Train 2231 pulled into the Elgin Depot Tuesday night just after 6 p.m., setting off a handful of small dynamite "torpedoes," adding loud bangs to the sounds of its own whistle and a cheering crowd.
Hector Feliciano got hired as a locomotive engineer July 12, 1970. At that time it was the Milwaukee Railroad operating freight service out of Elgin, and torpedoes were still in use as safety devices for trains. Tuesday -- 42 years after he was hired -- Feliciano pulled into the Chicago Street Metra Station on his last run, having never worked anywhere else but the Elgin line.
Contact information ( * required )
"Being a locomotive engineer, it's like a dream come true," Feliciano said. "It's an opportunity that was presented to me and I knew that it's one that you took and you took care of it."
Feliciano grew up in Elgin and got the job through his friend's dad, who was also an engineer. Back before Metra bought the line and became a huge corporation with its own human resources department, all Feliciano had to do was walk up to the Elgin Depot on Chicago Street and say who sent him. He got hired on the spot.
A lot more has changed since Feliciano started his career. Some of the units and coaches he used to operate when he started are now in the Illinois Railway Museum in Union.
"They're museum pieces," Feliciano said, laughing. "And that's probably what they're calling me."
Feliciano, 62, plans to enjoy retirement by spending more time with his wife and traveling. The couple, who now live in Genoa, are all ready for their trip to Puerto Rico to spend a week exploring the island where Feliciano was born before catching a cruise to South America.
But first, Feliciano celebrated with family, friends and dozens of current and former co-workers in a retirement send-off that started Tuesday at the Chicago Street station, where Feliciano first got hired.
Art Danz showed up from his home in Antioch for the celebration, decked out in the original conductor uniform from the Milwaukee Railroad -- a full suit he wore in Tuesday's extreme heat in the name of tradition. The gathering included dozens of fellow Milwaukee Railroad veterans, most of whom have already retired, sharing stories of days past.
Danz said the group has been through a lot since the early 1970s: the Milwaukee Railroad's bankruptcy and worry over their jobs, the switch to commuter lines, the purchase by Metra.
"That's why we're so tight," Danz said. "We fought like family and we loved like family."
A similar crowd gathers each time one of their own retires, and many of the gathered conductors and engineers really are family -- Feliciano's brother Ralph is a few years away from retirement himself. Ralph is a conductor and often works on the same train as his brother, admiring the trailblazer who was the first Puerto Rican ever hired on the line.
"It's really an emotional thing here," Feliciano said of his brother's retirement. "All the passengers and all the people all know him. He's an icon on this railroad."
Hector Feliciano is the last engineer from Metra who worked on the famous passenger trains that traveled from Chicago to L.A. His retirement is the end of an era -- an era he greatly enjoyed.
"It's just been such a thrill working," Feliciano said. "It's been a good life."