Nicholas Rubinan, just shy of 22 months, stood in the long, winding line sporting his Thomas the Tank Engine backpack as his parents, Chris and Madelyn Rubinan, sang to him and took photos of him dancing while he waited for a turn to ride on the Largo Central Railroad.
The railroad predates Largo Central Park and for the last 25 years, the large-scale model locomotives — which stand about a foot and a half off the ground and run on gas, coal or batteries — have chugged through the approximately 1-mile loop that winds through the park, into a tunnel and around a pond, giving free rides to the public the first weekend of every month.
Nicholas boarded the steam locomotive, fondly referred to by frequent passengers as the "stinky train," driven by Bruce Raykiewicz. A Fort Myers resident, he gets up at 5 a.m. to come to the railroad.
This was Nicholas' second or third ride, his parents said. Many other passengers in line have also been frequent riders.
Nidal and Christy Hasan brought their 2½-year-old son, Noah, for his first ride with his older sister Abigail, 9, who said she used to love riding the train when she was little.
"He loves watching trains on TV," Nidal said. "We came for him."
From Henry Flagler to Henry Plant, railroads have been a part of state infrastructure since the 1800s, but at the Largo Central Railroad they're part of the community's infrastructure.
"It's a staple of the community," Chip Sorenson, 44, a volunteer from Plant City said. "We see second and third generations coming back. It's worth it just to see the smiles on the kids' faces."
Sorenson found the group about five or six years ago when he was searching on the Internet for something else train-related.
The first weekend a month is for public rides, the second and fourth weekends are for members, the third weekends are for working on the trains and track and the fifth are for local meets. The group runs on money from birthday parties, the city of Largo, donations and volunteers fueled by their enthusiasm for trains. Each locomotive costs between $15,000 to $20,000, a full train set costs around $10,000 and each foot of the mile-track, which is constantly being worked on or replaced, costs around $10.
John Beard, 68, one of the founding fathers of the railroad, said he has always wanted to share his love for trains.
When he was 4 years old, his father bought him his first model train set.
In 1991, Beard and about five or six other train enthusiasts got together and saw the land, which they thought would be perfect for installing a track, and got permission from the city. Between the group, they owned two locomotives. They printed out about 100 fliers and posted them in Burger King and McDonald's restaurants — places where kids used to hang out then, Beard said. A few months later they were ready to operate.
Over the years, he said, the railroad has grown. They now have about five or six locomotives and about 75 regular volunteer members. They have since built a koi pond — at his wife's suggestion — and tunnel around the track. The inside of the tunnel is painted black and little kids regularly squeal as the train passes through.
Beard, who retired after working 43 years as a refrigerator mechanic, said it makes him happy to see kids today still get excited about the trains.
"A lot of people don't realize this country wouldn't be what it is today without trains," he said. "It's good to have this reminder."
Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.