“Trains have this certain indescribable characteristic of personability, and to be the voice of this trait is the greatest honor I could have ever asked for.”
Max poses for a photo as Strasburg 475 eases into the engine house. Photo by Logan Dahir.
I was always wary of doing an autobiographical piece mostly because I don’t want to come off as narcissistic. However, this semester in college, I took a creative writing course where we spent a great deal of time focusing on non-fiction before we had to write a memoir as one of the large writing assignments. After finishing my piece, I felt it was right to publish it, so here we go. Bear in mind this was an assignment for school, so it may sound a bit different than my usual writing, and it is most certainly longer. Anyways, I owe thanks to a few people before I get into this piece. First and foremost, my family, especially both my grandfathers, my dad and my Uncle Lou for getting me started on the right track with trains. Secondly, my longtime mentor and friend, Joey Moretto from Nicholas Smith Trains, a hobby shop where I used to work. Finally, my current boss at the Strasburg Rail Road, Ryan Merrill, has been one of the most influential people in my life. I cannot thank him enough for every lesson and every memory. Now, without further adieu, here is the story of some nerd who likes trains.
“So, you like Thomas or whatever?”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked this question, I might be the richest man in the world. This response seems to be the go-to for anyone who dares ask about my lifelong passion for all things railroading. While it may be true that the famous blue tank engine from the Island of Sodor helped start me on the track to becoming a train enthusiast, my interest stems much deeper than the classic animated show.
Ever since I’ve been on this planet, anything with wheels seemed to captivate me. My interest in trains started from watching a small model train circle the Christmas tree in our living room. A treasured family photo shows me at only six months old staring in awe as I watched this colorful block chug around the perimeter of the room, towing cars decorated with holiday lights and other trinkets. This humble operation would soon transform into a permanent set-up, as my dad quickly caught on to my older brother and I’s affection towards the train. Our basement was quickly occupied by another model train display, and my grandfather commissioned a friend of his to build one for his home. Later down the line, at around two years old, I had my first encounter with a real train. While I was sleeping in the back of the car, returning home from a family function, my parents came upon a railroad crossing that began to scream of an oncoming train, as its warning bell clanged and lights flashed. A train soon appeared, and while my parents expected the horn to wake me from my slumber- what they didn’t expect was my reaction: Instead of bursting out in tears after my peaceful slumber was so briskly disturbed, I stared in awe at the massive iron horses as they roared by. Somewhere in my brain, I think an idea clicked that those toys were meant to represent this thing. Trains were real, and I was just as infatuated with the real ones as I was the models.
In December of 2003, Max’s passion is already evident as he watches the seasonal train coast around the living room.
As the rest of my cousins began to express a similar interest in railroading, trains were a frequent topic of conversation in every household for my extended family. Trips to my grandparents’ house soon became a field day for me, as this meant I could play with the massive train layout that now resided in the basement. The trains were always fun to play with, but even more exciting was time with my cousins. We all loved Poppop’s trains, and we would stay in the basement for hours on end, watching them run back and forth across the model railroad. We also took trips to some local scenic railroads, museums, and places to watch freight trains like the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, PA, a stretch of railroad where trains battle the mountainous territory in western Pennsylvania. Chasing trains became a family activity when we went to these such destinations. As the long coal trains battled the grades the Allegheny mountains, my cousins and I would stand at the edge of viewing platform in Cresson PA, wave to the engineer, then pile into the car as my dad drove at Mach-8 speed through the windy mountain roads to race the train to the next location, ultimately ending where the trains will round a full U curve as they descend the mountain at the famed Horseshoe Curve. Trains were a family thing; the love we all shared for them was part of what got me hooked. This sense of community and camaraderie was a beautiful thing- seeing so many people get excited over the same thing at the same time.
However, like most kids, all my cousins eventually outgrew trains. I, on the contrary, stuck with this passion and continued to find enjoyment in the model railroads while the rest of them moved onto sports. For the first time, I felt alone with my hobby. My few friends from school failed to find the same enjoyment from my trains as I did, with me distinctly remembering one telling me: “Trains are for babies!” I soon distanced myself from this friend, who needs that kind of negativity? In times when I felt alone and depressed, I could always count on the model trains for a cheap smile, a quick escape from my woes in the world. Some days, it felt like the trains were the only friends I had, especially when some kids from school began teasing me for my quirky taste.
Max at his first visit to the Horseshoe Curve in 2005, being held by his Uncle Lou.
