Strombecker Rock Island Rocket


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.

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

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.

Strombecker Rock Island TA Diesel Locomotive

Strombecker Rock Island TA Diesel Locomotive

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.

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

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.

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

In all, a remarkable model of a remarkable train, perhaps even more so since it is made of such crude materials.


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11 Responses to “Strombecker Rock Island Rocket”

  1. Gary Says:

    Riley, I don’t recall seeing this in your collection. What you need to see on your next visit here — if I can find the right box — is my Strombecker box with a Chicago & Northwestern passenger train in it. To dress those wooden wheels the kit came with cardboard pieces to wrap around the trucks imprinted with the images of brake shoes, journal boxes and truck springs. I think I was about six years old when Grandma and Grandpa Witmer gave it to me, probably as a Christmas present. Nice to see our mutual nostalgia on display here. – Gary

  2. Deborah Says:

    It was great to get some info and pictures about this train. I am going through an estate of a train enthusiast and found some wooden trains. The Rocket is missing the wheels right now, so I’ll keep searching for the rest of it. Thanks!

    • Riley Says:

      Strombecker manufactured several different trains over the years. I have a Stephenson’s “Rocket” kit in my collection, and Gary has the C&NW train. I’ve also had some cars lettered for Union Pacific, but I’ve never seen a comprehensive list of what they made in the trains.

      They’re all crude, as could be expected for wooden trains; there’s just so much that you can do with wood and paper. I’ve got to write about the Strombeck connection at some point, since it was Vernon Strombeck and Becker that comprised Strombecker. Uncle Vernon move on after artistic differences as to whether they should continue to manufacture things made out of wood. Becker had advocated the switch to injected plastic, which was, of course, the right move.

  3. jim robinson Says:

    hello riley i have this very kit in my posession mint in box totally unbuilt all of the origional decoration and instructions are still in ther too. my grandfather bought this kit brand new and never built it. i build models to mostely 1/32 aircraft. this kit was given to myself when he passed away 10 years ago. after seeing your pictures i wanted to let you know about this kit. i dont know any model railroaders so if you know anybody interested in this kit i will make agood deal on selling it. i do not collect old kits and would rather see a serious modeler buy it and hopefully build it . i live in the edmonton area.

    • Riley Says:

      We’re not really a marketplace as much as a commentary place. If you’re looking to sell this kit, the best place seems to be eBay, which is where I picked up the original train. Best regards,


  4. Valorie Bartholic Says:

    Great article, We book marked the web site in order to go to again in the foreseeable future, Very good luck

  5. Strombecker trains | Unidompus Says:

    […] Strombecker Rock Island Rocket « – Train TalkMar 9, 2009 … 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 … […]

  6. keith douglass Says:

    The Rock Island Rocket loco is a VERY credible HO model of the TA except for being about one scale foot short. I have just about every Strombecker kit ever, except for that big articulated. I really like building these kits into as clean a model as possible, with “metal” surfaces sanded and coated as many times as necessary to get them to look like metal. I’ve gotten all of my kits from E-Bay in the last couple of years. A few I paid big prices for, thinking I would never see another, only to see another pop up and sell for much less a couple weeks later. I’m presently building the City of San Francisco set, but it came without wheels. Does anybody know where I could get some of the wheels?

    • Riley Says:

      If you’re looking for metal wheelsets, then Northwest Short Line is your best place to begin. If you want the wood type that came with the kit, you’ll probably have to do them yourself. The axles on my TA are metal with wooden wheels, so some rod stock and then wood blanks turned to the proper dimensions. This could possibly be done with an electric drill, but a simple lathe would get you something close to what the originals were.

      • keith douglass Says:

        Thanks – the contour of the original wood wheels would be kind of hard to reproduce, especially as many times as I would need them, so I may just wait and see if something doesn’t show up on E Bay. Not like I don’t have other projects in the meantime.

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