Posted by: Bill Tracy | November 1, 2017

Reality — at a Distance

Maybe it’s wishful thinking nestled in a hidden part of a man’s mind, or maybe it’s the last stop in the vast design of things—or perhaps, for a man who climbed on a world that went by too fast, it’s a place around the bend where he could jump off. Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity…
-A Stop at Willoughby
Twilight Zone, May 6, 1960


Do you grow weary of scripted television “reality shows”? A “reality” requiring the old “willing suspension of disbelief”? If so, return with us now to those not so thrilling days of yesteryear…small town America. The view is not exactly Our Town, but then it’s also just a stationary street camera broadcasting video and audio to the Internet 24/7. Tuning in requires only an Internet connection and access to the YouTube Web site. But the magic is real — and although the pace is slow, no TV “reality show” can match it! Ashland, Virginia (population 7600) is not the Willoughby of “Twilight Zone” fame, but it’s as close as we get in 2017 (and you don’t have to die to go there!). Take a quick peek:

Ashland Live Cam

Crossing guard clearing a school bus across the railroad tracks.

Crossing guard clearing a school bus across the railroad tracks.

Tuning in you’ll see two railroad tracks crossing a main street (England St. carrying Virginia State Route 54). Center Street (north & south) runs one-way on each side of the tracks (also known as Railroad Avenue). A block north is the Amtrak station (upper right on your screen) where regional trains pick up and discharge travelers. I’m told it’s more museum than active rail station at this point, but it is the anchor for train stops. CSX Transportation runs over 20 freight trains through here on a given day; some as long as 200 cars. While the trains are interesting the real treasure to see here is the life lived by people on the street.

Highlighting the broad spectrum of humanity is the daily presence of “Jingles.” This is a man, Ken Hale, around age 60, with a beard and feminine clothing (cute little skirt — and great legs!) riding a bicycle up and down the streets virtually non-stop. He and his bicycle are festooned with bells, hence the nickname “Jingles.” You’ll hear him coming. He’s well-known, respected and well loved by the folks in Ashland. He and wife, Gina, have been married 40 years and have two grown children. She supports his fashion preferences. Also on wheels is probably the best unicyclist I’ve ever seen. Unlike most people on a unicycle, this young man does not look like he’s about to fall down. The other evening I saw him riding through the rain, and he had to be doing 15-20 miles per hour. Once in awhile a truly operatic voice shows up on a bicycle — a young woman riding up and down Center Street bellowing out anything the fat lady could produce — and just as good!

The camera is mounted on a storefront overlooking a small grocery store, Cross Brothers; over time you’ll see a parade of regular customers and their comings and goings — by car, bicycle, on foot. Across the street is a cafe, the Iron Horse Restaurant. They have sidewalk seating and sometime professional entertainment. You’ll hear locals yukking it up over after-work drinks many evenings. On weekends, the music can get loud (and usually not bad). For good or ill, the camera is not positioned to see them, but the sound does tell a story. After closing time, the town goes quiet, almost eerily silent sometimes. The deep stillness may be broken by a slow-rolling police car on patrol. And every hour or two the crossing gate bells ring out while red lights flash and illuminate each car of a freight train passing at 40 miles per hour. There is a prohibition on train whistles in the town both night and day, but if you keep ears tuned to the rail frequency you may hear horns in the distance beyond city limits.

Amtrak train at the Ashland station.

Amtrak train at the Ashland station.

Rail activity is the focus of the Internet feed. The company Virtual Railfan, caters to train enthusiasts. They install and maintain the cameras and Internet feed from all over the country. Most sites don’t show much more than rail traffic, but Ashland is different as it shows the rail activity in a downtown scene, complete with all the bustling life of a small town downtown.

YouTube has a continuous “chat” feature you can turn on — if you’re into that sort of thing. At my age, I don’t have much tolerance for the gasbags and blockheads bleating childishly much of the time. However, there are folks there who know a lot about train movements and rail history in this country. Much can be learned by listening to them. People are continuously watching from all over the world. One regular is from New Zealand. An especially knowledgeable rail fan from Seattle volunteers as a helpful moderator, going by the appropriate screen name “Rainier Rails.” A frequent comment is made about how peaceful it is to watch this little town with the odd nickname “Center of the Universe.” One recently said, “Ashland is rapidly becoming my spiritual home.” Another said, “It’s sort of like the basement train set come to life. All I have to do is watch and enjoy. Don’t even need to imagine the people and cars moving.” Or, you can leave the “chat” off and just watch the doings in a small town, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day — and weather event by weather event. I’m looking forward to stopping by on a snowy night this coming season. Should look pretty magical with Christmas decorations in place. And I won’t have to shovel a flake!

