As a 6-year-old in Colleyville, Texas, Mike MacLean remembers hearing the trains go by on the tracks near his home. His dad would pack him into the pickup truck, and they would drive down the road to wave to the engineer and watch the caboose fade into the distance.
Later as an N.C. State mechanical engineering student, MacLean continued to invest time and energy in trains, interning at the Great Smoky Mountain Railway. Last spring, after years of learning as much as he could about steam engines, MacLean, a resident of Cary, was named president of the New Hope Valley Railway.
He believes in the ongoing relevance of trains and the need for young people to take an interest in how all sorts of products are shipped across the nation. He hopes to inspire and educate and make NHVR a learning experience for people of all ages.
Q: In indulging your passion for trains, you interned for the Great Smoky Mountain Railway but that’s not very close to N.C. State, is it?
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No, I drove to my internship each weekend, and I estimated that I put about 90,000 miles on my car in three years. I did an IT co-op with GlaxoSmithKline during the week while I attended school. I was pretty busy, but I learned how to operate a train.
Q: How did you get involved with the New Hope Valley Railway (NHVR)?
I was looking for something local. Remember the miniature train they used to ride in (the TV show) Silver Spoons? They had something like that at a store in Apex. When I visited, they told me about (NHVR).
I started volunteering in 2002, really as an “engine wiper,” which is strictly entry-level. Anything having to do with the operation of the engine, I would step in and help out. They call it a “hostler,” which originated in the Middle Ages, when someone would ride a horse into town and stop for the night. The hostler would feed and take care of the horse. When the “iron horse,” or train, came into being, “hostler” stuck. The hostler would fuel the train and oil it, take care of it in general.
Q: Has there been a surprise for you after learning so much about steam engines?
I am constantly surprised. A steam locomotive is constantly wearing itself out. There is always something wrong, so you have to stay on top of everything.
Much of it is Engineering 101; a steam locomotive is very hands-on. You can get in there and get your hands dirty.
Q: Do you have any wishes that you could have been involved with trains in their heyday?
Definitely. About 150 years ago, the people who designed the steam locomotive were like rocket scientists today. They produced engineering magic.
Q: How do you manage to maintain a steam locomotive in today’s world?
We have terrific volunteers; we call them “old heads,” who know so much about how they work.
We also make contacts with the people at Tweetsie, Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania, and the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke. The great thing about the steam engine community is that it’s very small; if you reach out, they will help you.
But of course, we try to standardize our maintenance by using parts off the shelf. For instance, boilers are still a part of the nuclear industry. But casting, roads, brake equipment they have to be custom. Or for things like injectors, which are fairly complex, Strasburg has figured out how to make them. We contract with them for parts like that.
Q: Do you think trains are still relevant in today’s society?
I think for us today, trains run in the background of our lives. Unless we get stuck at a railroad crossing, we don’t think about them. But many kids don’t realize that the iPod they use, the orange juice they drink or the car they ride in were all delivered by train.
I talked with some students at one of the magnet schools recently at a career day. I wanted to show kids things that relate to their lives so that they might catch a spark of interest. The railroads still have great careers for young people.
Q: What are your goals for NHVR?
It has such tremendous potential. We have amazing volunteers. I come in on the weekends, and the volunteers who work with the trains have already been in on Wednesday. The change is dramatic.
We hope to turn Bonsal into a railway park and maybe open up more than once a month. We are looking for partnerships in the community.
We also can travel with the locomotive. We will be visiting Roanoke for the Roanoke Rail Fest on May 12.
We are exploring getting a second steam locomotive and strengthening our relationships with other museums.