They’re watching more than just trains on the Virtual Railfan website — they’re watching you!
Founded right here in Folkston in 2008, Virtual Railfan provides live railroad video feeds from around the country. That means train enthusiasts can watch trains passing through — and other goings-on — in realtime on their computers, smartphones, or tablets from nearly anywhere in the world.
There are three webcameras located in Folkston. The Main Street feed, from a camera located on top of Whistlin’ Dixie, shows the crossing on that street, as well activity at the post office, depot and a good portion of the street.
Two other webcams are located on Railroad Street at the Miss Chessie caboose lodgings. These cameras give a longer view of the tracks and trains going both south and north.
Virtual Railfan was the brainchild of Mike Cyr, a red-headed and bearded train enthusiast and entrepreneur who visited Folkston frequently and hung out at the trainviewing platform.
“People kept asking, ‘Why don’t they have a webcam here?’ Or, just saying there should be one,” Cyr recalls. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ and that’s how it all got started.”
Virtual Railfan has come a long way from that first webcam. They now have cameras along railroad tracks in 11 locations in six different states including California, Texas, and West Virginia. They also have over 4,000 registered members.
And, by far and away, Virtual Railfan’s most popular webcam is the Main Street location in Folkston.
“It’s just that smalltown charm,” Cyr explains. “People love to watch what’s going on in Folkston, and not just the trains. You are famous in the railfan community.”
He says when the Main Street camera was moved, a few years ago, to give a better view of the tracks and trains, he instantly received tons of hate mail.
“It was so bad, I was expecting death threats,” Cyr says with a laugh. “I had to drive fours here to put the camera back up on Main Street, and then four hours back home.”
Cyr thinks the draw is a glimpse into a way of life not seen anymore in many other parts of the country.
“They watch people at the post office. They’ve gotten to know certain people and certain vehicles on Main Street,” he says. “The caboose cams are also popular. There’s always a lot going on at the fire station. People like to watch that.”
The Virtual Railfan website also features a live chat room which lets viewers talk with each other about what they’re watching.
“One time, we all watched Santa Claus load up on a fire truck and ride off to deliver gifts,” Cyr recalls. “We loved that.”
Another railfan favorite is the dog who runs down Martin Street around 4:30 every afternoon and meets up with its owner — the driver of a silver SUV — at the Flash Foods on U.S. 1.
Cyr says some railfans who watch online end up coming to visit Folkston for themselves. And, of course, these tourists are very aware of the webcams.
“They’ll go to one of the crossings and wave to their friends watching online,” Cyr says. “Some even make and bring personalized signs to hold up.”
He also says many of the CSX train crews are aware of the webcams in Folkston and like to have a little fun with it.
“A lot of the CSX employees watch online,” he says. “They even have actual competitions sometimes to see who can put out the most smoke through the funnel.”
Webcams aren’t Cyr’s only digital venture, though. He and partners Justin Cornell and Mike Tippins also own Jointed Rail Productions, which does 3D modeling, website and logo design, and railroad simulation.
“We used to have ‘real’ jobs,” Cyr says, smiling through his beard. “We literally had no idea what we were getting into. It’s been a lot of money, blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s also been a lot of fun.”
Charlton Countians interested in just what all these railfans are watching everyday can view the Main Street crossing online and participate in live chat at www.virtualrailfan.com for free. Paid memberships are available for just $59 a year and will give you access to all 11 Virtual Railfan cams.