Given my knowledge of trains, it was commonplace for me to try and connect the topics at hand to principles of railroad in many of my classes. Once in my 8th grade science class, the teacher was giving a lesson on how air pressure can be manipulated by engineers to preform functions in everyday life. My hand quickly shot up as I knew that I could talk about train brake systems and make a valuable connection. As the teacher woefully called on me, I began talking and was quickly dismissed when he saw where my point was going. Discouraged, I sunk in my chair, only to turn around and see the “popular” group snickering at me, including a girl who I had a substantial crush on at the time. Looking back, I know now that those people were not worth my time, but in the moment, interactions like these were common, and they devastated me each time. For my younger self, trains were a haven, and I felt for the longest time that my trains were my only friends.
As time progressed however, I began to become more of an extrovert and let my passions define me. I realized that some may judge me for being so open about my love of trains, but frankly I stopped caring. I had an epiphany at some point in my life where I realized that my passion is what made me special and is my future. With this in mind, I set out to start understanding rather than just observing: I began to read every book I could find about trains, ranging from how diesel locomotives work to the lineage of certain rail lines. My focus with trains was now no longer to enjoy them, but to know everything I could possibly know. Additionally, over the summer before I moved up to 7th grade, I started offering my time at a local model train shop. While I wasn’t much help at first, I held onto this job for the longest time to use to learn about model trains- for repairs, for troubleshooting, and eventually understand the market. In my eyes, knowledge was power, and power was success, so I did whatever I could to learn. I especially recall reading a book about modern diesel locomotives in my seventh-grade science class while the teacher was talking, which severely agitated him. When I wouldn’t forfeit the book, he took it from me, and said to me sternly “I respect your passion Max, but my class is not the time for it.” Though I was angered at being stripped of my book, this exchange served as a big milestone for me. I hadn’t realized that other people had begun to accept and respect me as “the train kid” until then. I was proud of myself, and though I was still seen as the weird kid by many people, I knew that I was being recognized for being unique.
One of Max’s keystone memories of his younger days was getting a cab ride at the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, where the engineer showed him how a diesel locomotive works, let him move the brake lever, and even blow the horn!
In conjunction with my discovery of the internet, my eyes were open to a whole new world of possibilities. When I first began exploring the kingdom of Facebook, I soon realized that quite a few people liked trains in the same way I do. I also realized that many of these people knew a lot more than I did, and many of them were happy to share their knowledge with me. As I began to branch out and meet more train people, I soon saw the community around trains that reminded me of the feeling I got when my cousins and I all got excited when we saw a train. This sense of unity was something I took for granted back then, and to this day I’m yet to discard a feeling of friendship when it comes to being around trains. I soon began my own page on YouTube where I could share my passion with the world, officially debuting “Maxrailroad” when I was 13. Little did I know, this brand would take me through a world of experiences later in life.
Moving up to high school was a difficult time for me. As I once again found myself without many friends from school, and I was saddened to spend many lunches alone. Thankfully, I had tons of friends that I’d made through the internet to talk to now, though I had not met many of these people in person, our love for trains was the spark any friendship needed. My life was busy at this point, with actual work for classes in high school and loads of extracurriculars, and sometimes it was not easy for me to make time for trains. However, having recently moved to a new house, I had a new model railroad in my basement that always seemed to beckon me when my homework was clearly a more important task. My busy life would soon get busier, however, as I started myself down a new path. I found a small railroading magazine, mostly run by people my age, (15 at the time) that was looking for an intern. I applied and was quickly accepted as part of the organization. My time working at this magazine, however, was often unpleasant- mostly because of personal conflicts with the owner. Though lots of my time spent with this company was filled with pain and anger directed at this particular colleague, I am proud of the content that I personally produced when I filled the roles as writer, publisher, and editor for the magazine. Additionally, this company would facilitate two lifelong friendships with some of the other employees. Garrett and Jonah – both lifelong train lovers – have become staples in my life as friends who I could always count on.
We’ve only met in person a couple of times, given that they both live in different states than I do, but every moment we’ve spent together is precious. Just recently, we all took a trip to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, to experience steam locomotive #425 on the Reading and Northern Railroad. We spent the weekend biking through the Lehigh Gorge State Park on paths that paralleled the train tracks, scoping out spots for photos and witnessing a century-old piece of equipment thunder though the gorge. Accompanied by one of Garrett’s friends from home, Nick, I most vividly remember when we hugged a rockface and awaited for the train to come roaring by. This location, known as the Glenn Onoko Rock Cut, is known for being the best spot on this stretch of railroad to see the train, mostly because the Rock Cut creates a grade that the locomotive must work hard to climb. As the steam train neared us, with each chuff blasting out of the stack as if it were yelling, the four of us were glued to our cameras, firing our shutters to capture this intense moment. The locomotive roared past us, and as the passenger cars disappeared on the horizon, we all looked at each other in pure shock and awe at the show this train put on. We were brought together and all equally amazed at this display of power, and our display of friendship.
(Left to right) Nick Dombi, Garrett Monnin, Jonah Collins, and Max Harris in Jim Thorpe, PA. These four met purely because of their similar interest in trains, and are now close friends.
