Rail Buffs on Watch in Folkston

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Dickson

FOLKSTON - As head women's basketball coach at Georgia Southern University, Rusty Cram could be in Indianapolis this weekend with all his colleagues watching the women's Final Four.

Instead he was in Folkston with a few hundred other people Saturday, waiting for trains. The annual Rail Watch day made Folkston the place to be for train buffs, like Cram's 23-year-old son, Ryan.

"We bought us a camper," Cram said of the trailer on a nearby street. "We just follow trains."

With some mild disabilities from his Williams Syndrome, Ryan goes a lot of places with his coaching dad, including to road games.

"We see a lot of trains," Cram said. "A lot of people hurry up to beat trains. We hurry up to wait for them."

Ryan rattles off the Amtrak trips they have taken: Whitefish, Mont., Chicago, New Orleans and Richmond, Va.

"Sitting in the lounge car, especially on the double-deck passenger trains, is great," Ryan said.

His dream?

"To ride the Amtrak through Folkston and wave at the people beside the track. They're my friends," he said.

It is as much a reunion of train buffs as anything.

Ryan and Jonathan Filion of Palatka joined up again and walked to where they can see the Y, where the tracks from Waycross and Jesup join to funnel trains into Jacksonville. The Y gives the place its name, the Folkston Funnel, and the late Marvin "Cookie" Williams talked local officials into building a roofed viewing platform beside the track just south of it. Some people rolled their eyes, but Mr. Cookie's idea has paid off, with people coming to Folkston and checking into motels and eating at restaurants to watch the hundreds of tons of locomotives and cars pass every day.

And what better place than a city where the Okefenokee Chamber of Commerce is in an old railroad depot that also houses a train museum.

Dawn Malin, chamber executive director, said since a live webcam was set up overlooking the Folkston tracks six weeks ago, she's begun getting calls.

"We've got people from Michigan calling and asking, 'Hey. What's going on down there?'" she said.

Up to 12,000 people are viewing the tracks at any given time, Malin said.

The 29-year-old Filion said he formerly visited Folkston twice a month, but gas prices have him down to one monthly trip. Still, he keeps adding to the log he has kept since he was 6.

His neat printing shows that at 5:23 a.m. Saturday, he saw his 2,391st train, a southbound juice train with two locomotives and 57 cars. At 8:45 a.m. he saw his 2,438th, two southbound locomotives pulling 96 cars loaded with coal. …