The New History of Frograil
By Bruce Harper, webmaster of the "new" site
Tony Hill in Frog Pond, North Carolina, announced on September 28, 2011, "As of October 20th, the Frograil domain will no longer be on the internet. If you want to download individual locations, tours, or gifs, go to http://www.frograil.com , and follow the navigation stuff." I contacted him with a plea to reconsider and an offer to take over the content and domain name if he was willing to transfer it, to preserve all his hard work that he had collected over the years. On October 4, 2011, he announced to various rail lists that he and I had worked out an agreeement where he would tranfer his site and the domain name to me, so his work would be preserved and carried on into the future.
I was very pleased that Tony opted to go this route instead of just pulling the plug. I, like others, was dismayed to hear that this resource might be lost for good and I contacted Tony with an offer to continue to operate the site and domain. After some thought, he took me up on that offer and here we are. I have this server space available (I use InMotion Hosting for several projects I'm working on). On the professional side, I have been employed with Virginia Tech for going on 26 years in information technology and university relations. I was initially hired to edit materials that were being put on-line via a system on the IBM mainframe to display policies and procedures, a forerunner of today's World Wide Web in text. That system lasted a few years, then transitioned to gopher for a short while, then moved to the ground floor of the web. I've had the title "Virginia Tech Webmaster" since almost the day it was established here. For the past 11 years, I have been in University Relations (the section has morphed over the years), currently in Web Communications, the unit responsible for the Virginia Tech home page and second-level pages, various other sites, the university's content management system, and a number of special web projects. I do a lot of web programming with PHP and MySQL databases, build web forms, and do tech support for things like the campus web camera and the photo library running on Resource Space (a neat open-source digital asset management system). I'm a Macintosh guy. A long time ago, I was a technical writer for a division of ITT in Roanoke, Virginia, and before that, a reporter for the Radford News Journal.
On the rail side, I'm in Southwest Virginia in the heart of Norfolk & Western territory, on the Radford Division (now the Virginia Division). In the late '70s and early '80s (before children), there was a small gang of us who were regulars trackside from Roanoke on west to Bluefield and beyond. We were blessed to be able to chase some of the best of the N&W and Norfolk Southern steam excursions across parts of West Virginia and Virginia, with the occasional Chessie Steam Special thrown in. But marriages, family, and jobs have distributed that group far and wide and the trips dwindled to rare visits trackside on the way to soccer games or other obligations. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, the Coraopolis/Moon Township area, so was able to do some railfanning on visits back home to see family before parents and in-laws moved to Virginia. Recent activity has pretty much been reduced to participation via newsgroup and other internet activities, plus historical research and work on websites. I'm a member of the N&W Historical Society and a number of Yahoo and Google groups. I do have a personal website, http://www.brucebharper.info/nwrwy/index.html, that is transitioning from personal server space at Virginia Tech (I ran out of room).
I'm started the process of transitioning Tony's site to its new home. I'm not a full-blown designer, but I like to have nice-looking and usable sites, so I take advantage of sites that offer free templates and designs and work from there. Right now, Frograil will be pretty much the same content in a new wrapper, but I hope that people who use the site will contribute updated information, add to the tours, and help the site grow. I'm tapped into the ATCS group (and don't plan to violate the trust of that group by making wide-open connections to it), but I would hope that some awareness and cross-links between the tours and what ATCS has and does would be useful. Google maps and mobile devices and GPS units on dashboards are other things that might be tapped by users to add to the site. I have no plans at this time to put any limits on what anyone takes away from Frograil. I did tell Tony that will try not to tarnish what he has done nor his reputation (in my position here at Virginia Tech, I'm quite aware of branding and what goes with it).I'm excited about this and hope that people will continue to use the site and will contribute and help make it a go-to place to find where the trains are. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions about how to make things better or things to add, let me know, or if anyone wants to help, I'll accept that, too.
