Rock Island Line
Immortalized through song, the railroad company was once a vital component of the River Valley economy.“The Rock Island Line, it’s a mighty good road.
Rock Island Line, it’s a road to ride.
Rock Island Line, it’s a mighty good road.
If you want to ride it, you gotta ride it like you find it.
Get your tickets at the station on the Rock Island Line.”
Arkansas has a long tradition of folk songs and ballads from the fun-loving “Arkansas Traveler” to the labor songs of “We’re Going to Roll the Union On” and “Raggedy, Raggedy Are We.” But few pieces of Arkansas River Valley history have had the widespread influence of the folk song “Rock Island Line,” or the railroad it was written about.
Originally written in 1929 by Clarence Wilson of the Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet. Clarence, along with fellow rail-workers Jake Mason, Walter Dennis, and Phil Garrett, were tasked with writing a song to improve the railroad’s popularity as part of a company initiative. At the time, 38 railroads operated statewide, and the company fought for every passenger and payload.
Since its first known recording by the Lomax brothers, the song has spread far and wide. It has been covered by Lead Belly, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and by each individual member of the Beatles. It topped the charts in both the UK and the US, and later helped start the skiffle craze in England. The song evolved from a company jingle to a prison working song, to a gospel, and finally into one of the great folk songs of the 20th century.
Their original song is much different than the popular versions that came about in the years to follow:
The California Limited is the best you ever rode,
We have good engines running on the road,
We have roundhouse firemen that know they’re right,
We have engine wipers to keep them bright.
Rock Island Line is a mighty good road,
Passengers get on board if you want to ride,
Ride like you’re flying, be sure you buy your ticket
Over the Rock Island Line.
We have good engineers to run these trains,
Mr. Pard Cole is one of their names,
He is never late, always on time,
Be sure you buy your ticket over the Rock Island Line.
Engineer Kugler is a good one, too.
He blows his whistle ‘til it makes you blue,
He runs a freight train on passenger time,
Be sure and buy your ticket over the Rock Island Line.
We have Pullmans, chair cars and diners, too,
We have good service all the way through;
Keep good service on your mind
And buy your ticket over the Rock Island Line.
Mr. Church leaves Little Rock and Biddle Shops,
Runs into Memphis makes just two stops;
He’s never late, always on time,
The engine that he runs is 849.
Mr. Sharp, our master mechanic, is a very good man; Mr. Welch is, too,
They see that all the trains go through,
They keep the Rock Island business on their minds–
Things must go right on the Rock Island Lines.
The first version of the song discusses the great service and interesting characters who work for the rail line. One particular line references the engineer George Kugler, who “blows his whistle ‘til it makes you blue.” This line was written about an actual engineer who invented a steam whistle attachment that allowed him to control its pitch. He was famous for playing entire tunes on his train’s whistle as he came through our River Valley stations.
Unfortunately, this original song never saw widespread popularity and was never recorded.
Most company songs and jingles are largely forgotten, but this one was different. The chorus was catchy enough that it happened to stick in an Arkansas State prisoner’s head and quickly made its way into the work fields of Central Arkansas at Cummin’s State Prison near Pine Bluff. The jingle became a call-and-response lead by a inmate named Kelly Pace from Camden. Pace had been in and out of prison for most of his life for petty crimes, but later became known as a major traditional singer with many recordings now preserved in the Library of Congress.
The chorus was modified and the structure simplified. Instead of an advertisement for the company, it became a song detailing a train so fast that it arrives at its destination in Little Rock before its departure from Memphis.
Instead of “The engine that he runs is 849,” we get the line:
“Well, the train left Memphis at half-past nine,
It made it back to Little Rock at 8:49”
The chorus was modified into an easier to sing and catchier version:
“Oh, The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road,
The Rock Island Line, it’s a road to ride,
The Rock Island Line, is a mighty good road,
If you want to ride it, you gotta ride it like you find it.
