The VERY Last Train from Memphis

by Bill Pollard, Ⓒ 2018

The departure of Extra 4436 west from Memphis on the evening of March 23, 1980 was indeed the last train from Memphis operated in common carrier service by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway. Soon after the railroad shut down, however, the Rock Island trustee began limited train operations using management crews for the purpose of moving equipment to points for sale or scrapping. None of this activity was present in Arkansas until late November 1980, when two Rock Island locomtives, GP38-2 4354 and SW8 829 appeared at the former Rock Island Biddle shops. The GP38-2 remained in Arkansas only a few months before being sold in February 1981. The 829, on the other hand, remained in Arkansas for trustee clean-up train operations until early 1984 when it was shipped back to the former Rock Island shops at Silvis after suffering freeze damage. A second SW8, the 830, was shipped to Biddle for the remaining months until trustee operations ended in May 1984, but this unit rarely ventured beyond the confines of Biddle yard.

Until recently, it was presumed that trustee train operations did not extend east of Brinkley, because the railroad from that point to Memphis was being operated by the Cotton Belt. Also, the Cotton Belt had removed the crossing diamond at Brinkley, thus isolating the Brinkley-Memphis segment from the remainder of the Rock Island. Now, some thirty-seven years after the fact, new evidence has surfaced to confirm that at least five trips were made into Memphis by the trustee train to remove Rock Island cars from Fourth Street yard. Documentation comes from the Cotton Belt's Brinkley, Arkansas train register, as well as from Brinkley line ups and train orders, a summary appearing below. Note that dispatching direction conforms to the Cotton Belt protocol (north-south) rather than the former Rock Island protocol (east-west).

A series of line-ups between Brinkley and Briark illustrate the operation of RI 829 to and from Memphis. Eastbound movements were made with a single car, presumably a caboose, while westbound trips carried about 40 empty freight cars. The RI-SSW crossing was reinstalled on June 22, 1981. Records do not exist to explain how this obstacle was handled on the earlier May 26th and June 2nd trips to Memphis.

From information currently available, it appears that the June 26, 1981 movement of extra RI 829 to and from Memphis was the last of the trustee movements east of Brinkley. If that is indeed the case, then the train orders and clearance for extra RI 829 north at Brinkley were perhaps the last train orders ever issued to a Rock Island locomotive in Arkansas. Similar orders would have been issued at Kentucky Street, Memphis, for the southbound movement back to Brinkley. RI 829 made numerous other trips after this date to Mesa, Fordyce and possibly west, but train operation over those lines was not handled by train order.

Thus far, no photographic evidence has surfaced of the Rock Island ghost train operation into Memphis. Do photographs of the 829 at Brinkley, passing Forrest City station, or perhaps at Kentucky Street exist in some collection?

RI 829 was an unfortunate choice to be the "last" Rock Island locomotive to operate over much of the former Rock Island in Arkansas. Of the SW8 switchers, the 829 presented the most bedraggled and patched appearance, with paint scaling off the side, Scotchlite heralds that were almost invisible, and unattractive white paint on each end. It was not photogenic, but it did play a part in the final chapter of Rock Island history.

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