October 26, 2011
The Past History of Frograil
By Tony Hill, creator of the original site
I've been a passive railfan since I was born -- I've always loved trains. How can you not? In August of 1970, I became an active railfan. Between 1970 and 1989 I had jobs that required travel fairly often, so one project connected with each trip, if possible, was to get trackside whenever possible. That was a problem -- a major problem. There was no Internet, and very few printed guides to railfan locations were around. One had to get a map and try to guess where you could see some trains. Sometimes you did really well, but you could also get completely skunked, trying to find locations that no longer even had rails, let alone an active mainline.
One exception was a regular column in Extra 2200 South which was written by Bill Hughes. He covered major cities and, all things considered, his efforts collectively represented probably the best railfan location guide you could find. After I got my first personal computer in 1982, I set up a simple database to keep track of railfan locations mentioned in Extra 2200 South, Trains, Model Railroad, etc. The state, city, railroad, magazine month and date were all entered. That soon proved overly burdensome, because there were stacks of magazines all over the place. Then I started ripping up the mags -- throwing 99% of the stuff away, and putting the pages containing railfan locations info into 3-ring binders. The pages were simply numbered sequentially, and that page number was the only thing needed in the database (besides the info about the location for sorting purposes).
The system was a good one, but was sterile, in that the primitive databases available back then had very restrictive commenting functionality. There was no way to type in driving directions, photographic considerations, etc., without creating an impossible to control administrative burden.
In 1990-1991, Tim Berners-Lee made the most important contribution to railfans that was made in the Twentieth Century. He invented the World Wide Web. The combination of Microsoft's (and Apple's) graphical user interface and the visual dexterity of Web pages was an explosion waiting to happen. It took a few years, but the explosion has definitely taken place. There is more railfan information on the Net than anyone ever dreamed possible. In 1998, I enrolled in a class to learn HTML so I could write my own pages. I had absolutely no clue about HTML, but I knew exactly what shape my web was going to take: It was to be a railfan location guide.
In February of 1998, a very modest several pages were posted to my local ISP's hosting space -- I was a published Webmaster! There was a home page and a separate page for each state (or at least a few, as it was to take quite a while before all the states and Canadian provinces were given their separate pages). As I added railfan locations and kept making the site better, I got an e-mail from someone who wanted to contribute some sites. To be honest with you, that was the first time I ever considered using contributions from anyone other than myself. By late 2003, there were dozens and dozens of railfan locations within Frograil that have been contributed by volunteers.
Incidentally, in February 2000, I transferred my Railfan Web site to the brand new Frograil.com domain.
In about 2000 or 2001, Henry Mikus and I were both contributing sites along the NS, ex-Southern Railway, Piedmont Division mainline, which I've always thought of as the Crescent Route. He suggested we put the sites into the form of a "tour", whereby a complete stranger to the area could begin at point A, drive to point B, and then onward. It was a brilliant idea, and began what has become quite a respectable collection of tours that are within 17 states. Connected tour segments of the CSX ex-SAL mainline from Wilmington, NC, all the way thru Athens, GA, and the Norfolk Southern from Seneca, SC, all the way to Washington DC have been completed, as well as many other, shorter tours.
In surfing around the Net during the early 2000's, I became quite fond of train gifs, which are small images drawn to represent prototype railroad equipment. The train at the top of this page is composed of a few of these gifs. Chris Denbow, one of the best artists of the genre, was moving on, and was going to take down his train gifs site. Before doing so, he agreed to let me host his gifs. I undertook this new, completely different aspect of Frograil with some misgivings, but I was determined not to let his work disappear. As had happened with railfan locations in the late 1990's, other folks started to ask if their work could be displayed on Frograil. The train gifs pages have really blossomed -- no Web site has nearly the breadth and depth of the gifs now displayed on Frograil. There are well over 1,000 -- actually, I have no idea how big the number is.
As of November 2006, it's hard to believe that Frograil is averaging over 1,400 visitors a day, or more than 500,000 visitors a year. It's a huge site, with hundreds and hundreds of pages, and I have reached about the limit of what I can take care of decently.