ASSUMPTION – Perspiring freely while dressed in the close-fitting uniform of a late railroad conductor who had conducted his last train back in 1969, Doug Swift is busy shunting his audience into the past.
He spoke recently at the headquarters of the Assumption Historical Society, and it was clear that the heating system was bent on working up a good head of steam. Swift, however, was not so easily diverted from his task: He lives, eats and breathes the history of the railroads that shaped Central Illinois and, with pauses to dab at his streaming face, the iron horse of his narrative plowed on.
He talked of such railroads as the Gulf Mobile & Ohio, the Illinois Terminal, the Wabash and many more, describing a network of trains that moved people around in the days before anyone had coupled “auto” and “mobile” into one noun that would derail the train world. If video killed the radio star, it’s pretty clear America’s all-conquering automobile culture switched train passenger service onto a very secondary siding.
There always is the past to look forward to, however, and Swift collects it.
He’s a committee member of the Chatham Railroad Museum near Springfield and a personal seeker of railroad memorabilia. His Assumption home is packed with goodies, many of them rare, such as that conductor’s uniform for the Gulf Mobile & Ohio railroad, tailored in Chicago in 1964, according to the label. With its original gold buttons and gold conductor’s badge, the outfit evoked the smart days of bygone travel, when trains flashed through cornfields carrying swaying dining car passengers who ate full-course meals punctuated by the clink of fine china.
Swift, whose personal collection includes a full-size and working railroad signal at home, didn’t manage to bring the signal in to illustrate his talk, but he did show up with that uniform and a wide selection of plates, silverware and other goodies from rail’s golden ages.
A lot of the stuff is connected to the Gulf Mobile & Ohio, the railroad that cut through Swift’s Auburn hometown. His father worked for the Hulcher Emergency Railroad Service and was dispatched to fix things when trains derailed, frequently taking his train-obsessed boy with him.
An adult career riding the rails seemed inevitable for the young Swift, but it was not to be. When he graduated high school in 1979, it was already a case of the twilight of the railroad gods, which were all busy consuming each other with mergers and acquisitions and no one hiring. “My dad ended up eventually owning trucks, starting a trucking company, and I just started driving a truck for a living, and I’ve been doing it 33 years now,” said Swift, 50.
But the love of trains and the era of train travel never died, and his infectious enthusiasm sweeps others along. “We always try to find speakers who can give us a little insight into history,” said Joyce Throneburg, the president of the Assumption Historical Society. “And Doug is very knowledgeable and very passionate.”
It also turns out that there is some good news to be passionate about, as well. Swift said the surviving train companies are now going great guns moving around vast quantities of cargo, and the tentative steps toward creating a high-speed passenger rail service through Central Illinois is yet another light at the end of the tunnel. “I see a lot more riders coming for Amtrak,” said Swift. “The railroads still have a good long life left in them.”
And there’s all that railroad memorabilia left out there to be hunted, too, and the supreme collector is all aboard and in hot pursuit. He already has a vast model train collection, of course, but no full-size locomotive of his own to play with. At least, not yet. “Oh, I wish,” he adds with a mournful grin, dabbing at another persistent bead of railroad-inspired perspiration.