All aboard for trains at Santa Rosa’s Youth Community Park

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Upcoming run days are noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 4-5, Sept. 1-2 and Oct. 6-7 at Youth Community Park, 1701 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa. The requested donation is $1 per rider.

For more information, visit

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.

Upcoming run days are noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 4-5, Sept. 1-2 and Oct. 6-7 at Youth Community Park, 1701 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa. The requested donation is $1 per rider.

For more information, visit

With the seating about 18 inches off the rail, the trains are ADA accessible. Each train can accommodate about 15 riders.

A physician’s assistant and retired Santa Rosa firefighter, Ann Bruner-Welch said trains appeal to fans of all ages. “It’s not just for kids or for families. It’s big kids as well as little kids.”

She’s a lifelong train buff, and is pleased the Live Steamers group is making it possible for children — and adults — to enjoy the old-fashioned fun of riding a train. Many members were introduced to trains as kids, both model trains and those that carry freight and passengers across the country.

Brad Squires, a retired auto mechanic, has been fascinated with trains since his childhood in Elk Grove.

His father often took him and his brother out to wait for arriving trains, and getting a train set for Christmas at age 6 or 7 was the start of a lifetime interest, said Squires, 67, a Sonoma resident.

He belongs to several train-hobbyist groups, and is proud of the opportunity the Live Steamers provides to ride the rails at Youth Community Park.

“I’m so happy these little people can experience that,” Squires said. Motioning to a departing train, he noted, “Look at them. They’re just glowing. They’re having so much fun. We get to share the absolute joy of riding on a railroad.”

Fontes, 53, whose father worked as a locomotive engineer, is another longtime railroad fan. A crane operator and heavy equipment mechanic, Fontes enjoys the camaraderie of fellow Live Steamers members and their shared interest in trains.

“It’s a really neat group of people. We all get along and all have the same interests,” he said. “It’s the railroads, the history of railroads, the spirit of locomotives.”

That love of trains is evident in the care given to the Live Steamers’ two trains. Members custom built several riding cars that take passengers along the six-minute route, running about 3 or 4 miles per hour.

The group’s steam engine was donated by the Roy A. Chavez Trust in memory of Chavez, who began building the engine at age 75, but died before he could operate it.

Fontes and other Live Steamers members completed and refurbished the train. The diesel train was acquired from another train organization.

Live Steamers members donate their time to maintain the train and tracks, operate the runs and help out at workdays. They pay annual dues of $35 and some contribute their own money to augment grant funding that supports their projects.

The group sometimes goes on the road to offer train rides at community events.

Their portable track — the one that first brought rides to Youth Community Park in 2006 — has visited a Santa Rosa fall home show and will once again be featured at “The Great Train Days” at the Sonoma County Children’s Museum, 1835 W. Steele Lane, Santa Rosa.

The event takes place from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 11 and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Aug. 12, with Live Steamers offering rides. For information, visit

In providing rides and reaching out to the community, the Redwood Empire Live Steamers, Inc. hopes to fulfill its mission of preserving Sonoma County railroad history and sharing the joys of the railways.

Members are eager to engage local youth to help construct interpretive railroad equipment and historic landmarks in miniature, and would like to work with seniors to develop living histories of local railways.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at

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