Train service to Joliet was begun by the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad in 1852. The branch was built in the 1870s and extended north in the 1880s. The Rock operated service on the line until it went bankrupt. The RTA bought it in 1982. For a short time, service on the line was run by Chicago & North Western but eventually the RTA and then Metra started running it. Rock Island timetables are “Rocket Red” for the Rock Island’s Rocket trains.
On October 10, 1852, a brightly painted locomotive coupled to six shiny yellow coaches chugged over new railroad tracks between Chicago and Joliet. It was the first train on the first completed section of what would become the immense Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.
Now, more than 160 years later, the Rock Island Railroad is gone, but that original route retains the Rock Island name, as Metra’s Rock Island Line.
While the Rock is famous for its Rocket locomotives, the popular folk song and its role in the development of the Midwest, its commuter service in Chicago is also notable for the part it played in Chicago history. The communities of Beverly and Morgan Park, for instance, would not exist as they do today if not for the Rock Island Railroad.
There was passenger service on the route from the very beginning, with a few stops between Joliet and Chicago, and maybe a small number of people used it for a daily commute north to the fast-growing city. But the true commuter service can be traced to 1869, when the Blue Island Land and Building Company was set up to develop land centered on Prospect Ave. and what is now 103rd St.
At the same time that what is now Morgan Park/Beverly was being developed, a branch line of the Rock Island was built through the area. The new branch track left the mainline at about 97th St., ran west along 99th for about a mile and then turned south to rejoin the mainline at Blue Island. The branch was completed in 1870, but even before then the appeal of train service was spurring development in the area.
The Chicago Fire of 1871 burned down the Rock Island line’s LaSalle Street Station (the present station is the fifth at that site). But it further increased demand for passenger service on the line, because outlying communities became more popular alternatives to city living. Morgan Park was marketed as an exclusive residential community served by frequent train service.
By 1883 the railroad was operating 10 suburban trains each way every day, mostly on the branch line to Blue Island, and there were numerous stops between the branch line and LaSalle St. Station.
In 1889, the branch line was extended north to serve more of Beverly. Rather than leaving the mainline at 97th, it now left the mainline at 89th and followed the route it still follows today to Blue Island. A year later, the railroad had 19 trains each way between Chicago and Blue Island.
In the 1890s, work began to elevate the tracks in Chicago, which allowed for a speedier operation but also resulted in the elimination of most of the closer-in stops. That work continued into the first decades of the 1900s.
The first decades of the century also saw the addition of service to towns between Blue Island and Joliet. By 1905 one could commute from Midlothian, New Lenox, Tinley Park and Mokena, and Oak Forest was added in 1911. In October 1912, Rock Island worked with other railroads to build Joliet Union Station, which is marking its 100th birthday next month.
Sometime around 1917-1918, the railroad started using “Beverly Hills” in the names of stations at 95th (formerly called Longwood), 99th (Walden) and 103rd (Tracy). Beverly Hills-107th (Belmont) and Morgan Park-115th St. (Raymond) were put in use several years later.
Other key dates in the history of the Rock’s suburban service include:
1948: The railroad emerged from a long bankruptcy and began an effort to make capital improvements.
1949: The first diesel engines began to replace steam locomotives.
1957: The Jet Rocket and, slightly later, the Aerotrains – sleekly designed, air-conditioned trains – started serving riders on the commuter route.
1965: The first bi-level cars were delivered from Budd Company, including cab cars that enabled a push-pull operation on the Rock for the first time.
1974: Area voters approved the creation of the RTA to assist all public transportation.
1975: The Rock Island Railroad entered bankruptcy.
1980: The bankruptcy judge initiated the liquidation of the railroad. The RTA eventually bought the commuter service.
1983: The RTA was reorganized and the Commuter Rail Board was created to operate commuter trains (the Board first met in 1984 and branded its service as Metra in 1985).
Today the line serves about 8.3 million riders a year.
Most information for this story on the Rock Island Line comes from company-issued histories and articles by Robert E. Stewart and Thomas J. Mitoraj.