A volunteer since 2002 for the North Carolina Railway Museum, home of the New Hope Valley Railway (NHVR), Mike MacLean once held paying jobs with a mountain tourist railway and freight railroad company.
The NHVR museum and trains are 100 percent operated and maintained by volunteers. Mike and the many other volunteers who work there share a passion for trains and a dedication to preserve the local treasure known as the Triangle’s Train.
Like most of those who give up a significant amount of their free time to work in the rail yard, Mike’s love of trains dates to his childhood in the suburbs of Texas.
“We lived near a railroad. We couldn’t see the trains from where we lived, but whenever we heard them my father and I would jump in the pickup truck to go watch them pass by. He thought it was just a fad, but years later I’m still into trains,” explains Mike.
While a junior at NC State University, Mike found a weekend job that paid him for his love and knowledge of trains at a mountain tourist railroad. Perfect for the train lover, it was a 600-mile round trip from Raleigh to the railroad’s shop.
“I put 90,000 miles on my car in two years while I worked there,” Mike says.
Mike was hired by the tourist railroad to be a car host. He soon went on to work in “every job they had.” He was a dishwasher on the dinner train, a crew leader, conductor and his longest held job as hostler. Mike explains that a hostler is best described in modern terms as “a night watchman.”
The term originates from the middle ages when people would ride a horse into town, stay at the inn and give their horse to the hostler who would groom it, feed it and put in the barn overnight before returning it to its owner the next morning. The term transferred to those who took care of iron horses so when the train crew arrived the engines would be ready to go.
“I’d leave the Triangle on Friday afternoon and arrive at the railroad shop in the evening. I’d wash the engine, clean the cab, fuel it, oil it, grease it and get it ready for its run the next day. I’d work until 6 a.m., stay at a hotel during the day or crash on a friend’s couch and do that same shift Saturday night then drive back to Raleigh on Sunday morning,” Mike says.
While a senior in college he got an IT internship with a company in Research Triangle Park and eventually hired on full time while continuing to work weekends at the railroad.
Mike’s train journey continued when he left his job in RTP in 2000 to take a job in Kansas with a major class 1 railroad. While he enjoyed the experience, he missed the South and moved back to the Triangle after a year and decided to look for train opportunities closer to home. That’s when he discovered New Hope Valley Railway in Bonsal—30 miles southwest of Raleigh and a much closer drive for Mike.
During the nearly 20 years he’s been a volunteer for the Triangle’s Train, Mike has served on the Board of Directors beginning in 2006, was Board President from 2012 – 2015, and is now head of the Steam department. His biggest task is leading the “Steam Team” that is repairing Steam Engine #17 that is currently out-of-service due to a mandated, 15-year, Federal Railroad Administration inspection.
Mike believes NHVR is the perfect venue to show and tell people the story of railroading.
“This is one of the few places where someone can get close to a steam engine,” Mike says. “We’re a unique venue where families can create memories riding a train and at the same time learn about an important mode of transportation that played a key role in American history.”
Mike now shares his love of trains with his own family—his very patient wife Amy and his two young daughters.