Passenger Railroads / The Rocket Trains

Anyone who has read about passenger rail service in the United States during the first half of the 1900’s knows that it was a very competitive business. Passenger railroads serviced towns and cities of all sizes. If you lived in a small town in the 1920’s or 1930’s there was a very good chance you had passenger rail service. One railroad in particular, the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, remained very aggressive in an arena that included the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

E2 diesel locomotives

The streamlined EMC E2 locomotives

For those interested in the history of the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and railroads in general, there is an excellent museum in Chillicothe Illinois in an old Rock Island depot. The depot was saved by the Chillicothe Historical Society when the depot was donated to them by the Rock Island in 1980. Because of the society’s hard work, today the museum, which opened it’s doors in 1987, is a first rate railroad museum. The Rock Island Depot Museum also has many exhibits on early 1900’s life in rural Illinois.

Passenger railroads had really two things to market to the traveling public. One was the comfort and convenience they could provide and the other was the speed of travel. The AT & SF did an outstanding job on the comfort factor offering the hospitality services of Fred Harvey and his famed Harvey Houses. The AT & SF also had a route that traversed the southwest and it’s pueblo Indian culture, not to mention the Grand Canyon, one of the more scenic and historic areas of the U.S. As far as speed went, there was always an effort to offer a fastest service, especially between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Rock Island Railroad offered named trains called the “Rocket Trains“. The use of the term “rocket” as a train name may have originated with an invention from 1829 named “Stephenson’s Rocket”  which was an innovated steam locomotive design that set the standard for future steam engine construction for decades to come. Locomotives using Stephenson’s principals were used into the 1960’s by British locomotive builders. The term Rocket Train also suggests that the travel was fast, something many passengers wanted to hear. The Rocket Trains had routes all over the midwest. There was the Rockey Mountain Rocket, the Zephyr Rocket, the Corn Belt Rocket, the Twin Star Rocket, the Texas Rocket, the Des Moines Rocket and more.

rock island railroad transcontinental logo

The Rock Island and Southern Pacific transcontinental emblem

The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad’s Rocket Trains began in 1937 with the purchase of six lightweight and streamlined locomotives built by the Budd Company. These were the railroad’s very first diesel-electric locomotives.The trains had a great color combination of red, yellow, and white, and red, maroon, and silver.

One of the most interesting railroad stories is the tale of the “Golden State Limited” and the  “Golden Rocket“.

The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad did not have a proprietary route from Chicago to Los Angeles as did the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  The Union Pacific started running their new streamlined trains with it’s “City of Los Angeles” running a more central route from Chicago to L.A. To compete against the very popular AT & SF “Super Chief”, and the Union Pacific, the Rock Island entered an agreement with the Southern Pacific Railroad to operate the “Golden State Limited” beginning in 1902 as a partnership. The Rock Island had track down into Texas and to Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. The Southern Pacific had trains operating to Los Angeles from the lower tier of the U.S., Houston, New Orleans, etc.

super chief train

AT & SF Super Chief in Albuquerque New Mexico 1943

The Rock Island’s route map showed just how bad they needed this kind of arrangement. Their national route map would include Minnesota to the north, Texas to the south, Memphis to the east and eastern New Mexico and Colorado to the west. While they were servicing some very big cities, they were boxed in to the extent that they couldn’t compete for transcontinental passenger traffic. At the start of the 1900’s, transcontinental rail passenger traffic was the big industry since travel alternatives were slim to none. The Rock island’s only option was to form an alliance with a larger carrier.

A railroad partnership, on this one route only, made a lot of sense if a railroad like the Rock Island wanted to compete for Chicago to Los Angeles traffic against the other big two lines. The “Golden State Limited” would travel a route out of Chicago not too different than the AT & SF route but somewhat to the south. The Golden State Limited would make it’s way southwest to Amarillo Texas and then on to Tucumcari New Mexico (where it would be picked up by the Southern Pacific) and continue southward to El Paso. From El Paso, the Golden State Limited would head west through southern New Mexico and Arizona into southern California. The Golden State Limited was operated by the two railroads until 1947 at which time it was just called “The Golden State“. Two advantages of this route that would be marketed to the public was it’s low elevation and better weather than the more northern routes and also that the route would traverse cities like Tucson and Phoenix, both growing resort areas. Probably the only real disadvantage of this route is that it ran through some of the least scenic parts of the U.S., at least in direct comparison to the Union Pacific and the AT & SF.

rock island golden rocket advertisement

Promotional ad for the Rock Island "Golden Rocket"

