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SAM Shortline Eastbound Excursion 1/14/2024

by Chris Guenzler

Elizabeth and I arose at the Holiday Inn Express and after our morning preparations, I drove us over to the Waffle House where we had breakfast then proceeded to Georgia Veterans State Park and after someone opened the gate, we drove into the boarding area and parked. Here we waited for the train to be opened then the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance members boarded and the two of us walked through the train, taking seats in the "Cordele" where soon after, Bart and Sarah Jennings found us. I then dropped the camera on the floor which caused it to stop working properly, so I apologize for the poor quality of the pictures.

SAM Shortline History

The story of the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway illustrates New South boosterism, boom, and bust in Georgia during the 1880s and 1890s. Founded in Americus by Samuel Hugh Hawkins and other ambitious men eager to secure the continued prosperity and dominance their city enjoyed during the post-Civil War period, the SAM created what in fact was a second railroad boom for Americus, the first boom having occurred with the arrival of the South Western Railroad thirty years earlier in 1854. Promoting not only the fortunes of Americus, the SAM spawned the development of numerous new towns along its 265-mile route stretching eventually from Montgomery, Alabama to Lyons, Georgia.

Prior to and immediately after the Civil War, the only railroad serving Sumter and surrounding counties was the South Western, which was organized in Macon in the late 1840s, reached Americus by October 1854, and entered Albany through the purchase and construction of additional track between 1856 and 1857. The coming of the South Western Railroad in the early 1850s caused Americus to experience its first population and construction boom, transforming it from a small courthouse town to the center of the region’s expanding wagon trade.

Facing no competition in southwest Georgia and virtually no government regulation, the South Western, and its lessee, the Central Rail Road & Banking Company of Georgia, were able to charge what many Sumter County residents believed to be exorbitant and discriminatory rates, thus contributing to a decline in the city’s trade. Americus leaders responded by petitioning the State Constitutional Convention of 1868 to give the General Assembly broad regulatory powers over the railroads. Chief among those protesting the Central’s rates in the 1870s and early 1880s was Samuel Hugh Hawkins. A successful Americus lawyer, banker and civic leader, Hawkins advocated for the establishment of a powerful state railroad commission to regulate tariffs. The Central allegedly retaliated by removing the name Americus from its system maps and instead designating the growing town as "Way Station No. 9".

In addition to calling for government regulation, many leaders in Sumter and the surrounding counties of Schley, Webster, and Stewart began proposing the construction of new lines that would allow them to ship and receive directly by rail rather than moving freight to and from Americus by wagon. Several of these proposed lines would have bypassed Americus completely. During the early 1880s, the combined prospects of Americus losing the wagon trade of nearby planters and being by-passed by new railroad lines caused great alarm among business and community leaders like Samuel H. Hawkins, thus Hawkins led local investors in the organization of the Americus, Preston & Lumpkin Railroad in 1884 to ensure that Americus would continue to dominate the region's trade. From the company’s headquarters in Americus, Hawkins would serve as president of the AP&L and its successor, the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway, until foreclosure in 1895.

The original charter of the AP&L called for a narrow-gauge line to be built from Americus west toward the Chattahoochee River through Preston and Lumpkin, both of which were county seats without railroads. After reaching Lumpkin in 1886, the charter was amended, allowing for an extension to be built from Lumpkin north to Louvale, Georgia and from Americus east to Abbeville, Georgia, the county seat of Wilcox County situated on the Ocmulgee River. By 1888 the railroad began operating steamboats down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers to Savannah and Brunswick by way of Darien.

In 1888 Hawkins' and his associates' plans expanded significantly when they decided to convert the narrow-gauge line to standard gauge and extend it both east and west to create a direct route between Montgomery, Alabama and Savannah, Georgia. In the same year the road was appropriately renamed the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway, known simply as the SAM. Upon its \completion the SAM’s mainline would stand at 265 miles in length and extend from Montgomery, Alabama to Lyons, Georgia. From Lyons, the SAM entered Savannah under a reciprocal agreement to operate over the tracks of the newly-constructed Savannah & Western Railroad, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Central. The termination of this beneficial agreement in 1891 would in fact contribute to the downfall of the SAM.

The territory east of Americus through which the SAM's mainline was constructed was largely undeveloped and sparsely populated before the railroad's arrival. The Americus Investment Company, the holding company of the SAM, and its president, Sumter County native Henry Clay Bagley, capitalized on the railroad's eastward progress by creating towns across Dooly (now Crisp), Wilcox, Dodge, Telfair, and Montgomery (now Toombs) Counties. In addition to Plains and Richland, both west of Americus, the following towns to the east owe their existence to the building of the SAM Railway: Cordele, Seville, Pitts, Rochelle, Rhine, Milan, Helena, Alamo, Vidalia, and Lyons. Cordele’s name honors Samuel H. Hawkin's wife and daughter, both named Cordelia, while the towns of Seville, Rochelle, Rhine, Milan, and Lyons bear their names, the story goes, as a result of the Hawkins family’s travels through Europe.

