Folkston, Georgia is a Southern town of around 2500 residents that sits near the eastern edge of the Okeefenokee Swamp. It’s a slow-paced place that once revolved around the railroad and that now primarily markets itself as the “Gateway to the Okefenokee Swamp.” The railroad no longer stops in Folkston, but the town has found a way to benefit from the railroad just the same, by becoming a mecca for railfans in a secondary promotional campaign as the “Trainwatchers’ Paradise.”
The “Paradise” of the slogan is something known as the Folkston Funnel. The Funnel is the double artery of tracks of the Nahunta and Jesup Subs that sees all rail traffic into and out of neighboring Florida. After Folkston, the tracks split and head either up the Atlantic Seaboard or up to Waycross and then to the Midwest. Folkston and Waycross are railwatcher heavens.
Railwatching is not the same as trainspotting. Trainspotters obsess over engine numbers and types of stock and attempt to see all of it, keeping a detailed written or video record. Railwatchers, as the name suggests, simply watch trains. A railfan/watcher can be excited enough to be called a “foamer,” a kind of hobbyist whose passion leads him to metaphorically foam at the mouth. To facilitate the railwatching hobby, Folkston has built a special viewing platform in the shape of a depot that has live scanner feed for monitoring rail traffic. The platform is lit at night, has ceiling fans and a picnic table, and also has nearby restroom facilities and a barbecue grill. As many as 60 trains a day pass through the Funnel, although only the passenger trains–eight a day–are scheduled, including the special auto train that the video mentioned as being a highlight of the watching experience. Outside of the Amtrak traffic, it’s anyone’s guess when the freight trains will roll through.
So popular is the railwatching activity that the Chamber of Commerce has a dedicated page for it on their Web site. It was this page that prompted me to visit; I’d noticed a similarly marketed attraction up in Waycross and the idea that two small Southern towns would advance tourism by marketing railwatching intrigued me. I picked a lovely autumn day and drove north from Gainesville, taking a back route through Macclenny and then driving the Okefenokee Parkway up to Folkston.
My first stop was at the Chamber of Commerce, which is located in the old train depot. The Chamber has a large and comprehensive rail exhibit to the rear of the reception area. The young clerk with an accent so thick it sounded as if she were chewing on it opened the door to the exhibit for me and told me to take my time. I picked up a guidebook called “Folkston Then and Now” and another called “Hello Charlton!” and spent half an hour immersing myself in the history of the local railways and the tiny city of Folkston.
The exhibit featured a video from CBS Sunday Morning that began playing as soon as I entered the room. The video showed close-ups of freight engines–train porn–and excited visitors with telephoto lenses attached to cameras on tripods. “Trainwatchers’ Paradise…almost non-stop action,” the video promised. The most anticipated event, I learned, is to see two trains passing each other. The video made it look as if the viewing platform were one big ongoing train party of family tailgaters, intense hobbyists, quirky old guys in engineer’s caps, and curious visitors from Scandinavia.
On the day I visited, there were just two men on the viewing platform and no Danish tourists. The platform is located diagonally across from the Chamber of Commerce. I walked over and introduced myself as being from Florida. “I knew you weren’t from around here,” the older of the two men said. “Really?” I asked. “How’s that?” I was joking; I didn’t suppose that the platform saw a lot of single females and I’d already gotten the fish eye from a lady at a store that sold gas stoves.
I sat down and pulled out my camera, wondering whether it would be better to use the wide angle lens or the telephoto one. I decided to use the telephoto first, because I expected that in short order I would want to shoot down the track at an approaching train, all gleaming steel in the bright Georgia sun.
The scanner crackled to life, but a build-up of static prevented anything from being comprehensible. “A lugga krrr krrr krrr rrrrrrrip hiss SNAP,” it said. I looked over at the older man–whom I secretly had nicknamed Choo Choo Charlie–and asked if the scanner were always that scratchy.
“A lot of the time,” he said, looking over to the other man for confirmation. This other man (“Name’s Bill”), said that it didn’t matter because all that was being announced was the continued journey of a track sweeper car that was making its way north. As long as this sweeper was on the tracks, no other train would come through.
“How long does that take?” I asked, intuiting that the “non-stop action” promised by the video was subject to lengthy and random interruptions.
“However long,” Bill said, and then he returned to reading a timetable.
“Is there a schedule for trains?” I asked Choo Choo Charlie.
“Not really. The passenger trains, there is, but not the freight.”
I asked him if he just sat out here all day with no guarantee of when a train would come through. Bill looked up from his timetable to say that the day before, six trains had come through from 1:15 until 2 and then nothing more from 2 until 6, at which point he had given up and had gone home.
