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The Reverend and the Rock Island

Making the most of a clergyman's pass
As an Episcopal priest serving in Iowa in the 1960's, I was lucky to have Gordon V. Smith as my bishop. Bishop Smith was always eager to do whatever he could to make life easier and happier for us clergy who were in his jurisdiction. He was fascinated with my interest in railroads, and was found often at one of the control panels of my HO-scale layout.

The first church I served after ordination was St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Durant, Iowa, about 25 miles west of Davenport on the Rock Island's Chicago-Colorado main line. No passenger trains stopped at Durant in the 1960's.

In those days railroads would give passes to clergy, and I was indeed pleased when Bishop Smith applied for a Rock Island pass for me. It arrived one day in 1962, a square green pasteboard in a brown envelope.

Never mind that the pass would not be honored on 14 of the Rock's top trains. It was good on secondary trains, and on all routes served by only one train. A year or so later the pass became valid for half fare on the Rockets and the Golden State. Yes, the pass was a treasure to me, but it alarmed the mission committee of St. Paul's Church. They likened a railfan having a pass to a person with a drinking problem having an unlimited supply of free booze.

I used the pass carefully. I would "save up" days off until I had accrued three or four, and then use them up riding the Rock. My first trip was from Davenport to Des Moines on train 9, the Corn Belt Rocket, returning on nameless No. 6. I displayed my pass to the conductor. He simply nodded and walked on by. What a treat!

Between 1962 and '66 I rode most of the Rock Island, for free on the secondary trains and for half fare on the others. I took trains 7 and 8, the Rocky Mountain Rocket, to Denver and back, paying $7 for a roomette. Then came a trek from West Liberty to St. Paul, down to Burlington, Iowa, and back to West Liberty on the Zephyr Rocket. I went out to Tucumcari, N.Mex., and back on the remnants of the old Imperial, trains 39 and 40. The conductor out of Davenport couldn't believe I would be riding all the way on a train that plodded its way across Kansas and the Texas panhandle.

I did use the pass for church business from time to time. To attend a meeting in Des Moines, I would take the Corn Belt Rocket from Davenport east to Chicago for an evening, paying the half fare plus an additional few dollars for a parlor-car seat. At La Salle Street Station I would get a roomette on No. 9, arriving but enjoying the luxury of sleeping later in the set-out sleeper. My travel expenses to attend the meeting were lest than those of many of the people who had come by car!

I was sent as a delegate to a conference in Little Rock in 1964. I took the Golden State from Davenport to Kansas City, then the Twin Star Rocket from K.C. to El Reno, Okla. At El Reno I transferred to one of the Rock Island's RDC's, running as train 24, arriving in Little Rock at 3:10 in the afternoon on the day before the conference started. The RDC ride was great, especially when the friendly engineer invited me to "come on up front" after leaving McAlester, Okla.

I left Little Rock at 2:45 a.m. the day after the conference ended. The agent in Rock Island's brick depot announced train 21 with the pride a Santa Fe man might have used to present the Super Chief: "Train No. 21, the Cherokee, now arriving on track 1 from Memphis with coach service to Booneville, McAlester, Oklahoma City, El Reno, Amarillo, Tucumcari, El Paso, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. That's train 21, the Cherokee." No. 21, of course, was two E units, a long string of head-end cars and a single Harriman-roof coach, and it hadn't carried the Cherokee name for years.

My biggest regret is that I never did get to Houston on the Rock Island. But I did journey to just about every other corner of the system, including a caboose ride to South Dakota.

In 1966 I moved to Dubuque, Iowa, and rail travel options were provided by the Burlington Route trains through East Dubuque and the Illinois Central's Land O' Corn and Hawkeye. I learned from the IC agent in Dubuque that I could use my Rock Island pass for half-fare travel on non-RI trains through what was called the "home-road plan."

Many years have passed since I last used my Rock Island pass. My crew cut has been replaced with gray hair, my salary check with a pension check, and the Rockets and other such trains are the deceased ancestors of Amtrak. I do have a visa card that provides free miles on Amtrak, and whenever I take advantage of such rewards I think back to my earlier free travel by train. Bishop Smith died a few years ago, but before he did, he heard from me many times about how much I appreciated the Rock Island pass. I still have it, as well as the memories it has provided.

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