No, this isn’t from WWII in the forties, but present day history buffs volunteering their time in their magnificent period uniforms aboard the “Frank Thomson” PRR closed-end observation car, seated in its comfortable art deco lounge area and photographed on September 16, 2018. The train is the “Joliet Rocket” clipping along at over sixty miles per hour on its way to Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station powered by the famous Iron War Horse #765 of the Nickel Plate Road. Built in 1944, NKP 765 is now owned and operated by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society. The four fan trips held over the weekend of September 15th and 16th, 2018 are named in remembrance of the fallen-flag Rock Island Rocket trains of the past that ran on these rails.

Four cars back from the main engine tender of NKP 765, the open door baggage car gave any brave soul a real experience aboard the Joliet Rocket. I’ve been on plenty of fan trips in the decades past, but today’s experience was the most punishing with cinders sandblasting your face. The train was moving at full speed, reportedly around sixty-three miles per hour. The old double track former Rock Island trackage is now utilized by Metra Chicago commuter trains. The gentleman in the pic certainly knows where he is going as he is wearing a RR map à la the old Official Railway Guide.

Goggles were the order of the day in this open car for those die hard rail fans who wanted to experience the smell of smoke and steam and the feel of cinders against their face and in their hair. The baggage car was a great place for rail fans to share their railroad experiences. For the few minutes it took me to take a few pictures, I spent hours picking cinders out of my hair.

Photo by Eric Hendrickson – Copyright 2019 – Used with permission

Forwarded to me by a friend, this beautiful photo taken by Eric Hendrickson (using a drone) shows the Joliet Rocket near Oak Forest, Illinois. I was on the morning Sunday trip departing at 7:45 a.m. riding in the dark maroon coach, the second car after the spare tender.

Seventy five years ago this may have been the scene at stations across the country. Major train stations had United Service Organizations (USO) centers staffed by volunteers who offered around-the-clock hospitality for traveling service members and their families. I have memories of them back in the day, for instance at the St. Louis Union Station. Travelers Aid stations staffed by volunteers were available for the civilian folks. As a young kid, I have memories of two uniformed military MP’s at St Louis’s Union Station dressed in their white helmets, white spats, carrying BIG nightsticks and maybe looking for someone.

Rail fans young and old got a chance to get up close to view the engine cab and talk to the engineer.
Nickel Plate 765 in its spit shine “Sunday Best” provides the backdrop at LaSalle Street as yours truly and granddaughter Addison have our picture taken.

The photo below depicts the activity at the LaSalle Street Station following the arrival of the Joliet Rocket Sunday morning train. Nickel Plate 765 poses proudly in the background as box lunches, souvenirs and refreshments are available and as disembarked passengers are entertained by an on-site band. Commuter activity was ongoing using tracks to the left of the picture.

The original station head house and train shed was first opened in 1852. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the station and required the third followed by a fourth version to be built that lasted until 1981. The current structure is the fifth iteration of the station and is a much diminished version compared to its heyday years. The station today is relegated to Metra’s Rock Island District commuter service with no Amtrak inter-city service, all of which was moved to and consolidated at Chicago’s Union Station.

Since no means exists to turn NKP 765 around, the steam engine ran backwards for the return trip to Joliet. An Amtrak diesel locomotive coupled to the back of the consist piloted the train cab forward, I assume, on the return trip. Due to the length of the train, the diesel locomotive was out of view from the passengers at both the Joliet and Chicago stations. A Fort Wayne Railroad Society official reported to me that Metra mandated that the Fort Wayne organizers have all their Joliet Rocket equipment removed from the rail system by dawn Monday in preparation for the commuter rush hour.

Epilogue on the Frank Thomson

This photo, taken three days later on September 19, 2018, following the Joliet Rocket trips, shows the “Frank Thomson” being deadheaded on the Chicago to Indianapolis Amtrak “Hoosier State.” Just a few minutes after its 7:35 p.m. CDT scheduled arrival time, Amtrak Train #850 accelerates out of Rensselaer, Indiana, with the Frank Thomson and its brightly lit keystone drumhead in tow. The car owner’s brother (barely seen in the far open vestibule) waved at me as the car rolled by.

