Bruce Nachtman can thank his nearly 52-year-long career with the railroad on a bout with mononucleosis back when he was a junior in college.
The Riverside native, a 1958 graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School, was just beginning his third year at Bradley University in Peoria when his came down with mono, effectively ending his semester.
“I was OK by November, but I couldn’t go back to school until January, so I got a job with the railroad,” said Nachtman, now 73 years old.
That was in 1961. He was hired as a messenger for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, starting a career that will finally wrap up June 28, the last day he spends inside the ticket office at the train station in downtown Riverside.
“I’m going to miss it for a while,” said Nachtman, who has been a train agent at the Riverside station since 1997, the year the Burlington Northern merged with the Santa Fe Railroad to become the BNSF.
Not just the name of the railroad has changed over time. The trains themselves have gone through quite a transformation. When Nachtman started in the early 1960s, freight trains were still pulled by massive steam engines; the switch to diesel engines was just beginning, he said.
“The biggest change was from steam to diesel; it’s much cleaner,” said Nachtman, who has a photo of a steam engine and one of an early diesel engine on the wall inside the Riverside ticket office. “Young people today have never seen a steam engine. They were fascinating.”
They certainly fascinated Nachtman as a boy growing up in Riverside.
“I always liked the railroad,” he said. “I had a big Lionel train as a kid.”
Nachtman also remembers a trip with a friend in 1963 from Los Angeles to Chicago aboard the gleaming California Zephyr. The two had driven a brand new Cadillac from an auto dealer in Chicago to the West Coast (“It was cheaper for the company than shipping it by rail,” Nachtman said.) and hopped the legendary passenger train for the trip back. They roughed it in coach, but enjoyed the train’s “Vista Dome” observation cars.
In the early 1970s, Nachtman was promoted to transportation supervisor with the newly formed Burlington Northern Railroad and eventually landed at the Cicero rail yard as a hold track/car order clerk, a job he found challenging but also rewarding.
In 1973, he married his wife, Joanne, and the two eventually moved to Westchester. For a couple of months prior to moving into the new home, when he still called Riverside home and Joanne lived in Westmont, Nachtman would hitch a ride from a friendly train engineer (a practice frowned upon these days, Nachtman noted), who would deposit him in Westmont each night.
He became the Riverside train agent in 1997 when the BNSF formed and the company headquarters moved to Fort Worth, Texas.
Since then, Nachtman has manned the ticket office from 5:20 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. every weekday and has sold about 300 commuter tickets a week. He has also overseen the station and has kept an eye out for anything amiss with the 200 or so trains that pass through Riverside on the BNSF tracks each day.
“I like interacting with people, and there are a lot of nice customers,” said Nachtman. “It’s also the lightest station on the line, which is nice for an old fart like me.”
Nachtman is looking forward to doing more traveling with Joanne — last November they spent three weeks in Hawaii and are planning an Alaskan cruise. He also enjoys fishing up in northern Wisconsin, away from the noise of passing freights and commuter trains.
“I’ll miss the people; a lot of them I’ve known for years,” he said. “It’s a fun job.”