Lilliputian Railroads of Northeast Florida

July 12, 2010 8 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The largely unknown railroads of the Northeast Florida Live Steamers & Railroaders, Inc. All Aboard the West Tocoi & Bostwick Railroad.

The railroad's of the Northeast Florida Live Steamers and Railroaders, hidden in the woods near Bostwick, actually had it's start in a large RV in the Southern California desert, I was spending my final year in cactus country, and preparing to come home to Jacksonville, the year was 1979. This is something the perhaps not a single member of the club is even aware of, but frankly it was a bad case of homesickness.

I had long been involved in the "Live Steam" hobby, and was a member of the Los Angeles Live Steamers, a club made famous by members Walt Disney and Ward Kimball.  Saturday would find me working on the 1" scale tracks, 4 3/4" gauge, while the bulk of the crew was hammering away at the 1 1/2" scale, 7 1/2" gauge mainline. Hell, I would have eaten coal if it got me to the throttle of a locomotive, and some of those locomotives are huge. Even though a scale steam locomotive might seem small, perhaps a bit over knee high, a large steamer can weigh in at as much as 9,000 pounds wet (operating order). The secret to this is that though the train can be scaled, the elements, fire, coal, oil, water, steam, can't. So for safety's sake these little steamers can have the steel guts of a very big train.

Each locomotive and most of the cars in this hobby are painstakingly hand made in thousands of home shops around the country. The hobby isn't cheap, and many people will take as long as a decade to complete an engine and tender from scratch.  Those wanting to shortcut the build time can find many kits available, and those on more of a budget but still wanting to ride the rails can opt for a "scale diesel."

If Disney's locomotive was a piece of mechanical art in miniature then Ward Kimball's was totally over the top. While Walt and Ward both played at the club, Kimball decided to graduate to a scale of 12" inches = 1' foot! In order to keep things from getting completely out of hand Ward opted to restore real narrow gauge steamers including a complete train housed at the Orange Empire Streetcar Museum in Perris.  

It was a reckless gamble that I ran a completely fabricated article in LIVE STEAM MAGAZINE that proclaimed "NEW CLUB FORMING IN JACKSONVILLE!"  I had no earthly idea what type of response I was going to get, but had I received none the lubricating oil that flows in my veins might have kept me in the Golden State. Much to my surprise I got dozens of responses, former machinists, a few regular guys interested in a new adventure and an amazing number of professionals.  Our first "meet" was a the home track of one of the new members and shortly the little group had over 30 active members.

We incorporated as the JACKSONVILLE LIVE STEAMERS and quickly achieved our 501c3 tax exempt status.

Within a year or two we were hard at work trying to sell the City of Jacksonville on a carbon copy of Los Angeles' deal, where we would construct a railroad on park land and offer free train rides in exchange for a small protected parcel for loading, servicing and staging our equipment. This was the first indication I had that the so-called insurance crisis was about to wipe us out, Jacksonville had spoken, HELL NO!

We ended up building the track around a museum in Fernandina Beach, in a very short lived deal that had the museum director protesting that people were more interested in the trains then "the history."  Funny because I always thought Live Steam Locomotives were quite a historical exhibit. Worse still, the Parks Department didn't seem to realize that when we explained that all steam machinery is inspected, we were talking about some very serious State Inspections, certificates, licenses and rules that we must follow to the letter. In Live Steam, SAFETY FIRST is not a slogan, it's a way of life.

By the late 1980's the club members were sent running back to home tracks our little empire abandoned, and most cowering in fear of an inability to insure. In time the club officially broke up, but the members kept in close touch.

Some years later Reg Weller and Don Miller both of Jacksonville, got back together to rebuild the club. In time the membership was higher then before and the insurance crisis had been largely solved by The Tourist Railway Association, and others.

Since the 1980's Reg like Ward Kimball, had been working in full size 2 foot narrow gauge. Don on the other hand was an artist with a lathe and had turned out a Shay Logging Engine of incredible complexity in 1 1/2" inch scale.

Reg had purchased a large tract near the St. Johns River between Bostwick and Green Cove Springs for his massive 2-6-2 prairie locomotive. Out of this property came the Northeast Florida Live Steamers & Railroaders, Inc. and the West Tocoi & Bostwick RR.

Today over a mile of track in both 2' foot gauge and in 1 1/2" scale have been developed on the property. A beautiful station, steaming bays, turntables, work shops, storage buildings, RV and picnic grounds, BBQ grills, steamboat ponds and bathrooms were completed far out in the woods. On any given weekend one might find Reg and a couple of friends tinkering with track or trains. About every quarter, special occasions or just whenever they feel like it, the club will host a "Steam Meet".  Trains, boats, traction engines, automobiles and stationary engines are all welcome.

Visitors and prospective members can contact the club via email, visitors are welcome but you must get permission and sign a waiver.

Article by Robert Mann