It used to be the main way we traveled, but now there are few passenger trains left. One that remains in central Georgia is now mostly for day-trippers and tourists. The SAM Shortline is now operated by the Heart of Georgia Railroad using completely enclosed and air conditioned passenger cars. The name “SAM Shortline” derives from the original railroad’s name, the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery, and from the name of the line’s founder and president, Colonel Samuel Hugh Hawkins, a prominent 19th century Sumter County capitalist.
I’d been looking for an excuse to take a trip on this railroad, but hadn’t found a reason to drive almost 3 hours south of Atlanta. A co-worker’s funeral services were scheduled for Saturday evening in Tifton (even farther south), so I decided to make a day of it. That meant leaving at 6:30a to make a 9:45a train departure (yawn!). This day was the “Conductor’s Favorite Train Ride.” It leaves from the Georgia Veterans State Park platform, drops you in Plains, GA for an hour, then heads back. The scenery was soggy golf courses, small towns, pecan orchards and roadsides creeping with kudzu, but it was pleasant and a very stable ride. I got a coach seat for $29.99 plus tax. Fancier seating is available. Premium seats are $37.99 in the Americus Car (which was empty this rainy day) or you can have a Lounge seat in the Historic Hawkins car for $41.99.
The train runs most Saturday and Sundays in season, plus special event days. The “Conductor’s Favorite” is the shortest of the routes (which is probably why it’s the favorite?) and leaves from the park. There are other departure points, such as the Cordele Depot. Make sure to check the schedule! You can book tickets on line, but I found it difficult to find the link. You can also call to book the ticket. Since I was booking less than 24 hours before the trip, I called. Just over 100 passengers were on the train this rainy day, about half of the previous week.
The train is staffed almost entirely by volunteers and I was surprised as how many there were. Each car had about 3. Just the engineer and a couple others are staff positions, so most of the positions are run by volunteers. I have no idea how they attract so many. There is a kitchen car, with hot dogs, popcorn, local pecans, toys, candy and drinks of all kinds.
It took under 2 hours to get to Plains, GA for our one hour stop. It’s a small, old fashioned downtown still visibly proud of being the hometown of a former US President. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter still make their home there. The Depot has been restored to look like it did in 1976 when it was the Presidential headquarters for Carter. I had a grilled cheese and a bowl of peanut ice cream for lunch with tea for about $10 including tax and tip. I sat at a community table in the small restaurant and visited with guests and volunteers alike.
It’s a trip I can recommend for those looking for an easy day in comfortable, friendly surroundings.
History of SAM
The tracks date to about a decade before the Civil War. Following the SAM’s arrival, Cordele quickly became known as the “Hub City” of the region, as three other railroad mainlines pushed through the new town—the Georgia, Southern and Florida (Norfolk Southern), the Albany, Florida and Northern (abandoned), and the Atlanta, Birmingham and Atlantic (CSX). The SAM also helped to spawn the development of towns in the sparsely populated lands east of Cordele. Growing settlements were given names like Seville, Rhine, and Lyons as a result of the Hawkins family’s recent travels in Europe.
But the boom times were quickly over. The SAM Railroad was placed into receivership in December 1892. Though railroads continued, the entire area went into a slow decline. In late 1999 and early 2000 with the threat of abandonment looming large, the State of Georgia (Department of Transportation) stepped in to purchase the remaining sections of the line. The state had previously purchased the portion of the old SAM mainline from Helena to Vidalia, that part of the line having been operated by the Georgia Central Railroad.
For some time, residents of Plains, including former President Jimmy Carter, have dreamed of operating a passenger train to bring tourists to their community. After much lobbying, that dream became a reality when the State of Georgia created the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority during the 2000 session of the General Assembly. The purpose of the Authority is to develop and oversee the operation of a passenger excursion train to run from Crisp County through Sumter County. Thus was reborn the SAM Shortline, and after more than two years of careful planning, track rehabilitation, and equipment acquisition, passenger trains began rolling once again down the historic mainline!
Managed by the Department of Natural Resources, the SAM Shortline’s trains are operated by two qualified Heart of Georgia Railroad engineer/conductors, a qualified SAM conductor and trainman, and a staff of volunteer car hosts and commissary car workers. The excursion train is powered by the HOG’s locomotives, primarily #1209 and #1309, modified EMD GP-9’s. Most of the passenger cars were purchased from the Maryland Area Rapid Commuter Agency and were originally Budd stainless steel sleepers of Norfolk and Western and Pennsylvania Railroad heritage. They were acquired by MARC and converted into coaches for commuter train use.
Among the most historic pieces of equipment operated by the SAM Shortline is the “Samuel H. Hawkins.” Named for the original SAM’s founder and president, tavern-observation car #1508 was built by Budd in 1939 and ran on the Florida East Coast Railway as the “Bay Biscayne” before becoming the 6607 on the Seaboard’s passenger car roster.