Separate sections will touch on important inventions like the railcar coupler and the air brake, along with areas highlighting the economic importance of the rail line, a vital link in the East Coast’s economy. One kiosk will recognize the town’s Black workers who built and maintained the tracks—and note that the Dutch Colonial–style railroad depot was originally built with separate white and “Colored” waiting rooms.
Other signs will celebrate the restored 1926 red caboose at the Ashland Museum and the downtown painting stretching along hundreds of feet of brick wall that town promoters say is America’s longest train mural.
But the biggest exhibit will always be the tracks themselves.
For railfans, freight trains have a particular appeal, a Lionel set come to life. Some trains come from as far away as Miami or Upstate New York and offer a grab bag of boxcars and tankers. Visitors watch for surprises, like military vehicles, oversize electrical transformers, or private passenger cars. Sometimes there’s colorful graffiti, or even a rare caboose. And twice a day, there’s a chance to see the Auto Train, which runs only between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida.
“It’s like fishing,” says town councilwoman Kathy Abbott, trying to explain the appeal. One perpetual favorite is a “stink and drink”—trains that carry containers of compacted New York City garbage to landfills in the South, along with Tropicana boxcars used to carry orange juice.
When Abbott first learned about the webcams, she found herself going online to answer questions about Ashland. Eventually, she was hired by virtualrailfan.com as operations manager, working with the website’s many feeds across the country.
Although she claims not to be a railfan, Abbott can appreciate the incredible engineering required to design a 7,000-horsepower freight locomotive that pulls thousands of tons of cargo across the country.
She has even begun to understand why people can spend hours viewing them. “They are big things that move,” Abbott says. “It’s just kind of powerful to watch.”