March 06, 2020

What the Heck is the Folkston Funnel?!

This post represents another installment in The Big Switcheroo series – tales from last spring’s epic journey from the northeast to the Florida Keys and back – involving family, friends and an extraordinary range of adventures.  Having just overnighted at Twin Oaks RV Park in Elko, Georgia, Alan and I were on our way to Crooked River State Park in St. Mary’s, Georgia.  This post details our adventure in between the two.

My Dad was a trackman and a machine operator with the old Penn Central Transportation Company which was better known as the Penn Central Railroad or, simply, the Penn Central.  The Penn Central ran through more than a dozen states in the east and mid-west, carrying freight to cities far and wide.  My father always said that “the railroads are the backbone of the country,” and he backed his belief with the purchase of Penn Central stock.  Unfortunately, Dad was a better trackman than he was an investor and, following mergers with several railroads in the late 1960’s, Penn Central filed for bankruptcy in 1970.  Despite the financial predicament of the Penn Central, my father’s belief in the railroad system never wavered.  Having crisscrossed the United States six times, so far, and having seen the number of active freight trains along the way “from Kalamazoo to Timbuctoo” and further down the track, I’d have to say that most people give no thought to and remain unaware of the great volume of products moved by the rail lines and the trucking industry on a daily basis.  But, when Alan and I are out there logging several hundred miles a day, we do see – and appreciate.  I don’t think my Dad was wrong.

Although I wouldn’t consider myself an aficionado, trains were always intriguing to me and important to our family as they provided employment for my father until the day he retired.  So, what does all this have to do with the Folkston Funnel?  I’m getting to that; please be patient.  Regular readers probably know that I consider trip planning an Olympic sport and take it quite seriously.  When I was scrutinizing travel guides and reading articles in preparation for our trip down the east coast of the United States to Florida, I stumbled upon what, to me, was an obscure little gem called “the Folkston Funnel.”  Once I learned what the Funnel was, I knew we had to add it to our itinerary.

The Folkston Funnel is located in Folkston, Georgia, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Florida state line.  (In fact, the state line is less than five miles away.)  Folkston is best known as “The Gateway to the Okefenokee” Swamp, but it also sits on a double track owned by CSX Transportation, a railroad that’s based in Jacksonville, Florida, and which runs freight up and down the east coast and right on into Canada.  Two major CSX lines converge just north of Folkston, and approximately 90% of all trains entering and leaving Florida pass through town on this major artery, hence the moniker, “Folkston Funnel.”  The remaining 10% represents trains traveling directly west from southern Georgia or northern Florida.

Trains from Waycross and Nahunta funnel into Folkston, then travel on down to Florida.

Considering the fact that 40 to 60 trains, on average, pass through the Folkston Funnel every day, if you’re a train buff, this is one of the best places to get a close up view of a LOT of train traffic.  But wait!  There’s more . . . It’s not just freight trains that roll through Folkston.  Amtrak passenger trains come through about a half dozen times a day (although they don’t stop in town) and the Amtrak Auto Train that runs 855 miles from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida, makes a single appearance (but no stops) in Folkston every day.

Can you imagine the poor residents of Folkston having to wait for 40 to 60 trains EVERY DAY?!

Due to the funneling effect at this location, the town of Folkston draws an unbelievable number of train buffs.  The town’s officials, in an effort to develop tourism in Folkston, embraced rail fans’ interest in the Funnel wholeheartedly.  Using a $30,000 grant from the state, the town constructed a viewing platform that was modeled after a Lionel toy train platform.  The Folkston platform is close to, but a safe distance from, the busy tracks that split the town in two.

The Folkston viewing platform - shady, front row seats and picnic tables close to the action!

The covered platform features seating, ceiling fans (this is southern Georgia, after all) and, best of all, an audio feed directly from the train engineers, so that people on the viewing platform can hear the radio traffic from all the trains coming through.  Plus, night lighting is provided for rail fans who want to watch the trains’ night passages.  Next to the platform are two dedicated parking areas, restrooms, picnic tables and a grill.  You could (and people, apparently, do) sit here all day and enjoy the train traffic!  I realize that some of you may be yawning and wondering why this is such a big deal.  But, if you’re a train enthusiast, you just might be thinking, “Omigosh!  This is the best thing EVER for train buffs!”  And I believe you could be right.

There are parking areas to either side of the viewing platform.

When Alan and I pulled into Folkston, Georgia (population approximately 2,200), we immediately saw the train tracks; however, we weren’t sure where to park our truck and travel trailer.  Seeing the local police station set at the back of a wide dirt lot, Alan decided to ask one of the officers for parking advice.  The officer immediately suggested that we park our rig in the dirt lot adjacent to the police station since the viewing platform was just a block further down the street.  There is nothing like a small town welcome.

Safely parked at the police station

Alan and I walked a short distance down the dusty, small town street to the viewing platform.  What a wonderful set up!  The covered platform is only yards from the train tracks and the view is completely unobstructed.  I figured we’d be the only ones there, but not true!  There were a number of other visitors hanging out on the platform or near the picnic tables.  One of them was a railroad employee from out of town who enjoyed the trains so much that he came to the Funnel just to see them on his day off.  It was obvious that others, too, were more than just transient tourists like Alan and me.  The Folkston Funnel is, apparently, a mecca for train enthusiasts.

Let's not get our signals crossed!

