History of the Gulf Coast Railroad
Shell Point's Model Train Display by Elden Johnson, October 1982
Once upon a time (that is how a lot of stories start) there was a young minister of the gospel named Ted Richards. He was affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Now he must have been a good minister and a leader among his congregation and had a good rapport among the Churches in the C&MA, because in 1954 they elected him Superintendent of the Pacific Northwest District. At that time the District consisted of the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Being superintendent required a lot of travel, so Ted's transportation needs turned to the railroads. He traveled on name trains, such as the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited. He had passes on three major railroads. Now this was the beginning of his love affair with railroading and he was soon to start his own model railroad. All the hard work and traveling required by being a Superintendent came to an end, as Ted suffered a coronary attack. This condition placed a great limitation on Ted's activities. Plans were then made for Ted and his wife liable to move to Shell Point Village, which they did in June 1971. Because he had shared his interest in model railroading with Bernard S. King, then Treasurer of the C&MA, Ted was encouraged to bring his model railroad to Shell Point. Some of the equipment that Ted brought with him, such as a turntable, round house and the gas-electric doodlebug are still in the present display.
Where was space for Ted to set up his railroad? This problem was solved with the co-operation of G. I. SirLouis, then executive Director of Shell Point Village. Ted was given permission to use the room where the display is now located. The room was at that time used to store furniture. Then there was the problem of how to lay the railroad out. What shape or characteristics should it have. Ted wanted something different. It was while he was dining in a restaurant in Cape Coral that the bright idea hit him. As he was eating he looked down at the placemat and there was the picture or outline of Florida.
As the furniture was being moved out of the room and news that a model railroad was going to be constructed, several of the resident men became interested. Only Jim Fitch became interested enough to become involved. Jim, during his working years, was employed as a Construction Engineer by Commonwealth Edison in the Chicago, Illinois area. Ted shared with Jim his idea of the shape or configuration of Florida. Because the size of the room would allow them to build a model railroad of considerable size, their vision of the layout became larger and larger. But where-o-where would they get the lumber to build to the size of their plans? Well, just at this time Shell Point Village had an expansion program going with the construction of the three mid-rise buildings. As with all construction work there seems to be the scrap pile of used materials destined to be burned. Ted and Jim soon had permission to "raid" the scrap pile. Can't you just see them hauling back the goodies to their construction site?
About the time Ted and Jim had the panhandle area built and were installing some track and switches, they had two visitors. Leonard Cooper and his wife Ruth from Toledo, Ohio. Len grew up in the Chicago, Illinois area and lived near several railroads. As he started his working career he commuted on the Rock Island and also on the Northwestern. This is when he was taken with the railroad fever. Later Len and Ruth moved to Toledo where he was employed by Electric Autolite, as an Accounting Systems Analyst. While living in Toledo, Len and his wife Ruth built a home with a room for a model railroad. His was not the small oval style with a couple of trains. When Len saw what Ted and Jim were building, he was so enthusiastic about it that he and Ruth decided to move to Shell Point when they retired. His retirement was still a few years away, but this did not stop Len from starting to move his railroad to Shell Point. As he would remove the things from his Toledo home, he would pack and ship it to Ted and Jim. Len had about 24 locomotives and 100 assorted freight and passenger cars which he moved to Shell Point. Len and Ruth moved to Shell Point on January 1, 1976.
Sometime in March 1977 Ted, Jim and Len had some more visitors. Elden Johnson and his wife Eloise were visiting Shell Point, with the idea that they may become residents. Host visitors to Shell Point seem to stop in and view the model railroad and "EJ" was no different. Now "EJ" had a particular interest in railroads, as indirectly his paychecks were coming from the railroads. You see, he was working for General Motors in their Diesel Locomotive Division in LaGrange, Illinois and was familiar with many railroads, as he was a Parts Sales Representative. "EJ" and Eloise moved to Shell Point on July 4, 1977. Upon becoming a resident, "EJ" was soon to be found in the train room assisting in showing the visitors how the trains operated.
