Port Allen tinkerer goes off the rails building scale locomotive for grandson

About nine months ago, when his young grandson told Leo Bouquet that he wanted a train, Bouquet decided to make it happen. With emphasis on the words “make it.”

Bouquet’s idea of a train wasn’t a scale model on a track in the play room. He wanted something little Ronnie, now 3½, could actually ride in. So, he got to work.

Now, children in Bouquet’s Port Allen neighborhood know when they hear an air horn, it’s time to go outside and take a ride. Bouquet’s railway has become a reality.

Powered by a 20-horsepower engine, Bouquet’s locomotive pulls several kid-toting cars, which remain works in progress. When he’s done, there will be a boxcar, cattle car, tank car and caboose.

“It’s not a kit,” Bouquet said. “There’s not another one in the world like it. It’s one of a kind. It’s an original.”

That also describes its builder.

Bouquet, 70, worked on bicycles, then cars when he was growing up, and learned welding from his father. As an adult, he’s owned a grocery store, a driving school, a produce stand, a video game room and a company that distributed Little Debbie snack cakes, and once worked for Shell Oil in its warehouse.

For the past five years, he has served as sergeant-at-arms at the State Capitol, where his wife, Penny, also works.

“When I sold everything at 65 and decided I was going to retire, my wife said, ‘Oh, no. You can’t stay home by yourself. You need to come to the Capitol.’ So, she put me to work up there.”

But, since Bouquet gets home at 3:30 p.m., that allows plenty of time to tinker in the workshop. He started with 2-inch-by-2-inch steel tubing and angle irons to build the locomotive frame, then repurposed all sorts of things. He used 55-gallon drums to make the locomotive tank, a five-speed engine and riding lawnmower wheels and a small air tank to power the horn. When he noticed a metal chiminea in a neighbor’s yard, it gave him an idea.

“I walked up and said, ‘Man, that would make a great smokestack,’” Bouquet said. He said, ‘Well, man, if you want it, I’ll give it to you.’ I said, ‘No, man, I don’t want to mess up your chiminea.’ He said, ‘No, I want to have part in that train, too.’ The next day he brought it over to my shop.”

Add a bell, an air whistle, a homemade cattle-catcher, some plywood framing and, voila, Bouquet had a locomotive 7½ feet long and 3 feet wide. A friend, Brandi Duplessey, painted Mickey Mouse’s face on the front, and Bouquet finished things off with sheet metal Mickey ears. The cars are being made from metal garden carts to simplify the process.

“It goes a little bit faster than a good, steady, hard walk,” he said. “It’s not built for speed. It’s built for pulling the four cars with people in them.”

That’s a comfortable speed for Ronnie and his sister, Keira, 1½, and whoever else from the neighborhood decides to climb aboard when Bouquet adds railroad engineer to his long list of occupations.

When he isn’t driving the locomotive, Bouquet is likely to be behind the wheel of his 1934 Ford Cabriolet that, unlike several vintage cars he has owned, he bought rather than restored himself.

“I’ve had a great life, a great life,” he said. “I’m 70 years old, and I can outwork any of those youngsters. I can do anything. There’s no such thing as can’t. If you can’t do it, it’s because you don’t want to.”