The observation car is named after the 6th President of the old Pennsylvania RR in the 1800’s. This car once adorned the proud and mighty Pennsylvania RR’s famed passenger trains. I learned from knowledgeable PRR fans that the Frank Thomson was one of a group of observation cars called the “President” cars, Class POS, named after former PRR presidents. This class was equipped with two drawing rooms, one compartment, and one double bedroom. The President Class cars were built for use on the Liberty Limited, Cincinnati Limited and the Spirit of St. Louis.

The crack Broadway Limited used a different configuration observation car on its trains that were called the “View” cars, Class POS21. The View cars had dual master bedrooms, and one double bedroom. Both the “View” cars and the “President” cars had a lounge area. One of the “President” cars, the “Samuel Rea”, served as backup on the Broadway Limited when a View car was unavailable.

The Frank Thomson negotiates the slow order curve in Monon, Indiana at 8:50 a.m. EDT on October 14, 2018, coupled to Amtrak’s Hoosier State #851 as it heads back to Chicago. The car’s owner, Jamie Stickel, with a young rail fan at his side waves from the open vestibule. The classic rail car will join a large contingent of other private rail cars (PC’s) at Union Station for a journey to West Virginia that same evening. The PC’s will be part of a tour of the West Virginia New River Gorge comprised of all private cars.

Amtrak Train #850, the “Hoosier State” crosses US-Rt. 421 in the heart of Monon, Indiana just after 9 p.m. EDT on October 14, 2018. Additional motive power was added this night by Amtrak, as I counted twenty-five private cars added to the normal consist. Final destination was Huntington, West Virginia, where a tour by all the PC’s was planned along the historic New River Gorge to Hinton, West Virginia during the period of peak colors of the fall foliage. This picture shows the California Zephyr “Silver Palace” which is just one of the twenty-five PC’s, many of which are the finest examples of surviving cars from various roads in the country. The “Frank Thomson,” which was my ride from the Joliet Rocket trip, brought up the rear of the long consist.

This is former Chicago Indianapolis & Louisville, CI&L (Monon RR) territory which is now part of the CSX system. Though the train is headed to Indy, ironically it will avoid going over the crossover 150 yards ahead which was the Monon’s old Indy route, but will curve to the right and take the old Louisville route on its journey to Indianapolis. The old Indy route tracks now end just seven miles ahead in Monticello, Indiana.

End of the Line

The location is Monticello, IN where rusty tracks end just a few feet ahead of W. Fisher St. while the former raised roadbed is still visible across the street curving southward. This was the old abandoned Chicago Indianapolis & Louisville route to Indianapolis. In the opposite direction (behind me) the rails are still active and are now owned by the CSX. I believe the only industry CSX now services, on now what amounts to a branch line, is a concrete materials plant maybe 150 yards from where I am standing. Alas, though this route to Indy is now long gone, Amtrak passenger service from Chicago to Indianapolis still lives on over portions of the former Monon system via their old Louisville route just seven miles back in the town of Monon.

Paul FlahertyPhotographs and text Copyright 2019

4 thoughts on “Riding the Joliet Rocket

  1. Paul, envious of your trip. Great photo of you and your granddaughter in front of the drivers. She will remember the day (and the steam engine as the biggest thing she ever saw) for the rest of her life. So glad you caught these classic cars for all to enjoy.

    1. Robert, thank you for your nice comment and I’m glad you enjoyed it, but YOU are the one to be envious of. The California Zephyr was always a train I wanted to ride on back-in-the-day. Although RR employee families could ride free on most RR’s, it was not allowed on western RR’s. My dream as a teen would be to have the double bedroom in the observation/dome car – heaven on earth. Also available was a single drawing room with shower!

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