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Dirty ’ol beauty: 1930 steam engine arrives for trips at Parrish railroad museum

John Gramling avoids white clothes when he’s working on the rare, 1930 steam engine called the Flagg Coal Co. No. 75.

“It’s a dirty machine,” laughed Gramling, 66, a retired carpenter from Ashley, Ind., who now owns the steam engine and has returned with it to Manatee County. It will operate during weekends this month at the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish.

“It belches smoke and water, and you get cinders,” he explained. “You don’t wear white clothes.”

The working steam engine weighs around 80,000 pounds when it’s running and is among only 150 or so like it in the United States, Gramling said. It is the fourth year the engine has arrived here to delight museumgoers.

Asked why people are attracted to steam engines, Gramling said, “Compared to a diesel, they smell better, and the mechanics of them, it’s really kind of hard to explain.

“When you get the fire built, and build up steam, the sound of the compressor — it’s more sound than smell — the mechanics of the way the thing works. ... Once it gets in your blood, you’re hooked.”

Each weekend, the engine will haul trainloads of passengers who arrive for the museum’s regular excursions on real train cars that are part of the museum’s collection.

The museum plans to offer special events, including a fake train robbery and a weekend devoted to kids’ activities, during its special “month of steam,” according to its Web site, www.frrm.org.

The museum also will offer cab rides on each of its four runs per weekend day, along with the opportunity to engineer after the last train completes its passenger run, according to Gene Hughey, who does advertising and public relations for the museum at 12210 83rd St. E.

“It’s rare because of its size,” said Hughey of the steam locomotive. “It’s fairly small, 42 tons, and by engine standards, that’s pretty small.”

In 1991, Gramling bought the steam engine in New York for $4,500. A railroad museum owner there had left it sitting in the same spot for 39 years, he said.

“It was a bucket of rust,” he noted.

It took Gramling and his son, Byron Gramling, 38, a railroad engineer and mechanic, 10 years to restore the engine.

Now Gramling trucks it around to 15 different locations in the United States between Michigan and Florida, he said.

It inspired Gramling’s wife, Patricia, to write a children’s book called “Hank the Tank Engine,” which is slated for publication next month, Gramling said.

“It’s kind of a headache to keep running,” said Gramling of the engine.

But it has been worth it, he added, because he has been able to provide something that makes people happy.

“That’s our reward,” he said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.

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