So, did we see any trains?  You bet we did!  This is exactly the kind of unique experience that we relish – discovering an unusual attraction that educates, delights and entertains.  Quiet conversation could be heard among the visitors on the platform until the first static-filled transmissions from an approaching train crackled over the audio system.  As the train drew closer, the transmissions became more intelligible and we were able to determine that this first train was northbound.  It wasn’t long after that the distant and lonely sound of a train whistle was heard, and anticipation quickly built among the visitors on the viewing platform.  Soon, train signals near the tracks began flashing, and the crossing gates on the streets to the left and right of the viewing platform slowly lowered.

Let's hope no one is robbing a bank on the other side of the tracks!

Down the tracks, the steady beam of the main headlights and the flashing ditch lights of the approaching engine became visible, and it wasn’t long before the entire train was rolling past right in front of our eyes.  Although I do have an affinity for trains, I would not consider myself a rail fan. But, that day on the viewing platform, I was as excited as any five year old kid.

Look!  Here comes the train!

As the powerful engine rumbled past, followed by countless train cars, I couldn’t help but think of my Dad and the long career the railroad provided him.  As a trackman, he was one of the guys (and, yes, they were all guys) who literally worked ON the railroad, not just for it.  He handled routine maintenance chores and construction on the train tracks, the railway bridges and the railroad’s rights of way.  One day he might be replacing railroad ties; another day he might be operating the heavy machinery needed to get a job done.  It was hard work – then and now.  The trackmen were nowhere to be seen at the Folkston Funnel, but I offer a salute to their sometimes back-breaking efforts to keep the tracks safe and the trains running steadily.

That CSX train had FIVE engines!

Alan and I stayed at the viewing platform for about an hour that day.  All told, we saw at least five or six trains rumble through in that hour, including (by good luck and happenstance) that day’s passage of the northbound Amtrak Auto Train.

Here comes the Amtrak Auto Train!

Auto Train passengers and their vehicles travel effortlessly from Virginia to Florida and back.
Before making our way back to our rig, Alan and I crossed the tracks (very carefully, I might add) and walked over to the old and beautifully restored Folkston Train Depot that now houses the Folkston Railroad Transportation Museum.  My understanding is that it contains a wide variety of old train memorabilia including photos, logbooks, maps and lights. We didn’t visit that day, and I’m thinking that it may have been closed; otherwise, I don’t think I could have resisted.

The Folkston Railroad Transportation Museum was the original Folkston Train Depot

The back of the museum as seen from near our parking place at the Police Station

Alan and I often talk about the various sub-cultures in our country of which we know nothing.  (The 24/7 world of over-the-road trucking comes to mind.)  I now know that there is an entire group of people known as rail fans, train buffs or railway enthusiasts who take great pleasure in seeing, riding and discussing trains, and learning about all things train-related.  Apparently, people come from all over the country (and some even come from other countries!) to visit the Folkston Funnel and mingle with like-minded people who are passionate about trains.  Some come with notebooks at the ready to jot down engine models and numbers.  Others bring video cameras to film the passing trains.  If you’re not a train enthusiast, a visit to the Funnel may or may not appeal to you.  But if anyone in your family is a rail fan, I’ll bet that a pilgrimage to the Folkston Funnel would prove to be a unique, fun-filled and memorable adventure.  My Dad would have loved it. 

The Folkston Funnel viewing platform is open 24/7 and is located at 3795 Main Street in Folkston, Georgia.  If you plug “Folkston Funnel” into a search engine, you’ll find links to the Folkston Funnel Facebook page, information about the attraction on the official Georgia Tourism and Travel web site, more than 100 reviews on TripAdvisor and several YouTube videos of trains rolling through the Funnel.  Enjoy!


  1. For someone as well-traveled and well-rounded (pun intended) as I, reading your excellent piece on the Folkston Funnel, while interesting, was a bit unsettling--it revealed (gasp) something I didn't know. I must say that tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I suffer from the sometimes embarrassing character flaw of thinking I know more than I actually do about, well, you name it. But I, too, love obscure little discoveries like this, and I enjoyed immensely your telling of the story. My ten-year-old grandson is a train nut, and this place would be nirvana for him. Now if I can just remember the name of it...

    1. Wow! I can't believe it! I knew something you didn't! Actually, Mike, I did think of Mason while I was writing this post and our friend, Gretchen, too, because she is a train buff, as well. Unique experiences like watching the trains at the Folkston Funnel are often the highlights of our travels. We love the conversations they spark and the memories they create. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. very interesting, Mary. Did your dad always work for the railroad? Or, did he do something prior to that?

    1. For as long as I can remember, he worked on the railroad. If there were other jobs before that, I don't recall them being discussed at home. I do remember Mom putting a quick stop to, um, let's call it "railroad language" when it followed him home on occasion. Wink, wink.

  3. Mary I enjoyed this so much and reminded me of the train that went thru our backyard growing up. It never bothered us in fact it was something we looked forward to hearing every day. If we had company over without a doubt they always commented about the train. I was always jealous of my brother Michael who took a ride on the train. Can you imagine a train stopping and picking up a child to take for a ride in today's world. I often wonder how my Mom let him go. The engineer we fondly nicknamed "Choo Choo Charlie" (I don't know what his name was) but he would always make sure to blow the whistle when going thru. Thanks for bringing back such sweet memories

    1. Lucky Michael! And you're right - it would never happen in today's world. That's a tale from simpler times in small town America. I always wondered how my Mom's family dealt with the train running right across the tiny street from their house but, from your childhood experience, it sounds like you just get used to it being a regular part of life. Thanks for sharing your special memories, Anna!


Comments are encouraged and appreciated, so please do join the conversation!