John Rhodes and his wife Ada lived most of their lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. John was employed 38 years by the United States Steel Corporation in their Engineering Department. As a boy he was interested in trains and railroading. As most fathers do, John bought his son and daughter a toy railroad. The first train was a Lionel. Later they changed to the HO gauge. John and Ada moved to Shell Point Village in November 1978. Soon John came to the train room to see the Gulf Coast Railroad in action. That was all that was needed, as John was soon to be found in the train room operating the trains and showing them to the visitors to the Gulf Coast Railroad.
Walter Kerr and his wife Ruth, before becoming residents of Shell Point Village, made a number of visits to the train room. Walter had a real interest in trains as he was a conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He can tell many stories about his experiences while working on the railroad. Walter and Ruth moved to Shell Point in January 1981.
Another man to be found in the train room is Lawrence Zeltner. During the active years of his life as a minister, he used trains for his transportation needs. This started back in 1936. At one point in his life he was advised by his physician to adopt a hobby, so he turned to model railroading. Lawrence and his wife Charlene became Shell Point residents October 1983.
In 1981 a viewing ramp and stand was constructed. This filled a growing need, as many of the visitors are children and persons confined to a wheel chair. The number of visitors is increasing as the communities surrounding Shell Point become aware of the railroad. In the spring when the schools are making their tours, one of their stops is the Gulf Coast Railroad. All visitors are invited to sign a guest register. The registration book was started in 1973 and over 18,000 guests have registered with all 50 states represented and about 45 countries outside the United States.
When you visit the Gulf Coast Railroad, you will be greeted by one of the men on duty. You will be requested to walk up the ramp and on to the viewing stand. From the viewing stand you will see a model railroad laid out on a table in the shape or configuration of the State of Florida. The table measures approximately 41 feet - east to west - Jacksonville to Pensacola and about 43 feet - north to south - Jacksonville to Miami and Key West. There are approximately 750 feet of track and about 100 turn-outs or switches. All the switches and trains are motivated electronically from 4 console control panels. Two of the panels contain 2 each individual control modules. The remaining 2 panels control switch yards and turn tables. There are perhaps a few hundred buildings, automobiles, trucks, tractors and people - miniature, of course - that can be seen as part of the exhibit. Your tour guide and narrator will first direct your attention to the freight yards and turntable in the Pensacola area. Next comes Jay, with its oil derricks; Crestview with the highest elevation on the panhandle; Tallahassee with the old Capitol building as well as the new Executive building. The University of Florida in Gainesville will be pointed out with its football stadium. No football game can be played without a blimp flying around, so a blimp is flying over the field, which is the only blimp that advertises Shell Point Village. At this point of your tour the guide will turn the house lights off and will turn the exhibit lights on. This is indeed quite a sight as you can imagine you are on a night flight on a commercial airline flying over Florida. All of the buildings are lighted inside, the lighthouse on Sanibel Island is now working as well as the beacon light at the Homestead Air Force Base. You attention now will be directed on down the peninsula to places such as Disney World, the Edward W. Bok Singing Tower (you can listen to the concert). The Citrus Tower at Clermont, Kennedy Space Center with the Columbia ready for take off, Lake Okeechobee, and many other attractions. The citrus groves are also seen. Yes, even Shell Point Village is in the exhibit. Along the east coast you will see an array of resort buildings from Palm Beach to Miami and Miami Beach. One of the buildings at Fort Lauderdale is the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where you can listen to a recording of the church organ. The tour ends at Key West. While you are enjoying the tour, your director will program a couple of trains to run while you listen to the narration. You will see the trains activate the 3-light block signals, the flashing crossing signals with gates and the Diesel horn sounds.
There is also an exhibit which is separate from the Florida lay-out. It was constructed to show four different gauges used in model railroading. There are working models on this display with the gauges being "O" - 1/48 scale, "S" - 1/64, "HO" - 1/87 and "N" - 1/160. (The "HO" is used on the main exhibit.) This is a display where children (some adults too) are allowed to flip the switches and become engineers.