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SAM Short Line by Jack Turner

SAM SHORT LINE RARE MILEAGE TRIP TO SAVANNAH

  By Jack M. Turner


    Nestled in the heart of Georgia is a real gem of a tourist railroad, the SAM Short Line which regularly operates excursion trains between Cordele and the Jimmy Carter homestead west of Plains, GA.  President's Day weekend 2007 provided a rare opportunity to ride in the opposite direction aboard an excursion from Cordele to Savannah.

    The name SAM Short Line harkens back to the historic name of the rail line which connected Savannah, Americus, GA, and Montgomery, Alabama.  The line eventually was absorbed into the Seaboard Air Line and for a period of time in the first half of the 20th century even ran a local single car train that the locals called Butt Head for the self propelled car's appearance.  As with many other branch line operations, the line eventually became superfluous and was saved by the State of Georgia which acquired the railway.  Since 2000 the Heart of Georgia Railroad has operated the line west of Vidalia, GA while the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-run SAM Short Line serves as tourist train operator.  The Georgia Central Railroad operates the segment from Vidalia east to Savannah.

    Saturday February 17, 2007 comes with a winter chill and there is ice on our van's windshield as we prepare to drive from Albany, GA to Cordele to board the train.  We elected to spend the night at the new Courtyard by Marriott in Albany as it is an easy drive from our home in North Florida and puts us within an hour of Cordele.  Albany once was quite a railroad hub with the Central of Georgia and Atlantic Coast Line the major players in town. Today various rail lines still fan out from this south Georgia city.  The old ACL/Central of Georgia depot has been preserved and houses the a nice rail museum.  

    This will be a one-way trip for my son John and me as the return rail trip is not until Monday and we must return home for work and school.  As a result my wife is gracious enough to drop us off in Cordele and we will rent a vehicle home from Savannah.  There is a nice crowd at the SAM Short Line station which is contained in a converted store across a side street from the loading platform.  As this has been sold as a special package complete with Savannah city tours and a riverboat excursion, passengers have been drawn from points as far as Atlanta and North Florida.  Most of these stayed in one of Cordele's many motels located along I-75.

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The SAM Short Line depot in Cordele, GA is located across the street from the tracks.  (Photo by Jack M. Turner)


    Between our 8:30am boarding time and departure at 9:00am an eastbound CSX mixed manifest freight pulled by Union Pacific power and an eastbound CSX coal train pass on the busy former Atlanta, Birmingham, and Coast route that parallels the Heart of Georgia through town.  The old AB&C is a key part of the CSX system and, as we inch forward, a westbound CSX freight rolls past.
                            
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A Heart of Georgia RR Geep prepares to lead the "Savannah Special" out of Cordele.
(Photo by Jack M. Turner)
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A former Seaboard milepost stands beside the tracks in Cordele.
(Photo by Jack M. Turner)


    The Savannah Special, as our train is dubbed, is pulled by Heart of Georgia Geep 1540 followed by the Samuel H. Hawkins, a former Florida East Coast observation car that later was owned by the Seaboard Coast Line, Amtrak, and the New Georgia Railroad.  John and I are seated in the observation end of this first class car which runs round-end forward on the eastbound trek.  Behind the Samuel H. Hawkins is a first class chair car and four coaches spliced by a commissary car.  A power generator car and a trailing Geep which will lead the train on westbound trip round out the consist.

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Passengers enjoy the trip to Savannah aboard the Samuel H. Hawkins, a former FEC round-end observation car that serves as a first class car.  (Photo copyright Georgia Department of Natural Resources).


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The "Americus" is a festively decorated first class car. (Photo by John C. Turner).


    Our trip is mostly at a leisurely 30 mph as we pass through piney forests, traverse cypress swamps, trace the edges of cattle farms, cross the muddy Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers, and roll through sleepy south Georgia towns.  During one stretch towns such as Milan (pronounced My-lan by the locals) and Rhine trace their names to favorite European places visited by the family of Samuel H. Hawkins, founder of the original SAM Short Line.  Throughout the day our volunteer car hosts Bill and Jan Bird do everything they can to make the trip enjoyable.  They point out scenic and historic points along the route, adjust the car's climate control to keep our car comfortable, and deliver lunches from the commissary car.
            
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The Savannah Special passes through a south central Georgia cypress swamp.  (Photo copyright Georgia Department of Natural Resources).



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Comfortable coach seating in one of four chair cars. (Photo by John C. Turner).
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SAM Short Line's commissary car is well stocked with food and souvenirs.
(Photo copyright Georgia Department of Natural Resources).


    At 11:30am we cross Norfolk Southern's Brunswick-Macon line after gaining permission from the NS dispatcher.  The only en route passenger stop of the day is made at 1:10pm in Vidalia, a town best known for its sweet Vidalia onions.  Here we leave the HOG rails and join the Georgia Central line linking Macon and Savannah.  After changing head end crews we resume eastward and about 90 minutes later pass through Claxton, home of Claxton fruit cakes.  After passing the factory that produces those famous cakes, we pass US Highway 301 and I am momentarily transported back to the 1960s when my parents and I traveled that highway on summer trips from Miami to North Carolina.  Back in those days there were no interstate highways which gave me a close look at many small southern towns.  Little did I then know that I would one day ride this very rail line.

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Another view of the observation end of the first class car, which once ran on the Florida East Coast Railway under the name "Bay Biscayne". (Photo by Jack M. Turner).


    The journey ends a few minutes after 4:30pm as the Savannah Special unloads at Tom Triplett Park in Pooler, GA on the west side of Savannah.  Charter busses will take most passengers to their hotel in historic Savannah.  John and I wait for the courtesy van from the Hilton Garden Inn-Airport to pick us up as that will facilitate picking up our rental car for Sunday's drive home.

                            
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Chair car "Cordele", a power generator car, and a HOG Geep bring up the rear of the train as it unloads at Pooler, GA. (Photo by John C. Turner).
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The conductors pose beside chair car "Archery" at Pooler, GA. (Photo by Jack M. Turner).



    This rare mileage trip of approximately 163 miles one way has been operated on one or two prior occasions. Much of the line can be ridden on excursions operated between Cordele and Vidalia for that town's annual onion festival.  SAM Short Line operates regularly scheduled excursions between Cordele and Plains which usually continue a few miles to Archery, home of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Monument.  For information, visit www.samshortline.com or call (877)GA-RAILS.<>

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(Photo copyright Georgia Department of Natural Resources)


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