PORTLAND, Maine — Matthew Christoforo checked his pocket watch before tucking it back into his vest pocket on Saturday morning. Its golden fob flashed in the May sun while dangling from his third button.
Christoforo then raised his hands to his face, cupped them megaphone-style around his mouth, and shouted.
“All aboard,” he said, loud enough for all to hear, while still maintaining a friendly tone.
Passengers then scurried back to their train cars at the end of the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad’s 1.5-mile-long line, running along the city’s eastern waterfront. Once everyone was back on board, the diesel locomotive at the head of the train rumbled to life and began tugging its cars back to the station on Commercial Street.
As the train got underway, Christoforo produced a wireless microphone from a holster on his belt and began reciting, from memory, the entire story of Maine’s long-gone, diminutive rail lines.
“When I was a kid, I memorized the complete history of Maine’s two-foot railroads,” he said. “I used to consider it useless knowledge. Not anymore.”
Christoforo, 26, is part of a new wave of enthusiastic, mostly 20-somethings breathing new life into one of Maine’s oldest, and most historic, railroad lines. With their energetic love of trains and the past, the young people are transforming a once-insular group, catering mostly to train buffs, into an engaging community organization.
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While doing so, they also hope to cement the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad’s permanent place on Portland’s fast-developing, and increasingly touristed, waterfront.
General Manager Matt Levy, the oldest member of the railroads executive staff at 34, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in railroads, especially steam trains.
“It’s a machine that has a soul,” Levy said. “It’s almost like a dragon or something — the smoke coming out of it, the lights and bells and whistles.”
He took the job last year, moving to Munjoy Hill from Connecticut where he managed a thrift store. When he saw the employment listing, it was the dream job Levy knew he wanted.
“I happen to love narrow gauge trains and I happen to love these specific types of narrow gauge trains that used to run up here in Maine,” he said.
Conductor Christoforo moved to Portland from Massachusetts to take his job last year, and his interest in trains goes back to Thomas the Tank Engine. The newest member of the staff, Ben Libeskind, 25, moved to Maine last month from Los Angeles, just to work on the railroad.
Executive Director and train engineer Griffin Bourassa, 27, (left) handles a 76-year-old locomotive as it powers passenger cars built in the 19th century along the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad line on Portland’s waterfront on Saturday. A girl (top right) races back to a Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad car. The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad’s Ben Libeskind, 25, (bottom) scans tickets. A train fan since childhood, Libeskind moved to Portland from Los Angeles this year to take the job on the railroad line. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
In the late 19th century, five separate narrow gauge railroad lines crisscrossed Maine. The last one ceased operations in the 1940s.
Narrow gauge trains are roughly half the size of standard trains, their tracks sitting just two feet apart. The smaller trains were cheaper to set up and operate.
“They were modest trains built to serve modest communities,” Levy said.
The revived Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad has operated along Portland’s waterfront since 1992, running equipment built for several of Maine’s former narrow gauge lines.
Currently two other historic railways also run narrow gauge trains in the state. The Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum operates in Alna and the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad runs out of Phillips.
Long dependent on mostly retirement-aged volunteers, with equipment owned by founding philanthropist Phineas Sprague Jr., Portland’s narrow gauge line has had many ups and downs over its 30-year history.
By 2007, the railroad was a member-supported nonprofit that owned its own equipment. However, the railroad’s home, at the Portland Complex on Fore Street, was still owned by Sprague, who had never charged rent.
But then, Sprague began the process of selling the property. This set off a chain of events that led to the railroad making plans to move to Gray. The impending relocation to the decidedly untouristed and nonscenic town caused a serious drop in financial support from members.
With confidence low, the organization went through repeated changes in leadership before acquiring a lease on a city-owned building on Commercial Street, which allowed the railroad to stay in Portland.
Then the pandemic struck and two summers went by with no trains running.
Emerging from the chaos and bad luck, was a familiar face. Griffin Bourassa, 27, took over as executive director in 2021.
He was tailor-made for the gig.
The Turner native began volunteering at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad when he was 13, mopping floors and washing windows. Now, the former full-time firefighter has a masters degree in nonprofit management and also holds a federal steam train operators license.
Bourassa said his interest in the railroad comes from his family’s tradition of community involvement, a fascination with old machines and a love of history.
“But, to be honest, it’s the people working here I like the most,” he said. “They don’t just care about the trains, they care about the community.”
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That’s just the kind of thing Bourassa thinks will keep the railroad running in Portland for the long haul.
“It’s a huge moment for this organization right now. We’re kind of moving away from just old guys who like trains, toward a community-centered nonprofit.”
To help accomplish this progression, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad is doubling the number of special, Friday night beer and ice cream excursion trains — while maintaining its hourly train service throughout the summer.
It will also ferry people to the East End for Portland’s Fourth of July fireworks and keep running its popular Christmastime steam trains.
Bourassa said the railroad is also building a green space at the end of the line that will include fire pits and comfy chairs for excursion train passengers.
Community engagement is not really something we’ve ever focused on before,” said the railroad’s development specialist, 29-year-old Elizabeth Hansen. “And this year, we’ve been really working on partnering with other nonprofits and community groups to grow what we’re doing.”
Recently, during Earth Week, Hansen said the railroad partnered with Portland Parks Conservancy to remove invasive plants along the Eastern Prom. She also has other collaborations in mind and hopes to work with the Portland Sea Dogs and the Children’s Museum of Maine this year, among others.
“This used to be a little bit of a club and now we’re trying to just think more outward to the city — like a permanent attraction,” Hansen said.
Looking around at the modern hotels, office buildings and tidy walking trail surrounding the railroad, Bourassa recalled how it was all just a dirt parking lot when he started volunteering.
“I love Portland and the breweries and the restaurants and things but I’m only aware of one narrow gauge operating here,” he said. “It’s that uniqueness that’s our advantage in becoming more involved in the community. We’re like nothing else.”