The friendships from my position at the magazine were not the only positive outcome. While writing an article, I made another friend, who spurred me to apply for a job at a real railroad. His encouragement is what led me to my current job at the Strasburg Rail Road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This railroad runs steam-powered train rides through Amish farmland for tourists and train enthusiasts alike. My first job here was to operate a small-scale steam locomotive as part of the ‘Fun-Extra” attractions at the railroad. This little engine taught me much about working on a coal-burning locomotive and even served as a testbed for working in operations with real trains. Once I turned 18, I was promoted to working as a brakeman, and I took up a position serving food and beverages in the first-class cars onboard the scenic train ride. Similar to my other jobs working in the world of trains, the people I’ve met here have been the best prospect of this job. The friendships I’ve made are priceless, and the lessons I’ve learned from the amazing people will never slip my mind. The most valuable thing in life is other people, and the people I’ve come to meet through my time of working with trains are held on the highest pedestal in my mind.
Max with some of his younger cousins at the Strasburg Rail Road. One of his greatest joys is sharing his passion for trains with others, whether on the job or not.
When working at the Strasburg Rail Road, making someone smile is the best part of the job. Whether it’s letting a kid have their turn on the whistle on my small scale steam engine, posing for a picture with someone, or even giving out a free cookie to one of my patrons in the parlor cars, making a difference is what it’s all about. My greatest hope is that the memories that I have helped create for other people go on to influence a lifelong passion for trains, just the same as the employees at Strasburg did for me when I was young.
Thinking back to my first day of working on the full-sized trains as a brakeman trainee, I will always remember the feeling of calling the locomotive on the radio: “Brakeman to SRC 475, warning whistle please over.” As I finished my transmission, the locomotive at the other side of the train let out three distinct blasts on the whistle, indicating it was time to go. As our train began moving, I waved to the people on the platform, and shot a smile to a group of young kids who were filming video of our consist creeping out of the station. I saw myself in those young kids, having been exactly in their shoes just a few years earlier. I hope to always be generous to those getting involved with railroading, because influencing someone else to join this hobby is the greatest gift anyone could give.
Max on his first day of train service at Strasburg. Photo by Guy Frick.
Even with my YouTube channel, I will occasionally get recognized as “Maxrailroad” in public- seriously, this has happened more times than I can count. Many times, at Strasburg, at the hobby shop I work at, and at train shows, I’ll be asked pose for a photo with a younger folk who tells me they’ve been following my YouTube channel for years. I was even called out once at a pizza restaurant near my home! Knowing that my videos are giving people enjoyment is a great reward for the work I put into them. Trains have this certain indescribable characteristic of personability, and to be the voice of this trait is the greatest honor I could have ever asked for.
Now, as a college freshman, not a day goes by where my mind doesn’t jump to trains. I work remotely to manage the social media for a model railroading magazine, I participate in many train forums, I frequently post my railroad photography on social media, and of course I write for my crowning achievement in this hobby, “Behind the Throttle”. The friendships and the mentors I’ve found from trains are not an ordinary thing. Trains have a way of finding some greatly distinguished folks, people who have great moral standings and people who genuinely love life, and of course love trains. My blog, “Behind the Throttle”, is dedicated to sharing the stories of these fine folks with the rest of the world. With all these amazing people I’ve met in this hobby, I felt it was my duty to highlight their stories and share them with the rest of the world. I have no idea what the future holds for the world, and with each passing day, it seems to get more confusing. However, I do know that trains will always be a part of my life. This passion that I’ve poured my heart and soul into is going to take me places. This I know. It’s my dream in life to help share the magic of railroading with the rest of the world and help advocate for rail travel and freight traffic however possible.
Max, with his girlfriend Sam, at the Strasburg Rail Road for his “Promposal”. Surprisingly, she said yes.
Trains appeal to a wide variety of emotions for me. The machinery and the ingenuity that led to the invention and development of the steam engine, and the history behind the railroads that helped build our country on a foundation of steel and steam is hard not to appreciate. However, looking further than the history behind trains, there’s lots more that intrigues me about this hobby. When looking at the people closely involved with trains, they’re much more than just a group with a common interest or profession- It’s a brotherhood, a second family. Trains have the ability to bring people together much more than anything else in this world, that’s something I’ve seen firsthand. A locomotive will turn heads from every direction and take the attention of anyone in its presence. Trains are something special, and their ability to create friendships is just one of the many ways that they have impacted my life.
Max at the throttle of the Strasburg Cagney. Photo by Chris Pollock.
Thank you all for reading this edition of Behind the Throttle, and thank you to Chris Pollock, Guy Frick, and Logan Dahir for contributing photos. Stay tuned for more stories, and as always, I’ll see you down the line.