Get your tickets at the station on the Rock Island Line”
In addition, the references to Rock Island celebrities were removed.
The first recordings of this song were done by the famous folk historians John and Alan Lomax along with the recording artist Huddie Ledbetter at the Arkansas State Prison in Little Rock, and the Cummins Prison Farm near Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1934. They heard the tune being used as a work song, by the inmates.
Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, first heard this song while accompanying the Lomax brothers. His recording in 1937 was the public’s first exposure to the song. Leadbelly’s cover of the song included a guitar part and additional gospel lines. It’s this rendition that was responsible for the song’s explosion of popularity.
Leadbelly was also the first to add a narrative intro to the song, which recounts the story of an engineer tricking a toll operator into letting him run the line for free. The story explains that lighter loads like livestock were free to pass without a toll, while heavy loads like pig iron had to pay. As the train leaves the gate and begins to pick up speed, the song picks up tempo. The toll gates open and the engineer whistles the message, “I thank you, I thank you, I thank you.”
The next major recording wasn’t until 1955 by Lonnie Donegan, but resulted in another spike in popularity. This version was certified gold in the UK and helped trigger the skiffle craze, which was a genre of music with jazz, blues, and folk influences, performed up-tempo with traditional folk instruments.
Johnny Cash’s cover in 1957 is the most commonly heard version for American audiences and is still played on country radio. Cash refines the storytelling introduction and adds a line about the engineer indicating two beverages he wants to try before he dies: “a hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea.”
His version of the story is as follows:
Now this here’s a story about the Rock Island Line
Well the Rock Island Line she runs down into New Orleans
There’s a big tollgate down there and you know
If you got certain things on board when you go through the tollgate
Well you don’t have to pay the man no toll
Well a train driver, he pulled up to the tollgate
And a man hollered and asked him what all he had on board and he said:
I got livestock
I got livestock
I got cows
I got pigs
I got sheep
I got mules
I got all livestock
Well he said you’re alright boy you don’t have to pay no toll,
You can just go right on through. So he went on through the tollgate.
And as he went through he started picking up a little bit of speed,
Picking up a little bit of steam
He got on through and he turned and looked back at the man he said:
Well I fooled you
I fooled you
I got pig iron
I got pig iron
I got all pig iron
This version peaked the tune’s popularity, and later versions kept the same basic structure cemented by Johnny Cash and Leadbelly. Over the years, Rock Island Line evolved from a railroad company jingle to a song about an outlaw engineer duping the rail company.
The Rock Island Line is not just a song, though. The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad operated in Arkansas beginning in 1902. It originally ran from the gateway to the west in Ft. Smith to Memphis and from Chicago to New Orleans. The River Valley portion of the line ran south of the Arkansas River and was a major part of the economy in towns like Booneville, Danville, Belleville, and Ola.
The rail line had a particular impact on the town of Booneville in south Logan County. When the tracks were originally laid, much of the town was south of the railroad. To encourage development, the company bought the farmland north of the track and offered it for free to business owners if they would move their businesses to the north side of the tracks. Booneville was also the railroad crew change where trains would stop to change engineers. This crew change stop is responsible for the most notable event in Booneville’s history on July 9, 1938 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech from the back of his railcar to a crowd of 3,000.
The line carried passengers, oil from El Dorado, logs from the Ouachitas, and agricultural products from eastern Arkansas for almost 80 years. It was unfortunately shut down in January 1980 after entering bankruptcy.
Through song, story, and steel, the Rock Island Line is an important part of Arkansas history. If you have a chance, take a drive along highway 10 from Ola to Booneville. You’ll often catch glimpses of the old rail line hidden in the trees. Many of the iron rail bridges still stand, and the rail crossings can still be seen in Belleville. The remains of the crew change station in Booneville can still be seen behind the town post office, and Stoby’s restaurant in Russellville even has a few Rock Island passenger cars on display.