Central Pasco & Gulf RR brings Joy to All Ages in Crews Lake Wilderness Park
Jeremy Carpenter takes his job as president of the Central Pasco & Gulf Railroad very seriously.
“We’re just a bunch of old guys who love playing choo-choo,” Carpenter dead-panned. “My job is to keep the cranky ones in line.”
Carpenter joked that he was voted in at a meeting because he had the misfortune of not being there to decline. He said his goal is to develop the non-profit attraction into a place where his two daughters and other local children can experience the vanishing institution of train travel. Jerry, along with some of the long-tenured members, harbors a true passion for what they do.
What is the Central Pasco & Gulf RR?
Established in 2006, the Central Pasco & Gulf RR winds its way through Crews Lake Wilderness Park, located at 16739 Crews Lake Drive in Spring Hill, Florida. This extensive railroad system is an authentic reproduction of a historic, full-sized system. It has been built to miniature scale with locomotives that pull freight cars on track only 7.5 inches wide.
Most of the engines are powered by a gasoline-hydraulic design, but a few privately-owned steam engines reside in the Oakland Engine House. These burn coal that is stored on the site.
The passenger cars are stout enough to hold several people, including an authentically attired engineer who mans the locomotive.
This Ain’t your average Toy Train Set
The system is something only a fanatic could create: The track, yards, sidings, and 155 switches wind through the pine-and-oak forest 5.5 miles from the main switching station, called Sanford Yard, to the Carolwood East Barn, a train museum filled with rare collectibles.
Stanford Yard includes a maze of dozens of tracks coming and going in almost every direction like a pile of unruly spaghetti. All the tracks are controlled by an electronic two-story switching tower.
This area also boasts functioning water towers, a large storage building housing an extensive workshop, and 10 steaming bays where trains can enter the system via a large hydraulic lift.
A spacious administrative building and clubhouse are used to conduct group business and meetings, along with periodic classes on railroad safety for children that teach “Stop, look and listen” at rail stops and crossings.
The group’s impressive workshop covers about 1,000 square feet, including a lathe, metal press, and machining equipment, where craftsmen can fabricate tracks, engines, and cars – essentially everything the system requires. “We just buy the steel and wood and turn it into what we need,” one member said.
The Central Pasco & Gulf Railroad’s connection to Walt Disney
The Carolwood East Barn museum is a similar replica of “Walt’s Barn”, a wooden building where entertainment entrepreneur Walt Disney would go to get away from business matters. A lover of railways, Disney had a scale rail system on the property, according to CPGRR member Les Smout. Smout is a member of Carolwood Pacific Society, an association of train aficionados that Disney founded.
“The barn was his getaway to escape his business for a while,” Smout said. “Disney had a great fascination for railroads.” Les noted that Disney indulged his passion by having a full-sized railway system at Disneyland.
The Disney connection is strong here. Many of the items in the museum are rare souvenirs from the glory days of Walt’s enterprises. The Central Pasco & Gulf RR system is exactly like the scale designs used for Disney’s railroad.
The Historic Orange Belt Railway
The CPGRR is also modeled after the historic Orange Belt Railway that crossed this region in the late 1800s. This scale setup includes stops named Trilby, Lacoochee, Macon, and Lenard just like the 19th Century full-sized version.
The actual Orange Belt line ran from Sanford southwest through eastern Hernando County, passing roughly three miles west of Dade City on to modern-day Land O’ Lakes before continuing on to Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg.
According to Wikipedia, the railway was established by Russian exile Peter Demens starting in 1885. When completed in 1888 at 152 miles, it was one of the longest narrow-gauge (3 feet) rail lines in the U.S.
The project was plagued by building cost overruns and loss of business after a citrus freeze cut off one of the line’s main freight customers. Demens lost control of the railroad to financier Edward Stotesbury, who renamed the line the Sanford and St. Petersburg Railroad in 1893.
An even worse catastrophe, the great freeze of 1894-95, forced Stotesbury to sell the system to legendary tycoon Henry B. Plant in 1895. Two years later, Plant built the opulent Belleview-Biltmore Hotel near the Clearwater stop, attracting affluent guests to the area. Plant widened the track to standard gauge and dove-tailed it with his statewide network, which joined the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1902.
In the 1900s, the Orange Belt Railroad fueled development in Pinellas County and the region when it began carrying more settlers south chasing the burgeoning citrus and livestock industries. Under the ACL ownership, the line from Trilby east to Sylvan Lake became the Trilby Branch and the segment from Trilby southwest to St. Petersburg became the Trilby-St. Petersburg Line. It carried the famed West Coast Champion, a streamlined, luxury train from New York 1939-1979.
The ACL merged with the Seaboard Air Line Railroad in 1967. Passenger service north of Clearwater was taken over by Amtrak in 1971, but the system’s days were numbered. Freight service was stopped on most of the line by 1972, and passenger service to Pinellas County ended in 1984.
The Driving Force behind Central Pasco & Gulf RR is People
Carpenter identified founding member Jerry Smithson as part of a core group that is the driving force behind the attraction. Smithson said, in addition to entertaining children, the facility educates adults about the rich history of the area’s original rail system. An avid historian, he said he owns roughly 80 percent of the items in the museum.
“In 2006, five of us wanted to purchase a large tract of land for this, but we met with the county and (County Commissioner) Anne Hildebrand loved our plan,” he recalled. “We got a long-term lease for $1 to use the park as a non-profit volunteer group.”
The CPGRR now has 70 members.
The official CPGRR website states “Railways are a distinct cultural heritage. At CPGRR we preserve railroad heritage for its strong European significance. We also do it to promote cultural tourism in Pasco, Florida.”
Ride the Central Pasco & Gulf RR the Second Saturday of the Month
On the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., the group offers free public train rides as part of its agreement with the Pasco County Parks and Recreation Department. A donation of $1 is greatly appreciated to help with maintenance and upkeep. Masks are encouraged.
The Central Pasco & Gulf RR puts on holiday-themed rides at Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. The Easter ride stops at points along the way for kids to search the woods for bunny eggs. This popular two-day event had up to 3,000 participants in the past.
Birthday parties and events are available for groups up to 30 people; call 727-645-2508 for details. There are annual memberships that cover the whole family for $35 per year and offer access to all the facilities.
The group hosts meetings of similar organizations twice a year on the property, like the Florida Live Steamers. “They come from all over the country, lots of people who love trains,” Smithson added.
In the heart of every “cranky old guy” who loves trains resides a person who loves history. The two are inextricably intertwined. Smithson insists more modern trains will continue to fill a need in American industry and transportation that trucks and planes can’t meet financially.
Still, the future of railroad worship may depend on fellows like 18-year-old Brandon Chinigo of Land O’ Lakes, who was browsing through the museum with his mother, Angel when NatureCoaster visited.
“I came to take pictures for my Senior photos at my school,” Brandon said. “Trains are sooooo powerful. Everybody loves to ride them.”