The Railroad Museum of South Florida

By March 2, 2020Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

It’s a long cold winter in Minnesota, so my wife and I took a warm-up break in Fort Myers, Florida. Our first time there, so of course I had to visit the local Railroad Museum of South Florida. It’s located in a great setting, the big Lakes Regional Park, run by Lee County.

It’s strategically located next to the main parking lot, a large children’s playground area and the concession stand/bike rental office. Easy to find thanks to Atlantic Coast Line 0-6-0 #143 (Baldwin 1905) and Seaboard System caboose #05749, on display under an open air shed.

Next door is the museum building, built to suggest a depot. Admission is free. Inside are all the essentials of a good depot museum. There are displays on local railroad history, examples of rail weights, track tools and a baggage wagon laden with artifacts.

Thomas Edison was instrumental in Fort Myers’ development, locating his winter estate there and leaving behind at least one street named for him. So it was appropriate (if a little surprising) to see a display on Edison’s pioneering electric railway research.

I always appreciate the effective use of models to tell the local story. Dominating the room is a large S-gauge layout that recreates the Fort Myers depot and other typical local urban and rural scenes.

A model of the Fort Myers depot.

There are also several well-done HO-gauge dioramas of general railroad history. There is a meeting room/library set up for talks and presentations.

Small HO gauge dioramas capture moments in American rail history.

The museum can afford free admission thanks to the revenue from its 7.5 inch gauge miniature railroad. Trains leave from a train shed, cleverly styled to suggest the stucco Fort Myers station.

The miniature rail train shed was erected in 2019.

Inside the train shed, the engineer gives the safety talk before departure.

It’s a considerable ride, at least a mile and 15 minutes long. The dog-bone configuration follows the shore of the largest lake, then circles a smaller lake. On the way around it passes entire model towns and runs through a long shed-tunnel where riders are treated to an LED light show.

One train normally makes a trip every 30 minutes, but a second can be added if needed.

I interviewed museum President Mike Mulligan. The museum grew out of the Scale Rails of Southwest Florida in 1992. In 1994 they successfully negotiated the lease with the county park.

Locomotive #143 had been sold in 1944 by ACL to American Agricultural Chemical Company in Pierce, FL where it ran until 1959, then was placed on display. It was acquired in 1974 by the Tampa Bay Chapter NRHS, leased to a private party in 1976, then to the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish. FRM had no plans for it and donated it in 1992. It was cosmetically restored in 2001.

The museum building was constructed in 2006, with the county loaning most of the coast up from, supplemented by private loans. Mulligan says the museum’s financial situation was touch and go for a few years, because they also pay rent. Thankfully, the miniature train has proven very popular, with 60,000 riders in 2018. The debts have been retired and the museum is on a firm footing. 2019 saw the construction of the miniature rail train shed.

The museum is run by 60-70 volunteers and is open daily.

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