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Engine and caboose become permanent part of historic downtown Plant City

PLANT CITY It’s hard to miss the latest addition to historic downtown Plant City.

A engine and caboose were lifted onto tracks outside the century-old depot Thursday as part of an ambitious plan to lure in more tourists, particularly railroad buffs.

Traffic in downtown was disrupted as the engine and caboose - donated by a retired engineer - were trucked to the depot and lifted into place by a crane.

The work took hours, but crowds of onlookers patiently watched from the street or from the depot.

Leo “Punk” Watson, followed the caravan and took photos.

“I watched them load it up. I wanted to see the whole thing,” said Watson, a 60-year-old train buff and Plant City native.

The engine and caboose are on display a few yards from a train viewing platform that’s scheduled to be finished soon. The elevated platform will give visitors a bird’s eye view of the tracks that crisscross downtown.

City officials hope the observation platform and railroad display will attract thousands of train buffs a year.

Downtown restaurant owner Jerry Lofstrom said he thinks it will be a major draw.

“You’d be surprised how many people already come to Plant City to watch trains,” said Lofstrom, who owns the Whistle Stop Cafe and writes an occasional column for the Plant City Courier. “This will bring them in like never before.”

By and large, the effort to boost tourism is being funded through donations. Plant City native and retired CSX engineer R.W. “Bob” Willaford gave the caboose, engine and other railroad memorabilia to the city.

A crane company donated its services, as did a firm with trucks capable of hauling such big loads. A company even installed the tracks for free.

Willaford and his wife Felice watched Thursday’s work from a bench under an awning at the depot at 102 N. Palmer St.

Willaford, who spent a half century compiling his collection worth more than $200,000, said he decided he wanted the public to enjoy what has been displayed in his front yard off Joe McIntosh Road.

“It was time to let go,” the 75-year-old said. Then he added, “I was like a kid giving up his favorite toy.”

Longtime Plant City resident Sally Raburn brought her 11-year-old grandson, T.J. Reed, to watch the caboose and engine hauled into town. She said T.J. loves trains so much that he has a railroad themed bedroom.

His mother, Michelle Reed, said T.J. encourages her to bide her time when she drives up to crossings in case a train is coming so they can stopped and he can take a closer look.

Raburn said she knew he’d enjoy watching the painstaking work at the depot.

T.J. said she was right.

“I thought it was all pretty cool,” he said.

Twitter: @dnicholsonTrib

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