Matt Wright and his 3-year-old son, Benji, spent a recent Saturday riding the rails at a Santa Rosa park, where little locomotives offer big-time fun.
They weren’t at Howarth Park, where generations of families have enjoyed train rides at the popular east side location. The Santa Rosa pair visited Youth Community Park across town on Fulton Road, where the Redwood Empire Live Steamers Interactive Museum operates two miniature trains — one powered by steam, the other diesel.
The attraction is newer, but recently doubled its appeal.
Initially operating on a portable track, the first permanent loop was completed in 2010. The nonprofit group of train aficionados celebrated the completion of the 1,000-foot back loop extension with a “golden spike” grand opening on the first run day of the 2018 season in May.
Now featuring a 2,000-foot track — with a gauge measuring just 7½ inches between steel rails — the run travels alongside the turf, into the woods and under the shaded canopy of the park’s mature trees. The ride includes eight railway switches.
The multiyear expansion effort earned the 20-member, all-volunteer organization a certificate of achievement from Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks as City Park Volunteers of the Year for 2018. The honor recognizes members’ dedication to the project and the joy they bring to park visitors.
“It’s a lot for them to do by themselves. It truly is amazing,” said Kristi Buffo, marketing and outreach coordinator with Recreation and Parks. “It just brings a really special element to that park.”
Established in 2003, Redwood Empire Live Steamers Inc. painstakingly installed the tracks, getting help from local Boy Scouts.
“Everything you see here is hand-built, hand-laid,” said Ann Bruner-Welch of Santa Rosa, the group’s past president. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”
Families like the Wrights can ride the trains the second weekend of every month May through October for a requested $1 donation.
Volunteers typically welcome between 100 to 150 riders per day.
“It’s awesome,” said Matt Wright, who rode both trains with his son, and has fond childhood memories of riding the steam trains at Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills. He and Benji, who loves trains, airplanes and construction trucks, were making memories exploring the nearly 74-acre Youth Community Park together.
“I love going here,” Benji declared.
As he paused to look through a stack of train-themed books provided at the Live Steamers’ makeshift depot — including classic titles like “The Little Red Caboose” and “Thomas the Tank Engine” — a train was preparing to depart. Conductor Ron Buckwalter of Novato was leading a chorus of “All Aboard!” as engineer Dave Fontes of Rohnert Park blew the whistle and kids waved to passersby.
Bruner-Welch, 55, and her husband, local Live Steamers President Don Bruner-Welch, 64, spent every weekend January through April working on the project. She estimates Live Steamers members dedicated “thousands” of hours to complete the expansion.
The long hours of planning and labor pay off with every punch of a train ticket, she said.
“It’s one of the really cool things you can do as a family that doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, and it’s wholesome,” she said.