This column is a “tip of the hat,” as they say, to the Lewis County Model Railroad Club and the Lewis County Historical Museum for bringing Virtual Railfan to Chehalis.
Prior to reading the recent article in The Chronicle about the new live streaming cam, perched on the second level of the museum and pointed at the rails in downtown Chehalis, I had never heard of Virtual Railfan. My 3-year-old and 5-year-old love all things train and we had never run across that name before.
According to VirtualRailfan.com, “Virtual Railfan is the leading provider of live streaming rail cams in the United States.” They proudly boast 75 cameras in 46 locations in 22 states, and four countries. The Chehalis location is the only one in Washington aside from the Skykomish camera location.
Since the live stream is available via YouTube (online and on the app), we were able to tune in with our living room smart TV. Once our boys realized that this camera was at the museum, they were especially hooked (we have a family museum membership and spend a lot of time there). Our boys would sit and listen outside for the sound of a train and run inside to turn on the live stream.
I started tuning in on my laptop once in awhile and realized there was a live chat feature when you’re watching online via web browser or the YouTube app (the chat doesn’t appear on our smart TV). I started watching the chat and quickly realized that these were train and rail fans from all over the world — an international audience. Soon, we started asking simple questions about the things that we would see and viewers from all over the world would educate us about what we were seeing.
It was super fun to participate in the chat as a Chehalis local. People from countries all over the world often have questions about Chehalis and Lewis County. For instance, the “local” train — a smaller BNSF train that works between Centralia and Chehalis — switches tracks near Darigold towards the Port of Chehalis. It’s been asked many times: Where is that train going? How does Chehalis have a “port” if it’s landlocked? What kind of businesses and industries are using that rail line?
Many chatters mention how much they’d love to come to Chehalis by train, stay at McMenamin’s Olympic Club, and see the Chehalis and Centralia train-related sights: The Chehalis-Centralia Railroad … the historic depots … the rail history.
As it turns out, Chehalis is a pretty great place to train watch. By following the train tracker maps available from HeritageUnits.com and Amtrak, we’re able to follow lots of interesting trains from states all over the U.S. When a train comes through Chehalis, we use it as a geography lesson in our home.
Recently, a really unique train known as the UP1996 rolled through Chehalis. We were able to watch it live on the cam with our boys. It’s a modern freight train painted in a classic “daylight” color scheme. It’s a Union Pacific “heritage” engine that is a throwback to trains like the historic SP4449, built in the 1940s and based in Portland at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. The “freight daylight,” as my oldest dubbed it, is one of very few trains in that scheme.
If it weren’t for Virtual Railfan and our “train family” online, we never would have known to watch for it. Our boys still talk about seeing that train — the freight daylight.
This live stream is also a great resource in other ways, too. A few weeks back, while we were watching a train go by on the stream at home, we heard an odd blast of air. The train immediately applied the brakes and came to a very long, but abrupt, and ultimately complete stop. As it turns out, the train had lost air pressure and was required to come to an emergency stop. The train then sat in Chehalis, blocking several crossings through downtown Chehalis for more than an hour.
It was a pretty unique thing to watch first hand.
Now, when we drive through Chehalis past the museum, my 5-year-old will say: “Mom! We’re almost in the TV!”
So, thank you, Lewis County Model Railroad Club and Lewis County Historical Museum. We are so enjoying the Virtual Railfan live stream as a family and it sounds like it’s going to be a great potential tourism driver to Lewis County for railfans, too. What a fun new way to put Chehalis in the spotlight.
Brittany Voie is a columnist for The Chronicle. She lives south of Chehalis with her husband and two young sons. She welcomes correspondence from the community at email@example.com.