Right after the end of World War Two, the Rock Island and the Southern Pacific discussed plans to create a new named train, the “Golden Rocket” which would be used to compete directly against the popular “Super Chief” mostly on a time basis. The Golden Rocket project was agreed upon by both railroads. Equipment was ordered by the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad as well as the Southern Pacific. The Rock island received their rail cars at about the time that the Southern Pacific backed out of the Golden Rocket project entirely. As far as the reason, most articles written on the subject contend that the Southern Pacific just decided not to spend the money required to update the rail route. The Interstate Commerce Commission had recently mandated that the maximum speed for a passenger train would not be more than 79 MPH  on rail track not equipped with special signaling equipment. As far as the Southern Pacific was concerned, updating the tracks would cost significant money and the decision was made to drop the Golden Rocket. Why was speed so important? The route of the Golden State was some 115 miles longer than that of the AT & SF Super Chief. To try to compete against the Super Chief, the Golden Rocket would have had to have some segments requiring 100 MPH speeds and that meant a lot of spending on new signal equipment. Supposedly, the Rock Island didn’t have the necessary funds to spend and while the Southern Pacific did, they decided not to. The main reason for the Golden Rocket project in the first place was to match the Super Chief’s time schedule and when this proved to be too costly, the Southern Pacific pulled out.rock island and pacific golden rocket


The halt of the Golden Rocket train project came suddenly and after a lot of publicity and advertising had already taken place. While this was quite a shock and embarrassment, the Golden State continued to operate on it’s transcontinental route until 1967. This was surely the final years of private transcontinental railroads with the establishment of Amtrak in 1971. During the 1950’s with the building of the Interstate highway system and early 1960’s the automobile and increased airline competition slowly but surely eroded railroad passenger traffic. The Rock Island and Pacific was not in a envious financial position and parts of the railroad were sold off to the Union pacific, the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific railroads. In 1975, the railroad entered it’s third bankruptcy. As the Rock Island strained to survive as a grain carrier to the Port of Galveston Texas, financial pressures continued to mount.

Please see our related articles about Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and The Railroad Post Office Cars.

A federal judge ordered the Rock Island Railroad to be shutdown in 1980 and it’s assets were ordered  liquidated. On March 31, 1980, the final liquidation of the great Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad occurred.

(Photos and images are from the public domain)


The North Pacific Coast Railroad / A Scenic and Historic Story

The North Pacific Coast Railroad was one of those railroads that came about because of the expansion along the west coast, and in particular, the building out of the San Francisco Bay area. The railroad was a narrow gauge common carrier that ran between Sausalito California and northward to Cazadaro California very near the Pacific coast. The rail line was connected to San Francisco proper via the ferry at Sausalito. The total length of the railroad line was 93 miles. During it’s latter years the railroad was called the Northwest Pacific Railroad.

north pacific coast railroad station

Duncan Mills California Railroad Depot

The Sonoma railroad is filled with northern California history. California railroads were key to the growing lumber industry. The North Pacific Coast Railroad started in operation in 1874. One of it’s purposes was to haul lumber down to the Bay Area.

The area north of the San Francisco Bay along the California coastline is filled with beautiful redwood trees and the North Pacific Coast Railroad earned a lot of money hauling lumber. One of the largest lumber mills was located in Duncan Mills just a few miles inland from the coast and at the end of the line. As a result, Duncan Mills, which today is a nice small tourist village, was a busy commercial site. Buildings were erected right and left and included three beautiful Victorian hotels.

During it’s heyday, Duncan Mills had many eastern visitors including Ulysses S. Grant. The Bay Area was booming and wood homes were being built at a feverish pace. In summertime during the early 1900’s railroad travel was very popular. Lines of people would get their ticket at the San Francisco Ferry Building. Some were vacationers and others were looking for a same day excursion up to the beautiful Russian River area.

The town received it’s name from the brothers who started lumber operations in the area, Sam and Alex Duncan. What grew their business and what put Duncan Mills on the map was the North Pacific Coast Railroad. The arrival of the railroad introduced many more visitors to the area provided a means to ship large quantities of lumber. When the railroad came to town in 1876, Duncan Mills had a post office, a hotel and four saloons. As Alex Duncan owned lands heavily forested on both sides of the Russian River, he came into an agreement to move his lumber mill to the north side of the river if the North Pacific Coast Railroad would build a railroad bridge from Moscow Mills, located on the south side of the river to reach his properties.

