There’s a shelter, a bunch of picnic tables, a barbecue grill, clean public restrooms, and interpretive signage. What’s unusual about it is that it sits right alongside a very busy set of railroad tracks. And the shelter is elevated like a train platform. And the signage is all about trains.
And sitting in their cars, for a half block north and south from the picnic area, binoculars at the ready and clipboards in hand, are trainspotters.
On the morning we stopped, one couple told us they come here once a year from Nashville, just to spend the day watching the trains. Another said they come down every morning to have their breakfast while the cars roll by.
Some RVers are birders, like I am, interested in seeing something beautiful, spectacular, or unusual. Some are willing to go out of the way and put themselves to some discomfort to sight something new. Some are into photography, others into life lists. As it is with birding, there are many varieties of rail fans.
Some collect journeys. Some are into particular types of locomotives. Some are photographers, and some are trainspotters. Though they identify themselves in a variety of ways, trainspotters basically learn how to identify the distinctive characteristics of trains — cars and engines. For trainspotters, Folkston is a destination.
Trainspotters in Folkston
The two sets of tracks running alongside the block-long park are called the Folkston Funnel. Call to mind the number of people who live in Florida. Then think of all the things produced in the Sunshine state that we in the rest of the USA enjoy. Then think about the map.
Most of the railway traffic that goes in and out of Florida passes through here on any given day. As many as sixty trains in a twenty-four-hour period. One of the folks we chatted with said she’d counted as many as eleven in an hour. When you think about how long a train is and how long it takes to pass, they must have been pretty close together!
Three Amtrak trains pass through Folkston going north and south. One is the auto train, bringing grandma’s sports car from her house up in Virginia to her winter digs outside Orlando. Do you remember Bill Murray as Nick the Lounge Singer on the Auto Train? He’s still there, just down from the dining car.
Besides the passenger trains, one of the big highlights of a day at the Folkston Funnel is the passing of the Tropicana Juice train—multiple cars with the Tropicana logo, loaded with a new day’s supply of everyone’s favorite breakfast beverage.
The town population doubles twice a year for RailWatch, and annual visitation is about a quarter-million enthusiasts. Look around, you’ll see several train-themed businesses within a block or two—we noticed a cafe, a bed and breakfast, a curio store, and a toy shop.
Trainspotters in many places
Folkston is by no means the only place for good train watching. There’s a viewing platform in Plant City, Florida (where you can get freshly grown strawberries starting just after Christmas).
Shippensburg Pennsylvania has a viewing platform, as does Bellevue, Ohio. At the Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Virginia, you can see more than fifty passenger trains pass between five and eight PM. Altoona has the famous Horseshoe Curve, and Bellaire Ohio has the turn from the movie “Unstoppable.”
The more you know, the more opportunities you have. We once had a great conversation with the owner of the Durango to Silverton Railway, standing on the top floor viewing platform of the flour milling museum in Minneapolis, because we recognized his lapel pin.
If trainspotting intrigues you, try out John Armstrong’s book called Railroad, or look at a few issues of Trains magazine. Don’t blame us if it’s a gateway to a fascination with the continent’s most elegant rail cars, iconic steam engines, or wild and harrowing narrow-gauge mountain journeys.
Like so many things, it takes a little bit of work to see past the annoying wait at the crossing, but there are always new worlds waiting for you, out here off the beaten track.
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