Jason Maxwell, 47, of Elgin wasn't even born when steam locomotives in revenue service for U.S. railroads dropped their fires for the last time around 1960.
Nevertheless, Maxwell has had a lifelong interest in railroading, and despite the ubiquitous presence of diesel-electric locomotives, he developed an affection for steam.
A volunteer in the steam department at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union for 25 years, Maxwell sees himself as somewhat of a bridge between men who had worked on steam locomotives as professional railroaders and those in their 20s today who are volunteering at the museum.
"The technology around steam locomotives is kind of going extinct, because there are fewer and fewer people that know it," Maxwell said. "A lot of the older gentlemen that did this for a living are starting to pass away. Hopefully I can pass that on to someone that's starting out here now."
Maxwell's interest in railroading started with model trains, which he continues to do. Around 1971, his dad first brought him out to the museum.
Frisco 1630, a Russian 2-10-0 decapod, was among the small group of steam locomotives operating at Union in the early 1970s. The locomotive was built in 1918 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works for use in Russia, but because of the Bolshevik Revolution it never got there. Instead, the engine was converted to U.S. standard gauge and was sold to the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway.
In 1973 the museum acquired it, where it served reliably for another 30 years before being taken out of service in 2004 for its scheduled rebuilding, as mandated by the Federal Railway Administration.
Following 10 years of painstaking restoration by museum volunteers, including Maxwell, the engine returned to service this past spring.
Maxwell is a 1989 graduate of the University of Illinois and his day job is as a chemical engineer in research and development for Clorox. He is married and has a 14-year-old daughter.
Maxwell said one of the joys of working on the engine is talking to children who come to see an operating steam engine up close.
"I probably have the most fun talking to the little kids, people that are 5 to 6 years old that want to look inside the cab and just stare at the engine," Maxwell said. "Hopefully we can spark interest in some of them and they'll be out here in 15 years helping us out."