It's Sunday afternoon at the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish, and a crowd – toddlers, teens and a wide mix of adults – is here to ride the rails into history.
Engineer Pat Masterson climbs up into the EMD-GP7, a 1950s era 1,300-horsepower locomotive. He opens each of the diesel's 16 cylinder ports, settles into the engine room and cranks up the iron horse for 20 seconds to blow condensation out of the piston chambers.
Masterson checks the cooling system and fluids, turns on the fuel pump and cranks up the engine again. In moments, once the air compressor for the pneumatic control system reaches 100 PSI, the engineer shifts into reverse and couples with the train of cars at the station.
A uniformed conductor sings out "All Aboard" – just the way you've heard it in the movies, just the way it used to be.
Historians at the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish place primary interest on the Plant System and Seaboard Air Line railroads, which began running tracks throughout the Gulf Coast region at the end of the Civil War.
During this transformational period, Henry Plant acquired a number of smaller competing rail lines providing Florida orange growers quicker and cheaper access to Northern markets and continuous passenger service across the Sunshine State. Plant expanded his railroad system to the Tampa Bay area, creating access to his steamship lines to Cuba, building hotels and supporting businesses along the way.
When Plant died in 1900, his railroads were purchased by the Atlantic Coast Line, which established train yards and shipping facilities in Tampa and ran railways from Jacksonville to Tampa via Orlando, Lakeland and Plant City.
The Seaboard Air Line ran through Ocala and Plant City before turning west toward Tampa in 1902 and extending several connecting branch lines south to St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Sarasota and Venice.
Throughout the early to mid-1900s, both the Atlantic and the Seaboard lines continued to grow until their tracks intertwined across the Gulf Coast region, laying the groundwork for an eventual 1960s merger to form the Seaboard Coast Line.
By this time, thanks to Florida high-speed interstate road construction and increased access to air travel, the era of frequent rail travel in Florida had essentially ended.
Today, those historic passenger trains revered for their importance to the state's history can be seen only in museums and at Florida's many theme parks.
Fueled by volunteers
It's this rich history of railroading in Florida that Masterson and other volunteers strive to remember, recreate and share at the Florida Railroad Museum.
"We try to present all of the aspects of railroading here – make it accessible to the public," Masterson said.
Volunteers include the likes of 74-year-old Ed Dunham.
Dunham, stepping up to a comfortable perch on the back of a weathered 1950s era caboose, talks about the livestock train that passed through his family's cattle farm in Boone, Iowa, when he was a boy – and his childhood dream of driving that train.
It's a dream – after training at the museum to be a certified locomotive engineer 14 years ago at age 60 – he realized.
"It was two years of training and testing … when most men my age were planning senior retirement," Dunham said.
Volunteering at the Railroad Museum provides a rewarding outlet for rail buffs like Dunham and Masterson – and they get to play with big iron toys.
"I have a great job," said Dunham, who is a veterinarian. "But you need other things."
Since its founding in 1981, the Florida Railroad Museum has been on a mission to acquire, refurbish and operate historic railroad rolling stock, with an emphasis on Florida-routed cars and locomotives.
The museum currently has three working locomotives, which haul passenger cars on short jaunts each weekend, with several other engines in stages of rebuilding.
More than a dozen historic Florida-run passenger cars carry those happy passengers each week, with more than a dozen others under renovation by a crew of about 30 dedicated volunteers.
"Every car is different – all have a story to tell," Dunham said. "Most have well-documented histories."
Throughout the week, Dunham, Masterson and their fellow volunteers spend their time repairing tracks, refurbishing old rail cars, rebuilding engines and preparing for the short-run rail tours.
Regional and national theater troupes and re-enactment groups provide added dimension to the Museum's regular weekend rail tours. These groups produce special events, such as the Christmas Time Polar Train, the comical "hole in the head gang" train robbery, exciting WWII reenactments and the ever-popular Thomas the Train visits that bring in the crowds, Masterson said.
Parrish residents Steve and Kate Cucci and their three daughters, Julianna, age 7, Annabella, 3, and Sophia, 2, loved their Thomas the Train experience last year and plan to attend again this year.
"Thomas looks just like in his books," said Julianna with a big smile.
At all events, parents and grandparents alike inevitably share their train stories with the younger generations, Dunham said.
"It's always great to hear them say to the youngsters, 'This is the way we used to travel.' "
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.