Return to George W. and Constance M. Hilton Book Awards

Gregory L. Schneider received the award in St. Louis during the Lexington Group meeting for Rock Island Requiem: The Collapse of a Mighty Fine Line (University Press of Kansas, 2013). Schneider is a professor of Modern American History at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas. A summary of the awards citation follows.

The history of the decline and failure of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad is an extremely complex story that ranges far beyond a simple corporate biography. Economic cycles, politics, individual greed, and a hidebound and grossly inept Interstate Commerce Commission came together to turn a thriving Granger railroad at the end of World War II into an economic ruin by the early 1970s. The failure of the ICC to rule on various merger proposals for more than a decade and finally a strike by union employees led to the largest railroad bankruptcy and liquidation in American history. Serving thirteen states and operating more than 7,000 route miles at the time of its demise, the Rock Island proved not too big to fail. To produce this tragic and often dramatic narrative Schneider researched widespread and voluminous federal and state records, the scattered corporate papers of the Rock Island, business and financial journals, and conducted interviews with principals involved in the bankruptcy process. The writing style is engaging even though the story is often quite detailed. Schneider’s judgments are carefully drawn, highly sophisticated, and judicious.

The title of the book fails to indicate that this is much more than the history of one railroad’s demise. Schneider delineates the failure of bureaucratic government to heed the voices of railway leaders and major shippers prior to deregulation under the Staggers Act. There is plenty of blame to be shared by executives of several carriers as they intrigued against each other in the merger fights. The financier Henry Crown, a major holder of Rock Island securities, demanded that the carrier be liquidated, and worked at several levels to undermine the officers of the railroad. Labor union leaders in the industry refused to alter nineteenth century work rules even as many of the nation’s carriers collapsed. Ironically, Henry Crown’s scheme proved to be dead on; the Rock Island was much more valuable in pieces than it was as an operating entity. After the sale of major routes and properties and the payment of all debts, the reorganized company, the Chicago Pacific Corporation, held $300 million in cash and a $300 million bank credit line.

The announcement will appeared in Railroad History.