In Sumter County, the first new community and eventually the most famous to develop as a result of the AP&L Railroad was Plains, the home of President Jimmy Carter. Three earlier settlements, The Plains of Dura, Magnolia Springs, and Lebanon, existed near the location of the railroad’s projected mainline through western Sumter County prior to its arrival in 1885. As the tracks approached the Plains of Dura, residents of these settlements moved to be nearer the railroad and created the new town of Plains.

In Americus, the result of the SAM Railway’s development was a second building and population boom, the likes of which had not been seen since the first boom in the 1850s. By 1890, the town ranked eighth in the state in terms of its population, which stood at 6398 and represented a 75% increase over the town’s population in 1880. New businesses included the Americus Guano Company, the Americus Oil Company, the Americus Illuminating and Power Company, the Americus Construction Company, and the Americus Grocery Company, as well as the AP&L Warehouse and Compress Company.

During this era, in addition to many new downtown commercial buildings being constructed, a new county and city government complex was built. Moreover, one of the earliest electrically-driven streetcar companies chartered in Georgia operated in Americus by 1890. But of all the construction and development related to the New South boom of the late 1880s and early 1890s, the town's crowning achievement was the Windsor Hotel, opened in 1892.

The great boom was halted by the announcement of the SAM Railway being placed into receivership on December 10, 1892. Unable to meet the January interest payments on the railroad’s debt, local SAM investors were forced to take this drastic step to ensure that local obligations would be met before sending any money to pay northern creditors. The railroad was short on cash for a number of reasons, including a new state law limiting the issuance of railroad stocks and bonds, the new law coming at a time when the SAM desperately needed additional capital to cover the cost of building its expensive Montgomery extension.

As Americus began to see the SAM’s crisis lead to the failure of the Bank of Americus and the Americus Investment Company, the railroad’s conductors and engineers launched a strike to protest the fact that they had not yet received satisfactory new contracts under the receivers. When the situation grew more severe after the entire country reeled from the financial panic in 1893, the Savannah Americus and Montgomery was sold to John Skelton Williams of Richmond, Virginia and his associates who reorganized the company as the Georgia and Alabama Railway in 1895. Williams merged his railroad interests to form the Seaboard Air Line Railway on July 1, 1900.

Despite the downfall of Samuel H. Hawkins, who reportedly lost nearly one million dollars of his own money in an effort to preserve local control of the railroad, the SAM continued under new ownership to provide an important link in the railroad connections from the Midwest to the Atlantic. It provided employment for hundreds of Sumter county residents through the years and contributed to the growth and development of towns across its corridor through Georgia. In fact Samuel Hugh Hawkin’s railroad continues to serve the region today under the freight- hauling Heart of Georgia and the passenger excursion operation known as the Historic SAM Shortline Railroad.​

The excursion train founders began putting the train together in 2000. It took two years to locate all of the cars and restore them. The first public run was on Oct. 26, 2002. All of the state-owned cars were built in 1939 or 1949 and have seating for up to 80 people. The excursion train follows the historic route from Cordele to Plains, gliding through cotton fields, pecan groves and peanut farms and over Lake Blackshear. Passengers ride in climate-controlled, train cars to visit sites such as the Georgia Rural Telephone Museum, Historic Downtown Americus, President Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains and his boyhood home & farm in Archery. The track was recently improved to increase speed from 10 miles per hour to 30 miles per hour in some stretches.

Our Trip

We left the park at 11:31 AM and made our way east to our first stop at Cordele.

We started out in the forest, made our first big turn, crossed Lake Blackshear then US Highway 280 before running through some more forest.

We proceeded east, crossing the CSX mainline followed by the Norfolk Southern main line and stopped at Cordele for an hour and fifteen minutes. Bart led the way to the Cordele railfan viewing platform which has a scanner so we knew a pair of CSX trains were on the approach.

Americus, Preston and Lumpkin Railroad display board. Chartered in 1884 and headquartered in Americus, the narrow-gauge AP&L reached Richland in 1885 and Lumpkin in 1886. Shortly after getting a charter amendment in December 1886, it was extended on the west side to Louvale, opening to that small community in the spring of 1887. A much longer extension of 60 miles soon took the railroad to Abbeville, on the Ocmulgee River. This extension opened in November 1887. In 1887 the railroad had four locomotives and 69 cars of various types, according to Poors 1888 Manual.

Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad display board. Chartered in 1885, the Georgia Southern & Florida Railroad built a rail line from Macon, Georgia, to Palatka, Florida, over a distance of 285 miles. It was opened between Macon and Valdosta in February 1889 and was completed to Palatka in March of the following year. The company quickly encountered financial trouble, entering receivership in 1891; President W.B. Sparks of Macon was appointed receiver. In 1895 it was reorganized as the Georgia Southern & Florida Railway under the control of the Southern Railway. In the 1894 edition of The Official Railway List, the GS&F reported operating 382 miles with 34 locomotives, 25 passenger cars, and 1,445 freight and miscellaneous cars.

