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TRAIN WATCHING Both young and old display love of rails



Published: Sat, August 20, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



This small Georgia town is a crossroads for trains and their enthusiasts alike.

FOLKSTON, Ga. (AP) -- Alerted by the crackling voice of an unseen dispatcher, two devoted rail fans spring into action.

They turn their video cameras toward the south. They speculate excitedly about what type of machine will soon be rumbling into town. One grabs a notebook, preparing to log all the vital details such as engine model and number.

On cue, the telltale ringing of a nearby crossing gate pierces the calm of a sleepy weekend day, its slender arm slowly drooping toward the ground, cutting off a pickup truck that had hopes of slipping across the two sets of tracks.

Finally, an earsplitting horn signals the arrival of a mammoth CSX engine, the headlights slowly coming into focus on the hazy horizon, trailed by a seemingly endless line of coal cars.

It's show time in Folkston, a hamlet of 2,200 that hugs the Georgia border about 40 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Fla.

For train lovers, this is nirvana.

"It's something large and majestic," said Bob Holmes, a 76-year-old retired pastor from Ohio, trying to explain why he started visiting Folkston a couple years ago just to see the trains. "It's noisy. There's a great variety of colors. There's all the different types of cars.

"I don't really know what it is. It's just fun."

In most ways, Folkston is the prototypical Small Town USA. There's a handful of traffic lights, a corner drugstore and a pair of rail lines that split one side of town from the other.

Popular port

But these aren't any ol' tracks. Two major CSX lines converge just north of Folkston, funneling anywhere from 40 to 60 trains through town each day.

Hence the town's nickname, the "Folkston Funnel."

In essence, every freight train from the Eastern half of the country must dissect Folkston getting to and from booming Florida. Throw in a trio of Amtrak passenger trains -- passing through six times a day -- and it's quite a show for devoted rail buffs.

Four years ago, the townspeople decided all those trains might actually be another way to sell their remote town.

Till then, Folkston was known primarily as a gateway to the nearby Okefenokee Swamp (which draws those preferring Mother Nature's handiwork) and as the hometown of the football-playing Bailey brothers (Champ and Boss starred at the University of Georgia before the NFL).

"We've evolved into a second attraction in this area," said Marvin "Cookie" Williams, a longtime Folkston resident and its most devoted train watcher. "The big attraction, of course, is the swamp. I don't think we'll ever compete with the swamp and the number of people who come to see it. But it's amazing to see the number of people who do come to watch trains."

Observation deck

Williams led the charge for a formal train-viewing area. Mayor Dixie McGurn persuaded the state to give a $30,000 grant, and the money was used in 2001 to build a wooden platform a safe distance from the tracks.

"A lot of people thought this was the biggest waste of money," McGurn said. "I think they're seeing it differently now. There's not a day in the week that I don't go by the platform and find someone there."

Modeled after a Lionel toy train platform, the one in Folkston has a roof, ceiling fan and plenty of comfortable chairs to take a load off between trains.

Other touches have been added as the crowds have grown -- picnic tables, a grill, restrooms, floodlights for train gazing at night, and a scanner that picks up radio chatter between engineers and control towers.

"When I first got here, I was the only person who stopped by the tracks to watch trains," said Williams, who has lived in Folkston since 1973. "Throughout the years, other people would show up. We would get together, visit, that kind of thing."

Spurred on by the Internet and word-of-mouth, Folkston gradually became a hotbed for train fanatics. On any given day, dozens show up to videotape trains, take pictures of trains, talk about trains or simply watch trains. In the past two months, visitors from more than 20 states -- along with Great Britain and Hungary -- have signed the platform's guest book.

Rick Tufts, a firefighter from Pinehurst, N.C., began stopping in Folkston about a decade ago while en route to visit relatives in Florida. At first, it was nothing more than a dusty road near the tracks where train buffs gathered. Now, he said, "it's really transpired into something that's known all over the country."

Passageway for all

The trains traveling through Folkston carry everything from cars to coal, gravel to grain. Of particular interest to rail fanatics are the occasional loads of military equipment, the Amtrak "Autotrain" carrying both passengers and their vehicles, and the always-popular "Tropicana Juice Train," which rumbles through town five times a week, hauling OJ from Florida that might wind up on store shelves in New York City.

The engineers have gotten used to seeing rail fans in this outpost. They'll usually give an extra toot on the horn or dangle a friendly wave out the window.

Occasionally, they'll stop to let rail traffic clear up ahead, giving them time to pop over to a nearby McDonald's for a quick meal while their admirers move in a little closer for pictures and video.

"They'll tell us, 'Take all the pictures you want. Just stay off the tracks,'" said Peter Dowdy, who drives about three hours from his home in Byron to see the trains.

Folkston embraces its unique place along the line. The city advertises in train magazines. A local motel offers specials to rail enthusiasts. Restaurants have train-themed entr & eacute;es on the menu.

"It's an awesome place to do some train watching," said the 26-year-old Dowdy, who works at an antiques store and collects model trains. "The people down there are really nice toward the rail fans."

The reception isn't always so warm in other cities. Rail devotees are occasionally referred to as "foamers," implying they foam at the mouth at the mere sight of a train. Some in the industry view them as get-a-life annoyances, their endless pursuit of the next train causing safety problems and security issues -- the latter of particular concern in the post-9/11 era.

"Some people don't understand that it's just a hobby when I'm standing out there by rail tracks with my video camera," Dowdy said. "Most people are just waiting for the train to go past. They're looking at me like, 'What's he doing?'"

XFor more information about watching the trains in Folkston, Ga., visit www.folkston.com/trains/trains.htm or call (912) 496-2536. The town is also the gateway to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge; details at okefenokee.fws.gov or (912) 496-7836. The Western Motel, (912) 496-4711, offers discount rates to rail fans -- $54.95 single room, $59.95 double.




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