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
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
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
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
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
Written by Bob O’Connor
photos by Jim O'Connor
Big Boots & Western Railroad's New Web Site
This article first appeared in
7+RAILROADER MAGAZINE in 2003.
Used here by permission.