Silver Rails and Dark Territory
There was time in the early 1980s that the costs of the fuel crisis had been counted, the costs of failed mergers had run their course, and the deferred maintenance had overcome the original mainlines. It was a dark time. The end for the Rock Island was 1980.
The end was not without its drama as even the bankrupt Milwaukee Road played a part. In order to serve the steel industry at Wilton, the Milwaukee operated daylight hours over the eastern Iowa main. A local operation, the Iowa Railroad, operated the nights. The Iowa Railroad played a large role in preserving the mainline across the state as it helped maintain a continuous link from Omaha east. In addition to farm commodities, this preserved service to the all important customer at Newton: Maytag. Many have speculated that it was Maytag more than anything else that saved this mainline from total abandonment. For many years the company even owned rights to the old Rock Island corporate logos.
In 1984 the Milwaukee Road was out and a new regional was born that operated the full mainline to Omaha. This new player, the Iowa Interstate, would prove to be a lasting presence and its colorful diesels have plied the rails ever since. Over the decades, new birth has come to this old part of the Denver mainline. In places, it is still obvious where the Rock's original double track used to be, but instead of jointed rail and sinking ballast, the Iowa Interstate has invested heavily in the physical plant. Old telegraphy poles still dot the line to the horizons, but the rail is new, straight, and continuous weld. As a nod to the past, the Interstate recently painted their own "heritage unit:" one of the new GE supercabs in Rocket Freight livery. It's been decades since Alco FAs and EMD F units hustled freight dressed in Rocket Freight, but it has returned again.
Though the story of the Iowa mainline is one of renewal and rebirth, ghosts of the old Rock Island linger. From the Midwest to the Deep South and even the Southwest, the leftovers of abandonment decay with the passing years. In West Branch, old block targets contrast with silver rails and GE supercabs, showing the other side of the Rock Island's legacy.