Ridge Live Steamers
By Andrea Cruz
The little engine that could has become the little engine that can — and does.
Originally organized in the late 60s in Lakeland, the Ridge Live Steamers, Inc., (RLS), a model railroad organization, operates scaled down train engines and tracks on 16 acres of land on the ridge of East Polk County.
The trains run on 17,000 feet of track operating over bridges, trestles, through a tunnel, and offers views of Bok Tower and Lake Pierce from trackside.
Now retired, former elementary school principal Richard Dobler is the caretaker of the property. He is also a past president of RLS. He has been a member for 35 years and says it’s a labor-intensive hobby. When Dobler isn’t building trains, he and other members are creating the layout for new track, shoveling dirt, laying track, maintaining the track and trains, etc.
The hobby is called live steam, and the models are of steam engines and diesels that have been scaled to 1.5 inches to the foot, which are 1/8-scale models and run on a scaled gauge.
Dobler explains that gauge is the distance between the tracks. The width of the RLS tracks is 7.5 inches.
The property location is not publicized, as it is not open to the public. However, anyone interested in the hobby or visiting to see the trains in action can call and inquire. Visitors are generally welcomed on the fourth Saturday of each month, as that is a “run day,” when the hobbyists get the trains out and ride the rails.
Membership is open to anyone interested in any aspect of railroading or model railroading. The organization currently has 120 members.
When young people visit, such as in church groups or scouts, Dobler says they try to emphasize the history of the steam engine and the importance of it to the development of the country.
“Part of our purpose is to continue to teach young people about steam, about the steam locomotives and stationary steam engines that developed this country in the 1800s,” he says. “Stationary steam engines powered the factories that built things, and the trains made the western movement possible and expanded this country.”
And of course there is a strong emphasis on safety as well. Dobler’s personal train weighs 850 pounds and goes three miles an hour.
“That’s considerable mass in motion,” he says. “We are constantly concerned about safety. Lots of things can happen quickly.”
Dobler built his own train, a model of a diesel-electric with a welded body, mostly by scratch. There are almost no commercial parts.
A real-life diesel-electric train is powered diesel engines turning electric generators. His scaled-down model is powered by six golf cart batteries.
Some of the other engines owned by members are models of actual steam engines that require coal to be shoveled in. Others are fired with propane, oil, or wood to build the fire, which boils the water, making the steam that runs the engine. Some of the club engines run on gasoline and turn hydraulic pumps that turn the chains on the axles.
Dobler says that one has to be somewhat of an engineer to understand more or less how a train will perform.
“There is a tractive effort that is taken into consideration, including the weight of the engine, axle configuration, and springing equalization of the axles,” A ride from start to finish can take about 25 minutes. Throughout the tracks, Dobler pushes or ‘throws’ a turnout, making tracks switch in a different directions. Other buttons pushed while riding operate stop and go lights, which could possibly prevent a collision, in case there is another train also on the tracks.
The organization has three big meets a year, which draw enthusiasts from all over the country and globe.
“Last February we had about 130 engines, and about 200 cars over a 10 day period,” Dobler says.
For more information visit RidgeLiveSteamers.org or contact Richard Dobler at 863-438-8714.