Train enthusiasts are in the right place: the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum and Train Viewing Platform is one of the coolest places in Plant City.
The Florida Strawberry Festival’s “All Aboard!” theme for 2021 is a fitting choice for Plant City.
Plant City is probably best known for its delicious strawberries, but right behind that is its connection to the railroad industry. It’s equally as important to the city’s history and development as the berries are.
Fortunately for anyone who loves trains, enjoys history or just wants something fun and inexpensive to do while they’re in town, downtown Plant City has a great resource in the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum.
Located at 102 N. Palmer St., the museum is a labor of love full of memorabilia and even full train cars donated by local enthusiast Robert W. Willaford. Willaford spent 43 years as a locomotive engineer for CSX and became well-known in town over the years for the vast collection of items he’s collected from all over the United States since 1964. The City of Plant City began converting the old Union Station Depot downtown in 2013 for the purpose of creating the museum, which Willaford filled up with 28 items including a 1963 International Car Company wide-vision caboose and a 1942 Whitcomb 15-ton shunting locomotive.
The city and Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce teamed up to bring a train viewing platform and tower next to the museum soon afterward. The platform is a hotspot for train enthusiasts from Plant City and far beyond. You can almost always find someone there on the weekends, either filming the trains as they pass by or waving to the conductors and passengers. If you’re really into trains, you may want to know that this is the only place in the southeast where you can see a double diamond crossing (two sets of tracks crossing at an intersection).
You can get a great education at the museum when it’s open, but here’s a bit of background from the museum’s website:
“The Plant City Union Depot was built in 1909. The depot played an important role in the early development of Plant City, whose main industries of farming, lumber and phosphate mining depended heavily on the railroad. The station once served both the Atlantic Coast Line RR & Seaboard Air Line RR. Mail also arrived in Plant City via this depot, and the Western Union telegraph service was based there. Plant City Union Depot continued to operate until 1971. The Plant City Union Depot was added to the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1974.”
The museum is open to the public from 12 to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at no cost. Masks and social distancing are required. The viewing platform is open to the public seven days a week. You can also watch live train cams at the museum website, willafordrailroadmuseum.com. Visit the website, call 813-719-6989 or look for the museum’s information booth on the festival grounds for more information.