Each weekday morning and afternoon a “crossing guard” shows up. He’s really a traffic expediter though. Around 30 schools buses cross the tracks at this point. By law, each bus is required to stop before the tracks, open the door and look and listen for trains on the tracks. Even in a small town, this volume of buses could create a traffic bottleneck (and perhaps delay the scholars from their studies) so the town places a man in the intersection to watch for trains and clear the buses through without stopping. The law has a provision for such a “crossing guard.” He usually parks in front of the Ashland Coffee & Tea shop, and they provide him with beverages and such.

Amtrak passenger train on a rainy night in Ashland.

Amtrak passenger train on a rainy night in Ashland.

Geographically centered as it is, Ashland seems to have a sizeable population of retirees. But it also has Randolph-Macon College. The 116-acre campus is behind the trees in the upper right of your screen. And it puts lots of young people on the streets — walkers, runners, bicyclists and folks heading to the coffee shop for socializing and perhaps music.

Behind the Amtrak station is the Henry Clay Inn. The colonial mansion style inn was built in early nineties. With 13 guest rooms of various sizes it is a replica of the original Henry Clay Hotel that burned down in 1946.  Accommodations are a bit pricey by small town Virginia standards, but the charm is probably worth every penny. You could do a lot worse than taking an Amtrak train to Ashland and spending a night or two in the bosom of small town hospitality.

Ashland is also 20 miles north of Richmond, Virginia’s capital city with lots of history to learn about. Northern Virginia (Alexandria, e.g.) and Washington, DC are about 100 miles off in the distance. Charlottesville (and Jefferson’s Monticello) sit about 60 miles west-northwest.

Ironhorse Restaurant (image courtesy of Ironhorse)

Iron Horse Restaurant (image courtesy of Iron Horse)

And if you happen to be one of those folks who actually like to watch trains… There are 50 or more trains running through town day and night. The highlight for most folks is the Amtrak Auto Train. Amtrak has claimed it is the longest passenger train in the U.S., and it may be the longest in the world. It’s an impressive sight, nearing 50 cars and almost a mile long. The first 15 to 20 cars carry passengers, and 20 to 30 “autorack” cars carry automobiles. Passengers drive their cars to the Amtrak station at either Lorton, VA or Sanford, FL (near Orlando) and take a seat on the train while Amtrak workers load their cars. It’s a non-stop train usually taking about 16 hours. Favorite freight trains include coal trains typically bound for shipping export out of Norfolk, VA, the Tropicana temperature-controlled cars carrying Florida orange juice north — and refuse containers being hauled south from New York to southern landfills. Sometimes trains can tell us a little more than we really want to know about our country/culture.

If this all sounds rather boring, this rail crossing is not without some drama. In the few months this site has been active, exciting moments have been captured. A car passing through early morning drives non-stop into a light pole. Another car misses a turn and ends up on the railroad tracks — and is hit by a train while police and onlookers stand helplessly by. Trains take a long time to stop; by the time a locomotive engineer sees something on the track and applies the brakes, it’s usually too late. The reality of reality is that you never know what can happen — in real life!

To celebrate the town’s railroad origins, this Saturday, November 4, there is a street fair scheduled, Ashland Train Day. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch on the Youtube feed, compliments of Virtual Railfan — 10 AM to 4 PM.

Finally, this “Willoughby” experience may not last forever. State government seems intent on running a high-speed rail line through here to accommodate travel between D.C. and Richmond. This would require an additional rail line — and if it follows the current railroad right of way, it will probably decimate the downtown business area. So, there will be more trains to see — but a lot less of life, and what makes life worth living, and watching! Check in while we still have the “light and serenity.”


A Stop at Willoughby

A Stop at Willoughby



  1. Yes keep the light and serenity! Slight typo in penultimate paragraph: it’s Virtual Railfan, railfan is one word. I have a poetry website, if interested: Enjoy and thanks for your Ashland piece. Kitt

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