I, the United States Government took over all railroads on December 28, 1917. They were turned back to their owners on February 28, 1920. On June 7, 1933, the Rock Island, for the second time in its history, passed into receivership. The general economic depression and repeated crop failures had combined to weaken the system financially. During the glum years of 1934-1935, the receivers decided to bring some new management to the property. The new management determined that what was needed was a program of "planned progress". Heavier rail, new ballast and tie replacement for main and secondary track was called for.
New bridges were needed at various locations. Segments of the main line had to be relocated to reduce curves and grades. Shops were modernized or eliminated. The first diesels were purchased, the remaining steam power was modernized, and streamlined passenger cars and new freight cars were acquired. The first diesel switchers were acquired in 1937 and these were followed by the inauguration of Rock Island's first streamliner, the Texas Rocket. Other Rockets to Peoria, Des Moines, Kansas City, Minneapolis/St. Paul quickly followed. Dieselized freights were inaugurated in 1945. On December 31, 1936 the Rock Island had 1,160 steam locomotives. By the end of 1947 this number was reduced to half. Then, in late 1941, the nation again went to war. Five years of progressive planning had brought the property, physically and competitively, to the point where it could accept its burden of wartime traffic. On January 1, 1948, the railroad came out of receivership and the reorganized company took control of the railroad's property under the name of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company. More new freight and passenger equipment was acquired and a heavy repair and building program in company shops was launched. Retarder yards were built in Silvis and Armourdale in 1948-49, and these facilities were the latest word at the time for efficient operation of the railroad's fleet of Rocket Freights.
As the Rock Island approached its centennial year of 1952, it was a strong railroad, and one of the best in the country. Total dieselization was achieved in the centennial year. In the 1960's, however, the nation's travel habits changed from trains to autos and airplanes. The many glamourous streamliners which carried people over the countryside ceased to exist. The Rock Island entered its third and final bankruptcy in 1975. On May 31, 1978, the last scheduled passenger train left the Rock Island depot. Freight service continued for a while, but in early 1980, the bankruptcy court determined that the Rock Island could not be successfully reorganized and ordered the liquidation of the railroad, the largest such liquidation in U.S. history. On March 31, 1980, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad operated its last train.
The Rock Island depot was permanently closed the next day.
"The finest banquet facility in the Quad Cities..."
This magnificent building was erected in 1901 by the Rock Island Line Railroad to serve as its Rock Island passenger depot. For many years, this depot was a hub of activity, with as many as thirty two arrivals and departures daily, and twenty one ticket agents working around the clock. The station was designed by Charles S. Frost of Frost and Granger, Architects, of Chicago. Frost was the most prolific railroad-station architect in the country, and was responsible for about 200 large and small stations for Chicago & North Western, Milwaukee Road, Great Northern and Rock Island railroads. (His career was possibly aided by the fact that both he and his partner, Alfred H. Granger, married daughters of the president of the Chicago & North Western Railroad.) Frost was particularly concerned about the practical aspects of station design, stating in 1897: "The design of small stations is very similar: each requires two waiting rooms, one ticket office, and a baggage room, but so simple a problem, if considered rightfully, has many points important both to the company and the traveling public. It often makes a difference, in the economy of operation, whether the baggage-room is on one or the other end. The waiting-room should always command a view of the trains."
The original layout of the Rock Island depot, built in the Renaissance Revival style, was generally consistent with Frost's criteria: it had a smoking room and men's toilet on the west side (behind the fireplace), and a retiring room and women's toilet on the east end. The ticket office was in front of the bay window. Baggage was apparently held in the pavilions; there is no designation of a baggage room on the original plans. The general waiting room in the center of the building offered a direct view of the trains. A platform canopy protected those waiting outside for trains from the weather. The original building had a clock tower which rose to a height of 80 feet.
The depot was constructed by Rock Island building contractor John Volk at a cost of about $75,000--a substantial sum at the time. In the 1930's, the clock tower was removed. In the 1950's, the entrance was moved to the center of the south wall, and the men's and women's restrooms were rebuilt on the east end of the building. A small kitchen and lunch room were added on the west end. A dropped ceiling, about 12 feet from the floor, blocked the view of the ornate plaster ceiling. The windows and doors on the north wall were "modernized", with inferior materials. Various openings in the walls were created, and other doorways closed. As passenger trains gave way to air and highway travel, train depots became obsolete.
The last scheduled passenger train left this station on May 31, 1978, and the depot was closed "permanently" in April of 1980. Vandals and vagrants soon discovered that the hapless depot was an easy target for a well-thrown rock or a cheap place to spend a night protected from the wind and rain. Before too long, many of the classic roofing tiles lost their footing and came crashing to the concrete some thirty to fifty feet below. Paint peeled, metal rusted, ceilings caved and in general the grand old structure was neglected and aged rather ungracefully. At the request of the City of Rock Island, the deteriorating depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Efforts to revive the classic structure failed until 1994, when the City of Rock Island purchased the property from the Iowa Interstate Railroad. The City restored the exterior in 1996, and replaced the clock tower. The entrance was returned to the southeast corner of the building. Much of the stone base was damaged beyond repair, and was replaced with stone from the same quarry in Ohio that supplied the original base. Adjacent to the depot was an old freight house, built with the same types of bricks and roof tiles as had been used on the depot. The freight house was deteriorated beyond repair. When it was demolished in 1997, its bricks and tiles were salvaged and used as necessary for replacements on the depot renovation.
In 1999, the City sold the property to Abbey Station LLC, which is owned by Joseph and Joan Lemon, and their son, Joseph Jr.
The interior of the depot has been transformed into the most elegant ballroom imaginable. First, new mechanical systems (electrical, heating and air conditioning, and plumbing) were installed; then the ceiling was repaired and new moldings were added. An addition containing the kitchen and restrooms was constructed. The west pavilion was enclosed and transformed into a bar. New wall surfaces and paint were followed by custom-designed chandeliers and sconces and a cast-stone fireplace. Imported wool carpeting, lavish draperies and original artwork complete the interior decorating.
Abbey Station has a seating capacity of 260. It is available for banquets, meetings and parties, as well as special events.
(309) 786-4601 Sales@AbbeyStation.com
When you hold your event at Abbey Station, you help to support the preservation of the history of your community!