Railroad fans are flocking from across the world to Plant City, and thanks to the addition of virtual streaming, thousands are tuning in every day to observe the passage of trains through downtown.
While strawberry fields and berry themed festivals are what Plant City is known for, a large group of travelers flock for a set of steel rails in the heart of downtown.
Trains built this community and without their influence Plant City might not exist. It wasn’t until local farmers were able to transport their crops, including their beloved strawberries, across the country in iced box cars that the economy truly took off. Produce was soon sent all over the U.S. and farmers were able to develop agriculture empires in the fertile Florida soil. The local railroad has helped Plant City rise to international fame.
Part of the appeal lies in the fact that Plant City is one of two places in the Eastern United States to have a double diamond, aka two sets of tracks that cross at an intersection. That alone makes it a must see destination for train enthusiasts, but the addition of the viewing platform in 2013 turned the city into a coveted rail location.
Few places are left in the country where you can sit in a state-of-the-art platform right next to the tracks. Those that do offer designated viewing areas often have them hundreds of feet away. Benito “Benny” Lubrano Jr., executive director of the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum, designed the platform himself, and thanks to the efforts of a variety of community leaders, the dream was brought to fruition.
Regardless of if its 11 a.m. on a Saturday or 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night there’s always someone camped out at the platform. Many come with cameras and tripods in hand as they patiently wait for their favorite locomotive to arrive.
“We reach so many people here,” Lubrano said. “You’ve got those that come out to physically watch the train, those that are interested in our model trains, history buffs who come for the museum and to learn more about Plant City’s history with the trains, people that want to see the caboose, we really reach everyone. Now with the cameras we’re reaching even more.”
Just last week, the museum officially went live with two cameras mounted at the depot. Anyone in the world can now log on with a simple click of a button and watch a live feed of the tracks. At one random moment on Thursday, there were 694 people logged on and watching live.
Virtual Railfan has 66 cameras up in 41 locations throughout four countries. Plant City is a recent addition to that list. The company told Lubrano that on the first day it launched, there were 5,100 viewers in five hours.
As word spreads, the feed continues to be filled with train enthusiasts. The Virtual Railfan YouTube feed streams live as well and has a chat attached for people to discuss during the video. It took six months to transform the initial conversation into the reality of having the cameras go up. The city provided WiFi for the project and the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum Society, Inc. purchased the equipment. It took mere minutes to prove it was a sound investment.
The museum itself, which is entirely free, sees approximately 7,000 visitors every year from all over the globe. Visitors from Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Ecuador, Ireland and countless other countries all have popped in to check out its offerings.
Dakota Lovern, of Sarasota, had his camera ready for action Wednesday morning as he set up shop on the platform. Monitoring the train schedule, he was able to figure out when the trains would pass through downtown.
“I’ve been into trains my whole life,” Lovern said. “When I was really young, I thought for some reason that trains didn’t exist in Florida, which was really weird. Then I started going out and watching them. I have a YouTube channel now, Kotabeaner Productions, and I film all kinds of locomotives.”
Lubrano said he remembers when Lovern was “a head shorter” than him. Now he’s taller than Lubrano and he said there’s countless others he’s watched grow up over the past five years.
He knows all the regulars by name and has spent hours sharing the importance of the railroad to every adult and child that walks through the doors.
“This isn’t just a train that’s blocking traffic,” Lubrano said. “It’s carrying massive quantities of product. One juice car has 1 million gallons of orange juice. Then that train has 20 cars. Think of the retail value with that. That’s what I’m more or less pushing, to make people think about what is really happening on these tracks.”
The past year has been a whirlwind of progress for the museum. The interior has been redone, there are new additions to the exhibits, the cameras are up and running and “The Tower” had its grand opening during Railfest.
The museum’s social media presence has blossomed under the efforts of a volunteer and, thanks to a few local media efforts, word is spreading that something special can be found in Plant City.
“It’s such an asset to the community,” City Manager Bill McDaniel said. “We are a railroad town. There’s no doubt that railroads fascinate a large group of people and we’re seeing that by the numbers that show up to watch trains right here in Plant City… I’m all for anything that promotes the history and wonderfulness of Plant City and the museum absolutely provides that service for our community.”
There’s nowhere to go but forward, Lubrano said. Now that so many are plugging in, he said the museum will continue to set goals and meet them, continue to evolve and have new and unique offerings. The future looks bright for Plant City, and under the guidance of Lubrano and the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum Society, Inc., there is nothing but progress ahead.