Railroads first made their appearance in Florida in the 1860s, when a line running from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key was built. Later on, after the Civil War, Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad and Henry Plant’s Plant System were installed, signaling the beginning of real development for the state.

At the Florida Rail Road Museum, in Parrish, visitors not only learn all about the history of rail service in Florida, but also have the opportunity to experience a ride on one of the historic cars themselves.

The Florida Railroad Museum, Inc., originally named The Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum, was founded with the goal of preserving Florida’s railroad history. Over the years, the Museum has acquired and restored rolling stock and equipment from the 1940s and 1950s, which they operate for the public’s enjoyment.

Stanley Kotas, president of the Museum, said that since 1982, it has been the best kept secret in Manatee County.

“There’s so much happening here in Parrish, and we’re happy to be a part of it,” he said. “As a nonprofit, we have about 340 members and are completely run by volunteers. We’re always looking for volunteers and hold educational classes for people to learn about what we do.”

To achieve its goal of operating equipment and recreating the sights and sounds of Florida railroading, the Museum operates on a six-mile line between Parrish and Willow, in rural Manatee County. This railroad line was the first railroad to be built in Manatee County. Each weekend diesel locomotives pull equipment consisting of open window coaches, a covered gondola and an air conditioned coach.

When guests ride the train, they can either sit in a coach car or up in the engine, with the engineer, which is what I did. Because the engine compartments are small, only two passengers can do it at a time, and they must be older than 18 years old.

As we made our way down the tracks to the Willow Station, Engineer John Halash talked about the history of rail travel in Manatee County and about the museum itself. On this tour, the train goes no faster than 15 mph, so the six-mile trip took about a half hour.

Once we reached the end of our line, we were able to go into the Willow Station, which was full of artifacts representing rail travel in the area and exhibits about the railroad industry. Spread out across the grounds of the property there were all kinds of tents set up, because the crew was preparing for the popular Florida Rail Road Museum event — The North Pole Express. That’s when families can ride a specially-themed train from the Parrish to Willow stations. They can see Santa Claus and take part in Christmas-related activities.

There are many other themed rides throughout the year, including a Hole in the Head Gang Train Robbery, a Murder Mystery Dinner Train, a Cotton Tail Special, a Civil War Reenactment, the Pumpkin Patch Express and more.

When taking in the Florida Rail Road Museum exhibits and the train ride itself, it’s easy to understand why train aficionados’ affection for the rails remains strong. The museum is in the process of raising money for a new community center/museum building where they will be able to include many more exhibits, place a ticket office and provide a beautiful space for the Parrish community to gather for special events.

Debbie Flessner writes the Live Like a Tourist column for the Sun newspapers. You may contact her at dj@flessner.net.

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