The first train arrived in the new town of Duncan Mills in 1877, and the depot became the northernmost terminus on the line. Today, the tourist can visit the Duncan Mills railroad station which is still at it’s original location.The depot was constructed in 1907 and won the outstanding restoration award for the State of California in 1971.

narrow gauge railroad caboose

North Pacific Coast Railroad Caboose NO. 2

One of the old rail cars on display at Duncan Mills is the North Pacific Coast Railroad Caboose NO. 2. This narrow gauge caboose car was built in 1877 at the North Pacific Coast R. R. Sausalito shops. It was added to the line that same year.

Records are that this was the only caboose manufactured by the railroad. Another rail car is a wooden built coach that operated on the North Pacific Coast Railroad until it’s last days.

Steam trains were a common sight in this area of Sonoma County. The “Sonoma” is one of three locomotives built in 1876 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia for the narrow gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad. This engine which is now on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento California hauled both passengers and freight on the line from Sausalito to Duncan Mills. The Sacramento Railroad Museum is probably one of the very best in the United States.

During the 1906 earthquake, Duncan Mills lost it’s three Victorian hotels. Essentially the entire village was destroyed and was left to the sprouting weeds for years to come. The North Pacific Coast Railroad ceased operations in 1925 for a variety of reasons. The redwood trees were being depleted and a massive fire that burned from Guerneville to the Pacific coast hurried the process. In addition to this, automobiles began hitting the road and the train was used less and less.

north pacific coast railroad wooden coach railcar

North Pacific Coast Railroad wooden coach car

Today, the tourist to Duncan Mills and the lower Russian River region can see some of the old railroad cars still on display as well as the railroad depot. Duncan Mills also offers restaurants, unique shops and a fine wine tasting room.

Driving the popular River Road all the way from U.S. Hwy 101 offers a very scenic drive. The towns along this stretch of the Russian River are now northern CA resorts. River Road essentially follows the meandering Russian River as it heads to it’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean just a bit west of Duncan Mills. Duncan Mills is located 5 miles east of the Pacific Coast Highway 1.

Two additional related travel stops in northern California are the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa California and Kayaking on the Russian River.

If you’re going to travel northern California, this area along the lower Russian River between Hwy 101 and the ocean is a good addition to your California road trip planner. Duncan Mills, Guerneville, Occidental and other historic towns in the redwood country north of the San Francisco Bay area continue to be popular summer destinations for kayaking, canoeing, camping and just fun relaxation in the fresh outdoors that the redwoods and ocean offer.

The most direct way to reach the Russian River vacation town of Duncan Mills is to travel north on U.S. Hwy 101 from San Francisco and exit at River Road which is just on the north side of Santa Rosa, about 65 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Turn left onto River Road and drive west about 25 miles.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

Railroad History / Those Amazing Railway Post Office Cars

There was a time when sending a letter by air was a big thing. In fact, to send your letter by airplane meant the purchase of a special airmail stamp with higher postage. This was the era when mail generally traveled by train. There were several reasons for this. Obviously the railroad could carry much more mail bags than an airplane. This was the era of the Railway Post Office Car. The history of trains has a lot to do with the U.S. Mail.

Railroad Post Office Mail Bag Pickup

The earlier aircraft were not reliable enough the the mails. Schedules were either non existent or irregular. Secondly, during the latter 1800’s and the early 1900’s, railroad history tells us that trains went almost everywhere. Railroad routes were massive. All size towns and cities were connected by railroads and train mail services. Many of the rail tracks you see today used by freight trains while on a road vacation were once used by passenger trains. Most of those passenger trains had post office cars attached.

At one time trains had what was called an “RPO”, meaning railroad post office. These were official U.S. Post Offices that were on rolling train cars. Historically, the very first bag of mail carried on a United States train was reportedly in 1831. This may have been much earlier than most people would think. In the U.S., the official Railway Post Office began in 1862, midway during the American Civil War, using converted train baggage cars. The first route ran in Missouri. This particular route was short lived and the first permanent railway post office was established in 1864. These first RPO’s were not originally designed as rolling post offices. The first designs used simple furniture and desks. Later, the designs would resemble small post office’s. This included sorting tables and individual boxes lined on the walls.


