Originally created 07/20/02

Buffs watch trains pass by



FOLKSTON, Ga. - Five trains crossing the same road in less than 15 minutes could test the patience of most people, but not Barry Cone. He wants more.

Mr. Cone traveled from his hometown of Torrington, Conn., last week specifically to visit Folkston and spend the day watching trains rumble through the south Georgia town.

"I can't wait to get here," Mr. Cone, 50, said of his visits to Folkston, a few miles from the Georgia-Florida border twice a year. "I've watched trains from here to California and this is one of the hottest spots in the country."

CSX Railroad officials said about 70 of their trains pass through the town each day, making Folkston a Mecca for train enthusiasts across the nation.

The reason for the high number of trains passing through the town of about 2,000 is that two CSX rail lines, one from Savannah and the other from Jesup, merge just north of town. The tracks run parallel until they funnel into Florida where the lines split again, this time to Jacksonville and Baldwin, said Susan Keegan, a CSX spokeswoman.

THE CONCENTRATION OF all northbound and southbound train traffic through Charlton County is nicknamed the Folkston Funnel by many of the city's 2,000 residents.

What makes train watching in Folkston great, besides the daily number of trains, is the city's train viewing platform, which was completed a year ago with a $30,000 state grant and using inmate labor from nearby D. Ray James Prison.

The covered wooden platform - 32 feet long and 15 feet wide - sits on city-owned land about 75 feet from the tracks owned by CSX Railroad. Overhead fans help keep visitors cool and spotlights can be switched on for night viewing.

The only other viewing platform in the Southeast is Manchester, Ga., said Cookie Williams of Folkston who helped the city get the platform.

Train buffs sit on benches listening to railroad scanner chatter between engineers and rail traffic controllers on speakers built into the platform. They can tell by the conversations how much time it will take the next train to pass through town and how many cars are being pulled.

Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, said train-viewing platforms such as the one in Folkston are rare in the United States. Exactly why Atlantic Coast Line, which was purchased by CSX, built the tracks to funnel through Folkston is unknown but "geography often played a part in the construction of the lines in the early years."

THE NEARBY 400,000-ACRE Okefenokee swamp, which is half the size of Rhode Island, was a likely consideration when the first tracks were built in Folkston in 1881, Mr. Sease said. A guest book at the viewing platform is signed by people from across the nation and as far away as Germany and England.

Some people have spent a week in town train watching, Mr. Williams said, adding a boost to the local economy.

Mayor Dixie McGurn said some residents complain, but they've learned to live with delays from trains.

"You get frustrated getting from one side of town to another," the mayor said. "If you're going to live here, you're going to have to live with them. I tell people when the trains stop running, the economy of this country is going to be gone."