Joe P. Rook started working for the Rock Island in Little Rock at the age of 17. After initially working in the storeroom at Biddle Yard in the summer of 1951, he worked his way up to becoming a brakeman, then conductor. He would remain with the railroad, witnessing its slow demise, until the bankrupt Rock Island was finally shut down in 1980.
Most employees of the railroad had nicknames. Rook was known as Buzzy. He traveled on routes throughout Arkansas, even working for a time as a conductor on passenger trains. But he preferred freight service because it enabled him to be home more often. Rook had his share of near-death experiences in train wrecks and nearly slid off the bridge over the Arkansas River at Little Rock.
After the Rock Island shut down, Rook was among employees who lobbied lawmakers at the Arkansas State Capitol for a plan that would involve the tracks being purchased by the state and leased to another railroad. But it was narrowly defeated, which led to much of the track eventually being taken up. He also learned how good he had it at the Rock Island when he then worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
I knew Joe for nearly two decades through his daughter Louisa, who has remained a close friend. After years of hearing him talk about his experiences, it was great to be able to record some of his stories in December 2003, which you can listen to below. Joe Rook died on June 3, 2007.
AUDIO: STARTING WITH THE ROCK ISLAND. He got his first position shortly after graduating high school. He talks about later becoming a brakeman on freight trains, life in cabooses and the routes through Arkansas.
AUDIO: PASSENGER TRAINS. For a time he worked as a conductor on passenger trains. He discusses the different trains, the demise of passenger service and why, despite the easy pace, he preferred working on freights.
AUDIO: ACCIDENTS & TECHNOLOGY. One of his more dramatic accidents was in a caboose that derailed, tipping over near a trestle with a 50-foot drop. He hurt his neck in another accident at the depot in Carlisle.
AUDIO: MORE ACCIDENTS. Discusses a fatal head-on collision between two passenger trains in North Little Rock that was caused by human error. He also had a friend who was killed in Malvern in a switching accident.
AUDIO: EXPERIENCES ON TRAINS. Passing time often included pranks. He also talks about nearly slipping off the bridge over the Arkansas River, cabooses and experiences with fellow employee L.T. Walker.
AUDIO: ROCK ISLAND SHUTS DOWN. Discusses his experiences as the railroad declined, then went bankrupt. He then worked for Cotton Belt, which, for a while, ran on Rock Island tracks through Arkansas.
AUDIO: SELL OFF. Discusses the final days of the railroad, low moral and the equipment and land then being sold. He was surprised the Rock island was allowed to die and discusses working for other railroads.
In December 2004 Joe took me along as he and his wife Jane attended a gathering of former Arkansas Rock Island employees. Decades after the railroad shut down, they continued meeting every other month mostly to catch up and find out how everyone is doing. They also hold an annual picnic that draws in even more former employees.
This meeting was at a Western Sizzlin in Benton, just outside of Little Rock. Joe had emphasized to me how much more of a family the Rock Island was compared to other railroads he worked for. The fact that they were still getting together decades after the Rock Island shut down was strong proof of that.