RPO Car Door and Hook Pole

The Railroad Post Office system kept growing and by the 1880’s the majority of passenger trains included these special cars. One reason this system worked so efficiently was that the train could both drop off mail bags and pick a bag up without stopping. This meant that even the smallest of towns, without a formal train depot, could exchange mail because of the post office car. You may have seen the apparatus used in picking up mail while in motion. Essentially it was a pole that had a mail bag attached at the top and bottom. The moving train would simply pass by and a special steel arm would extend from the mail car and snatch up the bag. As soon as the waiting bag was picked up and swung into the rail car the bag waiting to be dropped off would be shoved out the door. A bit of coordination was required to successfully operate the post office car but the system worked well. The idea was both ingenious and very simple at the same time and worked on trains that could be traveling past a town at maybe 70 MPH. Most of these railroad post office cars also had exterior slots which meant people could manually deposit mail into it when the train was stopped at a station. It served in a way as a portable mail box. Mail that was deposited like this received an official RPO postmark.

RPO interior mail slots

Mail sorting would be done by the postal workers as the train was moving and prepare bags to be dropped off. Eventually, the United States Post office put forth a floor plan design that would be used in all post office cars. The standardization would help with efficiency since mail clerks could be assigned to different cars. Having all cars designed the same meant that a clerk would be accustomed to the routine and work more efficiently. Less chance of sorting errors as well. The standardization began in 1885. As far as the outside of the post office cars appeared during the latter 1880’s, railroad history tells us that all cars were painted a standard color, mostly white with a darker trim. Beginning in 1890 the railroad post office cars were painted in a color scheme that would match the particular railroad it was operating on. The pictures of the Great Northern Railway post office car in this article is an example of that.

The peak year for the railway post office system is though to be about 1930. During that year nearly 10,000 trains were employed to pick up and deliver mail to just about any town or city in the U.S., large and small. There were dedicated mail trains. The dedicated mail train could transport huge volumes of mail. Post office cars were virtually seen on every passenger train. Alternatives such as airmail and trucking were really not a factor during that time. Even highways like Route 66 were fairly new during that period. It would take advances in highway construction, especially the Interstates, that would eventually change things.

Railroad history and the vintage post office rail cars are now preserved at several museums around the United States. Some of these historic post office rail cars are on permanent display. One is the Galesburg Railroad Museum located in Galesburg Illinois. The RPO car displayed there was built in 1924 and taken out of service in 1960. The car is about 70 feet in length and about 14 feet high. Another RPO car is on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Town Sacramento California. The RPO car on display there is the old Great Northern Railway #42. The post office rail car was built in 1950 by the American Car and Foundry. It was made to be placed directly behind the locomotive. RPO cars were owned by the railway, but leased to the Postal Service and were staffed by postal employees. Another railway post office car is on display at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association in Campo California. This RPO car is the old Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroads #74. This rail car was built by the Pullman Car & Mfg. Corp. in 1927. It has six barred windows and two sliding doors on each side, and is equipped with electric lighting & screened fans. After restoration the car took its inaugural run to Tecate, Mexico on November 23, 2002. The Houston Railroad Museum in Houston Texas has on display an Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Baggage-Railway Post Office Car # 3401 built in 1938 by the Budd Co. This particular car saw service on many routes including the Chicago to Houston Texas Chief. The 3401 is one of the earliest streamlined RPO cars built for any railroad.

Two related railroad articles you should find interesting are the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe and dining cars and the Central Pacific Railroad.

Great Northern Railway Railroad Post Office Car interior

Slowly but surely the railroad post office cars were phased out. The decline began in 1948. During that year RPO’s were operating over some 161,000 route miles of track in North America. This was down from the peak of over 200,000 route miles. In 1942, the Post Office department were beginning to use highway vehicle to transport mail. The original intention was to have the highway trucks augment the service from the RPO’s but by the 1950’s and 60’s it was evident that the highway vehicles would go on to replace the railway service. The final blow came in 1967 when the Post Office Department canceled all of it’s railroad contracts and elected to transport first-class mail by either aircraft or highway trucks.

An interesting side note is that when the railroad post office contracts were canceled, a good deal of passenger train service would also be canceled not long afterward. The railroads lost a tremendous amount of revenue when the Post Office Department pulled out. Revenue from mail contracts were critical to the transportation industry in general. When you look back at the early stagecoach lines during the days of the old west, their existence and operating revenue was derived from mail contracts. Passenger revenue was a secondary source of money. Mail contracts supplied a continual revenue stream that couldn’t be duplicated from passenger only service. The famous Butterfield Overland Stage Line and others were possible only because they won mail contracts from the U.S. government. The business model of a mail contract and passenger revenue seemed to be the winning combination Today, the private railroads carry freight and they appear to be making good profits in so doing. Passenger service in the U.S. is provided by Amtrak, a government run railroad. It is very doubtful that a private concern could or would want to establish passenger rail service in the U.S. because of the staggering costs alone and the unpredictability of passenger demand. It’s a great thing that these vintage railroad post office cars have been preserved and restored so that future generations can learn about this most unique time in American railroading.