For Choo Choo Charlie, though, the railwatching wasn’t the whole point. His wife had died the year before after 55 years of marriage, and now Choo Choo had nothing to do. He came to the train platform to socialize, to get out of the empty house. It didn’t really matter how many trains came through or what type they were or where they were headed. It was company he was after. Sitting at the Funnel was something to do on a day with nothing to do. It gave the day destination and purpose and, given the popularity of the activity, a near-guarantee that there would be people with whom he could talk.
“A lady down the church asked me why I was still wearing my wedding ring,” he said, holding up a liver-spotted hand so that I could see the band. “Asked her why she thought I should take it off. Far as I know, I’m still married, just my wife died on me, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I offered.
“But she,” he continued, “said, Charlie, if you’re wearin’ that ring, no lady will think you’re available.” He raised his eyebrows. Whose gonna want an old guy like me anyway?”
I clumsily changed the subject by asking how you could tell if a train were approaching. “You see down there?” Charlie asked, “There’s a signal. Can you see it through your lens? If it’s all red, there’s no train.”
I sat down and switched out my lens to the wide-angle one, killing time by polishing its glass surface. I’d been on the platform for half an hour with no sign of a train. I wondered how the hardcore enthusiasts of the video knew when to visit, or whether certain times of the year–like a holiday–drew more enthusiasts than others. Or perhaps I’d just come on a slow day. I sat back and spent the next 20 minutes or so in a silent vacuum with Charlie and Bill, none of us saying anything and all of us attuned to the scratchy scanner.
After an hour passed with no train action, I decided to take the walking tour outlined in the “Folkston Then and Now” guidebook that I picked up at the Chamber of Commerce. “Be careful,” Charlie cautioned. I wasn’t sure if this were gallantry or a comment upon my appearance, which marked me as so much of an outsider that I might be an easy target. I had recently been noticing sidelong glances at my camera of a type you might get from purse snatchers, so perhaps the warning had some merit.
The “Folkston Then and Now” booklet was quite comprehensive and was full of fascinating little nuggets of information, like how, in 1954, the Charlton County centennial occasioned the reopening of an old mercantile for the purpose of having the citizenry dress up in the vintage fashions that had sat on the shelves since the turn of the century. From the platform, I started down the west side of Main, visiting Thrift Farm & Feed, the former Hotel Arnold, the former McDonald House, and the Big Wheeler Pro Shop (not open). Big Wheeler used to be the Dixie Restaurant, where you could get a lunch of crackers and milk or a dinner of brains and eggs. The tour looked as if it might take a couple of hours, but I completed most of it in half an hour. Since all of what I’d seen had been within close proximity of the railroad tracks, I knew that I hadn’t missed any trains once I’d left the Funnel platform. This presented a quandary; I’d come all the way from Gainesville to see trains, but I didn’t want to lose a whole day waiting them out the way Choo Choo Charlie and Bill did. It was obvious that the practice involved buying a Whopper at the local Burger King and laying it out as if it were a ten-gallon Porterhouse and then sitting back and waiting for a train that might or might not come. Even if one did come, the excitement would last all of about a minute before the train disappeared from view and things returned to normal–the state of waiting.
You could tell that some trains were more excitedly anticipated than others. The Tropicana Juice Train, the Amtrak auto train, and trains full of graffiti each held special appeal. Passenger cars beat freight cars, at least for Charlie and Bill, and this I understood. It was like airplanes. People going somewhere, perhaps having the excitement of travel and discovery, beat cars full of frozen meat or peas. You could envy those travelers without knowing their stories and by creating one for them. You could close your eyes and imagine yourself on that Airbus headed to Paris or that sleeper car headed towards Chicago. It was the romance of travel that attracted people to the passenger trains, even if the truth was that the trains and the people who rode them were often interchangeable with Greyhound buses and their passengers. I knew this from stopping at train stations whenever I’d see them; often you would see people who looked so down on their luck as to be at their last station, huddled with their belongings and a coach class ticket.
I decided to head out and visit Kingsland, which was about 20 miles east. I’d left my car in front of the Chamber of Commerce, and when I got into it, I took my camera off my neck and carefully packed it into its bag. I was just about to zip up the bag when I heard it: a bell at the railroad crossing. I looked back and saw the gate come down and then I saw the train. I barely had time to turn the camera on before it went by. The train was a CSX freight painted a bold blue, with yellow lettering for “CSX” and the number 8867 on the cab. A man in the cab was wearing a dayglo safety vest. I snapped off two pictures and then the train was gone, headed to Florida in a puff of smoke and a rattle of freight cars. I looked back to the Funnel platform and saw Charlie and Bill standing at attention. I waved, holding my camera high in the air to show that I’d taken my picture, and then I got into the car and headed east.
Folkston is added to my new “Really Friendly Places!” category.