Cordele Union Station display board. The Union Depot was located on 8th Street and Wall Street. It was a favorite gathering place for local citizens on Sunday afternoon to see who was arriving and departing on the trains. Trains of four different railway lines made stops at this station — Southern, Seaboard, A B and C (Atlantic, Birmingham and Coast) and the Albany Train. Many enjoyed those excursion trips to Jacksonville, Brunswick and other points. A restaurant was in operation at the Depot for many years.

Atlantic and Birmingham Railroad display board. The A&B was originally chartered on October 24, 1887 as the Waycross Air Line Railroad. Its first section of track, a 25-mile stretch from Waycross to Sessoms, opened in 1890. The line was extended to Nicholls in 1897, to Douglas in 1900, and to Fitzgerald in 1901. In November of 1901, the railroad's charter was amended to authorize an extension to Birmingham and to change the name to Atlantic & Birmingham Railroad. The first section of line under the enlarged charter powers was completed between Fitzgerald and Cordele on May 25, 1902. Cordele to Montezuma, 31 miles, was put into operation in March, 1903, and surveys were being pushed from Montezuma to Birmingham in that same year. In 1903 the A&B purchased the Tifton & Northeastern Railroad and the Tifton, Thomasville & Gulf Railway. These were merged into the parent company, which was renamed the Atlantic & Birmingham Railway. In March, 1904, the A&B bought the Brunswick & Birmingham Railroad, which operated lines from Brunswick to Nicholls and from Bushnell to the Alapaha River at Crystal Lake. This purchase gave the railroad an important connection to the port.

In 1905 the Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic Railroad Display Board. Was organized to buy the A&B and extend it west to Birmingham and north to Atlanta. At the time, the A&B was a 340-mile system with tracks from Brunswick to Montezuma, Waycross to Nicholls, Fitzgerald to Thomasville, and Bushnell to Crystal Lake.

Savanah Americus and Montgomery Railroad Display Board. In December 1888, the SA&M was organized as the successor to the Americus, Preston & Lumpkin Railroad, a narrow-gauge line running from Louvale, near the Georgia-Alabama state line, to Abbeville, on the Ocmulgee River. The change was made by a group headed by Americus. The company also acquired four or five steamboats upon reaching Abbeville. This provided a company-owned connection to the coast by way of the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers. In December 1888, the AP&L changed its name to the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway. An all-rail connection to Savannah was made in 1890.

Georgia and Albany Railroad Display Board. Banker and lawyer Samuel H. Hawkins, who saw greater potential in the line than had been realized up until then. An extension from Abbeville to Lyons opened in June 1890, and an extension from Louvale to the Chattahoochee River was completed a few months later. At Lyons the SA&M connected with a new line to Savannah opened in May 1890 by the Savannah & Western Railroad, a subsidiary of the Central of Georgia. The new Abbeville-Lyons and Louvale-Chattahoochee River tracks were constructed at standard gauge. Meanwhile the 106-mile Louvale-Americus Abbeville trackage, which was all narrow gauge, was rebuilt to standard gauge in 1889-90. At Abbeville, the SA&M connected with its fleet of riverboats operating on the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers to Darien, Brunswick, and Savannah. The railroad owned five such boats in 1891. These were apparently sold not long after the rail connection to Savannah was completed. At the time, the railroad operated 19 locomotives and 1,048 cars, according to Poors 1891 Manual of the Railroads. In 1892 the SA&M leased the Albany & Northern Railway, a 35-mile line between Albany and Cordele. In 1895 the SA&M was sold.

Under foreclosure to a syndicate formed by the Richmond banking firm of John L. Williams and Sons and the Baltimore firm of Middendorf, Oliver and Company. It was reorganized as the Georgia & Alabama Railway. The Cordele-Albany line was reorganized as a separate independent company, the Albany Northern Railway.

The scene fromn the Cordele Railfan viewing platform. We heard a horn coming our way from the west.


CSX ES44AC-H 3026 built by General Electric in 2012 with CSX U30C 7214, nee Lousiville and Nashville 148, built by General Electic in 1972, in the consist.

The old Cordele station.

Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic Cordele freight station now used by the Heart of Georgia Railroad.

Back on board the train, we crossed the Alapaha River several times.

We ran through Seville and Pitts on the way to Rochelle.

Brunswick & Western Rochelle station built in 1916. The Brunswick and Western Railroad (known earlier as the Brunswick and Florida Railroad and the Brunswick and Albany Railroad) ran from Brunswick near the coast to Albany; segments of which still exist today. The Brunswick and Florida Railroad ran from Brunswick west to Glenmore (located about ten miles west of present-day Waycross), where it would connect with the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad.

The engineer switched ends of the train and after performing an air test, we returned to Cordele.

Cordelo railfan viewing platform as we passed before we returned to Georgia Veterans State Park, where the trip and conference offically ended. Elizabeth and I left immediately and led the way back to the hotel then at 6:20 PM, we drove to Cracker Barrel where I enjoyed a steak and Elizabeth had chicken pot pie, dining with NRHS President Tony White, Convention Chairman John Goodman, and convention committee members Dan Meyer and his wife Dawn Holmberg. Good conversations were had then we returned to the hotel for the evening.