Steam Locomotives of the Historic Central Pacific Railroad

The Central Pacific Railroad operated the last western segment of the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S. The railroad was built between California and Utah. It was the Central Pacific Railroad that had the formidable task of building a railroad line over the beautiful yet wild and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains.

There was no question but the route over the Sierra Nevada’s presented the biggest challenge to completing the transcontinental railway. The next step was to purchase the right type of steam locomotives.

governor stanford locomotive

Governor Stanford Locomotive

Congress opened the way for the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War years when the Republicans were in control.

Prior to that time, when possible routes were discussed, Southern Democrats pushed hard for a southern route to California which would serve southern cities in the east. With the war raging and the Southern Democrats having seceded, the door was wide open to pick the central overland route for the transcontinental railroad. The federal government issued railroad bonds to help with financing. This was the biggest step taken in American railroad history.

The Central Pacific Railway was operated by what was referred to as the “Big Four“. In this case, the Big Four represented Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. Many are still familiar with these names today. They were a politically powerful and wealthy California combination. They were four very successful Sacramento California area merchants and in the 1850’s Sacramento California, with the gold mines in full force, was a profitable place to do business.

In addition to constructing rail lines over mountains and through deserts, the Central Pacific needed to purchase locomotives that were built back on the east coast. The locomotive would have to be sent by ship, around Cape Horn, and then to the port of San Francisco. To accomplish this, the locomotive was shipped in parts and then assembled when it reached it’s destination.

cp huntington locomotive

The CP Huntington

The very first locomotive of the Central Pacific Railroad was named The Governor Stanford.

The Governor Stanford was called a 4-4-0 locomotive built by the Norris Locomotive Works in 1862 during the American Civil War.The locomotive was built in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.

This forty-ton wood burning steam locomotive was the pioneer engine of the Central Pacific Railroad. The 4-4-0 designation on the early steam locomotives had to do with suspension and adherence to the track.

Early railroad tracks were not what they are today and locomotives had to be stable and adhere enough to stay on the tracks. The first North American locomotives were actually 0-4-0 which didn’t really have good enough suspension systems. Next was the 4-2-0 which had a three point suspension system. The Governor Stanford, being a 4-4-0 was an improvement with an extra pair of driving wheels added. The adherence to the track was much greater and this was critical over relatively steep mountain grades.

In 1863, the Central Pacific purchased another locomotive, this one a 4-2-4. The locomotive was built by the Cooke Locomotive Works in Paterson New Jersey. The company built steam locomotives from 1852 until 1901.

The locomotive was named the CP Huntington after the Big Four’s Collis P. Huntington. This was the railroad’s third locomotive, the first to being the Stanford and the Pacific. The Huntington eventually was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1871 and represented that railroad’s very first steam locomotive.

theodore judah

Theodore D. Judah, A pioneer of the transcontinental railroad

Another historic locomotive purchased by the Central Pacific Railroad was the T.D. Judah.

This locomotive, a 4-2-4 and also built by the Cooke Locomotive Works, was named in honor of Theodore Judah, the Central Pacific’s first engineer.

It was also built in 1863 and later rebuilt as a 4-4-2. An interesting side note that many may not know is that both the Judah and Huntington locomotives were originally built for a railroad who couldn’t pay for them. Collis Huntington saw them at the Cooke plant and decided to make the purchase.

Theodore Judah made railroad history in his own right. He was the original surveying engineer who plotted the route across the massive Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Judah was also noted for his use of snow sheds along the mountain route which helped keep the passes open for the trains. Theodore Judah had dreamed about a transcontinental railroad for years and his engineering skill helped make it a possibility, especially determining a way to build over the mountains. It was Judah who also lined up the wealthy investors to help make it a reality. The downside for Judah was when the Big Four, the money men, essentially cut him out of the decision making after taking over the Central Pacific.

Another trips Into History photo article you may enjoy is The Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento california.

You can still see examples of the Sierra Nevada snow sheds when you travel through those mountains on today’s Interstate 80. Essentially the same route plotted by Judah in the mid 1800’s is still in use by Amtrak’s California Zephyr which operates between Chicago and Emeryville California across the Bay from San Francisco.

If you happen to be traveling through the Sacramento California area on business or for a California vacation, you’ll very much enjoy a stop at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Town Sacramento. You’ll be able to view one of the finest displays of vintage locomotives and rail cars in the U.S. The museum is very impressive and quite interesting for the entire family.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History. Judah photo from the public domain)