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A Kick in the Caboose

Among the residents of the hillside village, Howard Goodwin looks like a giant. Popping through a cutout in the middle of the miniature-scale display at the South Florida Railway Museum, he's Godzilla-like compared to the five-inch trees and toy trains that weave their way across the landscape. A sleek, silver passenger line rolls over bridges and glides through tunnels as freight trains pull ice-cooled boxcars and loads of coal.

For train enthusiasts like Goodwin, a resident of Margate, the little replicas are as delightful as the real thing. And here at the museum, members enjoy the best of both: Real trains -- 87 times the size of the HO-scale toys -- whiz past on tracks just outside the door.

The museum is housed in the 72-year-old Seaboard Air Line station in Deerfield Beach. Once a rail shipping center for produce, the building was refurbished several years ago to preserve the Mediterranean-style architecture and keep the train station in service; today, passengers of the TriRail system utilize the terminal.

At the back of the building, in a high-ceilinged, brick-walled area that was once a baggage room, members of the museum are working on a display that will send model trains through a replica of South Florida, approximating real-life rail routes with smaller versions of trackside landmarks from Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade County. Among the landmarks: downtown Fort Lauderdale and the Pompano Farmers' Market. When the layout is finished a few years from now, the model will occupy four interconnected wooden platforms and take up most of the room.

Until then the museum's model trains will continue to chug through the rural-hillside layout, complete with muddy river, flashing signals, small structures, and tiny people -- all of it painstakingly created by museum members. Even the trees in the display are handcrafted. Built from twigs, bamboo skewers, fluffy pieces of foam rubber, and dried plants, they're held together with spritzes of hair spray.

In addition to watching the trains, museum guests may also look through a collection of train-related publications, check out a 100-year-old train bell, and admire the handcrafted, model-size buildings in a display case. A replica of an old Colorado railroad station built by Marv Kempner of Boynton Beach, for example, features minute details, including birds on the roof, a broom on the porch, luggage carts, and a Ford pickup truck parked out back.

Most of the museum's 40 members have their own model-train setups at home, but the displays and memorabilia at the museum allow them to share their enthusiasm. And on Wednesday nights the miniature trains enthrall small crowds of visitors. On a recent evening, one little boy perched on his dad's shoulders for an overhead view of the layout.

Museum member Jeff Orenstein understands the appeal. The Boca Raton resident remembers how he felt as a kid while watching mammoth locomotives zoom by on the tracks next to his elementary school. "They make a lot of noise, they're visually appealing and invoke the spirit of faraway places and adventure," he says.

Indeed, when a real train whistles in the distance, Orenstein, Goodwin, and their pals head out the museum door and stand on a wooden platform to watch a freight liner as it swooshes past. Anyone watching them realizes that, as the earth trembles and the train kicks up a blast of wind, the tables have turned: The men look like mere dolls in the shadow of the steel beast.

-- Patti Roth

The South Florida Railway Museum, 1300 W. Hillsboro Blvd., Deerfield Beach, is open every Wednesday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Admission is free. The museum is also available for birthday parties. Call 954-698-6620.

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Patti Roth

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