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Hop aboard for a whistle-stop tour

Travel south and you'll see the Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum as it chugs across rural Manatee County. The collection of vintage rail cars is available for charter.

For an hour, one can forget life's frantic pace and take a train ride back in time.

The Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum, a museum on wheels, provides a journey through rustic Manatee County, across prairie land to Willow, once the location of a large logging mill.

Scrub pine, water oaks laden with Spanish moss and wildflowers hosting a variety of butterflies are some of the sights to see along the two-way, 13-mile excursion.

The museum offers the sights, sounds and smells of a real train ride along one of the pioneer mainline road beds in Florida. The vintage train cars are from the 1920s through the 1950s, when Florida railroads peaked.

Travelers have the choice of riding in air-conditioned or open-air cars. With advance reservations, those who are more adventurous can ride for an extra fee in the cab with the engineer.

On a recent visit, Alfred Auve was the train's engineer.

"I started as a train man, went through the training here and became certified as a conductor," he said. "I continued training as an engineer, and now I am certified on the line."

Auve said the purpose of the museum is to preserve a piece of American railroad history.

"I wouldn't be surprised if I had commuted from Morristown (New Jersey) to Hoboken on one of these cars when I worked for a pharmaceutical company up north," said the Bradenton retiree. "It is distressing that trains and tracks are disappearing. I want to be a part of preserving this for other generations."

The train passes through agricultural land where plump red tomatoes or brown, sandy soil can be seen, depending on the time of the year. Deserted hothouses, palmetto trees and an occasional lake, stream or muck pond can be sighted as the train chugs along at a leisurely pace. Sounds of birds are only overpowered by the occasional long, mournful whistle of the train.

Tickets for the trip are sold from a red caboose parked on a second track. With technological advancements, the caboose will soon become a part of history like the stagecoach before it.

The caboose once served as the rolling headquarters of the train's crew. A cupola was later added so the rear crew could observe the train over the tops of the cars. Bay windows were installed in the cupola in 1923 when higher box cars were built. Electronic devices on the rear cars now allow crew members to radio the conductor or engineers of any malfunctions, thus making the caboose obsolete.

The museum train can be chartered by schools, day-care centers or groups or organizations. It uses the old Seaboard Air Line tracks laid in 1901 to haul produce from Plant City to Sarasota.

Six-year-old Justis Lamanna, of Tampa, came to the train to celebrate his birthday.

"I love trains," he said. "This is really cool, especially the open-air car."

During the early 1900s, Parrish was a prosperous and growing community with grocery and dry goods stores, restaurants, hotels, a barber shop, churches, post office and a doctor's office. Now, it is just a stop along the highway between Sun City Center and Bradenton.

The last passenger train was taken off the line in 1968 when the tracks were abandoned after the merger of the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line railroads, forming the Seaboard Atlantic Coast Line. The SAL later merged with several other lines to form today's huge CSX transportation system.

Florida Power purchased the track to haul heavy equipment, and the museum leases the track on weekends and for special charters.

Each car represents an era when railroads ruled.

The 1942 caboose came from Norfolk and Western Line. The sleeper lounge car was built in 1954 for the Canadian National Railroad for service between Chicago and Toronto. Several compartments feature upper and lower berths and bathroom facilities.

On one of the compartments is a sign stating Eleanor Roosevelt slept there.

The air-conditioned tavern lounge cars provided main line service between Cincinnati and New Orleans, and the open air cars came from Hoboken, N.J., and ran commuter service to Summit, N.J., from 1930 to 1983.

Each of the cars has restrooms. Cold drinks and snacks can be purchased in the tavern car.

The museum was founded in 1982 by a group devoted to acquiring, restoring and operating historic railroad equipment for the public. During the years, the museum has acquired cars by either donation or group purchase.

Supported by memberships, ticket sales, donations and proceeds from the gift shop _ located in a former Ringling circus car used by circus bandleader Merle Evans _ the museum is a not-for-profit Florida corporation operated by volunteers.

At Willow, after a leisurely ride, the train stops for a few minutes and the engine is taken to the other end of the train, via a second track, for the return trip to Parrish.

If you go

WHAT: Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum.

WHERE: Parrish. The museum on wheels is 11 miles south of Sun City Center and a block east of U.S. 301.

WHEN: 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 3 p.m. Sunday.

COST: $8 for adults and $5 for children 3-11; younger children are free.

INFORMATION: (941) 365-5738 or toll free (877) 869-0800

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