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© January 25, 2006 

©2003 7+RAILROADER MAGAZINE.  This article first appeared in 7+RAILROADER MAGAZINE and can not be reproduced without permission. 

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A First Timer’s Railroad Weekend

Written by Bob O’Connor.   

Gary Lyons and his "hit and miss" Flywheel engine express with Bob O'Connor (hands in the air) and other happy riders.
Photo by Jim O'Connor.

My brother, Jim, asked me if I would like to go with him to Florida to attend some live steam meets.  I had never been to one before, but I had some vacation time coming.   I've only been to Jim's live steam club once, so I had almost zero experience with this hobby. The idea of getting away from a record cold northern Illinois winter for a few days sounded good.  Besides, it would be a good excuse to spend some time with my little brother.  So it was off to Florida and the Winter Meets.

The trip was nice; we used Jim’s AAdvantageTM miles to get a first class upgrade. We landed in sunny Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; it was in the 80s and very sunny!    Jim and I picked up the rental car and headed north for the short drive to Coconut Creek, Florida.

As we approached the location of our first meet, Big Boots and Western Railroad, I noticed some miniature train tracks and trains in a park to our left.   Jim said "According to our map, the entrance is at the curve just ahead on this street."  We later found out, that the track we saw to our left belonged to the railroad next door, Tradewinds.

The entrance to the Big Boots and Western Railroad had a neat, flashing crossing gate just like a real railroad. The gates started flashing as we approached.  “Is there a train coming?” I asked Jim.  “I don’t know.” Jim said as we spotted a small diesel engine emerging from behind the tropical foliage. The engine was pulling several small train cars.  The folks on the train waved to us as we waved back. This looked like a fun place to me.

Big Boots and Western Railroad’s main yard

The author driving his first train

We pulled in with the other cars in the grass.  Jim said we needed to get into our train clothes.  He pulled out a couple of tee-shirts with trains on them.  He said, “Here, put this one on.”  Jim had one of those striped engineer hats and some name tags.  He gave me a nametag that said "BOB" on it.  Now we looked like we belonged there.

We headed for what looked like the main station or yard.  We introduced ourselves to some guys sitting near the tracks.  They asked us where we’re from.  They joked about the weather up north and then took us to meet our host, Capt. John Boots.   We found Capt. John cooking hamburgers on the grill. Jim had never met John before, but you can tell they knew each other pretty well.  Jim’s been corresponding with John for several years through Jim’s web site

Capt. John walked us over to the switchyard.  One of the railroaders, Larry Boyce, gave us a ride on a battery-operated locomotive to show us the railroad. The first thing I learned was, when you hear two whistle blasts, it means we are starting to move. I was interested in the layout of the tracks. He had a tunnel with three tracks running through it.  There were several bridges and even an elephant skull as part of the beautiful landscape. We came within an inch of a tree, so you really had to pay attention. We looped all around his three-acre estate.  He had about as much track as you could fit on three acres.  Most of the time the landscape hid the other tracks and the rest of the world.  I never got tired of looking around.   After our little tour of the property, we sat down for lunch.  John makes a great burger.  The topic at the table was “trains”.

Phil Paxton asked me if I wanted to drive his train.  I said, “Ride or drive?”  He said, “Drive.”  I really wanted to say no, because I was afraid.  I figured I would never get an opportunity like this again, so I said “YES, but you have to show me the ropes.”  I said to myself, “I’m here about an hour and I’m driving a steam locomotive all by myself.”  I am sitting on a "grasshopper" with a bunch of empty cars behind me.  I give two blasts on the whistle and I start pulling out of the yard, thinking, “I don’t know what I am doing.” Then I heard my last instruction, which was “don’t run any red lights”.  I am thinking to myself, “Right, how could I see them anyway, my glasses are all steamed up from the exhaust of the engine.”  The biggest thing on my mind was keeping the water in the sightglass at a certain level.  I had two choices on that.  The water pump was always running, so I could turn the valve to the left to fill or turn the valve to the right to bypass the pump.  Or was it the other way around? It didn’t take long before I got the hang of things.  I was even turning the switches to change tracks.  The only thing I couldn’t find was my seat belt, just kidding.  I really enjoyed the thrill of driving, but I was relieved when I pulled safely back into the yard. One quick blast on the whistle and then I turned off the propane tank. I did it!

I’m getting GP-9 operating instructions from Steve Marshal.

 My next driving experience was with an electric locomotive.  This was a lot easier to operate.  I didn’t need a towel for my glasses.  For me, quiet is good. This trip around the tracks was more relaxing.  I kept thinking how sad it was that in only two days Capt. John would start removing all of this track. The BB&WRR started in 1997 when Jim Bocock and Capt. John Boots purchased land next to the Tradewinds & Atlantic Railroad.  The two men wanted a railroad for everyone to enjoy without the limitations of running on a public park.  Capt. John showed Jim and I a videotape of the new property and his plans for the train layout.  It is going to be unbelievably great.

The next day we drove west to the Gulf side through Alligator Alley to get to the “Manatee Family Lines”.  When we arrived, we signed in and found the “steaming area”. It takes a lot of work to get the coal started on the locomotives.  They use an electric blower to induce a draft for the coal.  At the end of the day, they have to pull the locomotives apart to wire brush the chambers clean. That is all part of the program.  I really appreciated the camaraderie and the sharing of information.  Everyone was so patient with my questions.

Joe Scales explains how his steam engine works.

Manatee Central/B&O Railroad bridge over the “pond”.

The tracks were much longer at Manatee than the last railroad. It started with one, five-acre parcel of land. Pete Newcombe, our host for lunch, explained how Manatee got started:  Larry and Joan Smith started the 1.5” scale railroad on their five-acre property back about 12 years ago.  They had a rather large track in 1997 when Larry mentioned to Pete that the five-acre lot next door was for sale.  Pete loved the house and huge shop building so he bought the property.  Larry’s railroad was extended to include Pete’s new place.  While Pete took a breather from track construction to upgrade his shop, neighbor Bev Tindall suggested that they run some track around her five acres.  That section was completed in time for the February ’99 meet.  Since then, they’ve added bridges, tunnels, a miniature town, a figure 8 switch and much more.  Manatee is a great idea that just keeps on getting better, resulting in fifteen acres of land for the 10,000 feet of track to roam.

My brother Jim and I made our way to the station area. As soon as we got there, Mr. J. D. Daggett placed me in charge of filling the miniature, but real, water tower.   I filled it a few times, but I kept hopping on someone’s train for a ride.  While riding around I noticed a few blue flags, which were sticking in the ground by the tracks.  It wasn’t until my first train derailment that I figured it out.  I saw the engineer stick a blue flag in the ground at the spot of the derailment. Was it the track's fault or the train’s fault?  Most of the time it was the track being too wide or too narrow.  There was a crew that went around and stopped at the sites and reworked the tracks. After several successful trains passed, they would move to the next spot.  I saw a few dining cars.  In the past they had a dinner trains and they stopped at each other’s houses for one course of the meal.  A progressive dinner sounds like my kind of fun!  

Brian Randle, running Bob Grandle's Mogul  Bruce Saylor’s new heavy Mikado

One thing that was said struck me, “This hobby is different from other hobbies because you don’t need to have the “best” train, and everyone enjoys other people's trains.”  They’re not critical or jealous.  They all enjoy the variety, from steam to propane to electric.  The creativity is appreciated.  All is OK. It’s not a competitive hobby like most. There are no awards, or races. Just a bunch of folks getting together.

Written by Bob O’Connor
photos by Jim O'Connor

Big Boots & Western Railroad's New Web Site


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