One of the more interesting items in my train collection is also one of the least expensive. It came from Strombecker, a model kit manufacturer that was originally located in Moline, Illinois. I have a back channel connection to Vernon Strombeck, but we will leave discussion about that until another day.
When you collect, you know other people who collect what you collect. As a rule, it is very collegial, in part because what I collect tends to be obscure. So, Ken Lundquist, a friend in the train business for many years, presented me with the item below.
Alas, it was an empty box, but it very nicely captures the spirit of a Strombecker kit. And it was a kit, with everything made of either wood or thick paper; the Strombecker kits of that era were crude by today’s standards. The cover art shows a Rock Island locomotive and streamlined train alongside railroad semaphores, signals which date back to the days of the steam locomotive.
There were six TA locomotive’s, built specifically to pull the Rocket streamliners of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. These streamlined trains were built by E. G. Budd, the same people that built the Pioneer Zephyr and many other passenger cars. It has been said that the Rock Island was the third railroad in most two-railroad cities, but they were always interesting and colorful. And the Rockets of 1937 were quite interesting, small high speed trains with all amenities on board. Strombecker’s choice of the Rocket was a natural, since the Rock Island had a major locomotive shop in Silvis, Illinois, right next door to Moline. No doubt, the kit planner knew someone at Silvis, who conveyed the plans from the railroad to Strombecker. In any case, the box sat empty for many years with a few other Strombecker items that I have.
One of the most interesting developments in the train collecting business is eBay; it’s like a giant yard sale, and if things are going to turn up, they’re going to turn up on eBay. By happenstance, I decided to do a key word search for Strombecker one day and an assembled Rock Island Rocket train turned up, being auctioned by an individual in Indiana. I gritted my teeth and put in an enormous bid, maybe upwards of $80.00. I clearly was hot for it.
An interesting aspect about collecting the odd and obscure is that stuff finds its way to you, much as the Strombecker box did. Another thing about collecting the odd and interesting things is that not everybody knows what an item is, or cares. While I was emotionally prepared to pay a large amount for the Rocket, everybody else lost their enthusiasm at around $20.00, and so the train was mine for what I consider to be a “song”.
The train is gorgeous, and whoever built it did a very credible job, especially in light of the fact that the locomotive is made of carved wood and the cars are carved wood with laminated lithographed paper sides. Up close and personal, the train is somewhat crude, but even then it still does justice to the efforts of Strombecker.
From the locomotive on the left, the typical Rocket had a small baggage compartment, kitchen, pantry and dinette section in the first car, coach seating in the second car and a tavern/lounge in the third car (the one with the rounded observation end). These Rockets operated at premium fares in high speed service.
There were six consists of cars; a car set for the Des Moines Rocket (Chicago – Des Moines), a car set for the Peoria Rocket (Chicago – Peoria), two car sets for Minneapolis – Kansas City service and a set for the Texas Rocket, which ran between Dallas and Houston.
The sixth set is the train which the model represents, for a train which operated between Kansas City and Denver, starting in 1937. The cars are named Bear Lake (baggage dinette), Mt. Evans (chair car) and Pikes Peak (observation). The Kansas City – Denver service did not last very long, and the train was put into service between Kansas City and Oklahoma City (later extended to Dallas) in late 1938. The cars were renamed with that route change.
In this photo, you can see that the wheels are made of wood, so the train is unpowered. There were enterprising modelers out there who made this train actually run. You can see the colorful livery of the Rock Island from a happier time, when the sight of this train passing through small town America was given due awe.
The TA’s were interesting locomotives, powered by the same Winton 201 diesel that powered the Pioneer Zephyr and were used in dedicated Rocket service. They were built by Electro-motive Diesel, a General Motors subsidiary company; it was the first time that EMD built their own locomotive carbodies. After the Rockets simply became another passenger train, the TA’s worked in all sorts of passenger service, ending up in the Chicago commuter pool and local service at the end.
The colorful livery of the Strombeck model reflects the earlier, happier days; many have called this the roadster paint scheme. Viewed from a certain angle, it looks like the front of the locomotive is an automobile. This is not a surprise, since EMD was General Motors company and, presumably, many of the graphics artists used to design the locomotive paint schemes of that era had automotive design experience.
Also, looking from the side of the locomotive, you can see the distinctive back taper of the locomotive carbody to match up with the lower height passenger cars.
In all, a remarkable model of a remarkable train, perhaps even more so since it is made of such crude materials.