Whether it’s history, family, a love for Thomas the Tank Engine, or just I-75 that gets you to Southwest Georgia, a ride on the historic SAM Shortline Excursion Train is worth a visit.
Read on for more about this Georgia train ride.
My family and I rode the train while visiting Lake Blackshear Resort in Cordele, where the train ride begins. A few years earlier, Sue and her father headed to Cordele while working on a story about Experiencing the Hunger Games in Georgia. Her father worked for a company that made Chessie cabooses. It was his favorite job, well, after dairy farmer anyway. Together we learned a ton of fun tidbits about this Ga train ride…keep reading.
ROLLING STATE PARK
The SAM Shortline is Georgia’s only rolling state park. In addition to enjoying the rich history of the train cars and the path through Southwest Georgia, you experience the history of Crisp and Sumter Counties, with people and events that have impacted Georgia and the nation.
THE TRAIN’S HISTORY (AND HOW IT GOT ITS NAME)
SAM stands for Savannah, Americus, Montgomery, and the name of the line’s founder and president, Colonel Samuel Hugh Hawkins, a prominent 19th century Sumter County capitalist.
Politics, tariffs, and other railroad antics disrupted farmers and traders in Americus, Ga. Sam Hawkins and others organized the Americus Preston and Lumpkin Railroad in 1884 to ensure that Americus would continue to dominate the region’s trade. The AP&L would be Georgia’s only railroad constructed entirely with local capital.
In 1888 they extended east and west, creating a direct route between Montgomery, Alabama, and Savannah, Georgia. In the same year, the road was appropriately renamed the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway, or S.A.M. Upon its completion, the SAM’s mainline would stand at 340 miles in length.
Loans defaulted, mergers happened, the GA DOT intervened, and ultimately the train passed to the GA DNR in 2000. After a hiatus, SAM Shortline was reborn. Two years of careful planning, track rehabilitation, and equipment acquisition allowed passenger trains to begin rolling down the historic mainline again.
THE HAWKINS CAR
Riders can choose between three cars: the VIP lounge car, the premium car with tables and chairs, or standard coach. Not all cars run for all tours, so be sure to ask.
VIP seating is in the 1939 Samuel H. Hawkins car, named for the founder. This is the car we rode in, with gorgeous leather booths, wood-paneled walls, and climate control. It also includes a complimentary beverage and lunch from the concession car (Chick-Fil-A sandwich or hot dog & chips). Yes, it costs a little more, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip, so splurge if you can. The comfort factor is well worth it.
The Americus car offers premium and includes a complimentary beverage and snack mix. Guests sit at tables and chairs along the sides of the train, with window views. Each family sits at its own table, a bit more “personal” than the standard coach class with padded bench-style seating. Not all cars run for all tours, so be sure to ask.
There are multiple excursions to choose from. 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.
Depending on the time of year and whether or not you are riding with adults or brining the kids there are tons of options. Check their calendar often for a list of their events.
WHEN BRINING THE KIDDOS
In June, bring your little ones to experience a Day Out With Thomas. They’ll take the train for a short 25-min ride, meet Sir Topham Hatt, and enjoy arts, crafts, stories, and more.
Or take the Halloween Express Train that departs from Georgia Veterans State Park and travels to Plains. Enjoy an hour and a half layover for “Trunk-or-Treat” on the main street, shopping, and walking around town. They encourage everyone to dress up in their favorite Halloween costumes. All passengers will receive a candy treat on board the train.
In December, ride the Candy Cane Express. Santa will be onboard the train! After arrival into Plains, enjoy a two-hour layover to explore the historic town.
FOR THE ADULTS
Looking for a romantic spot to take your sweetheart? Climb aboard the Romantic Valentine’s Day Dinner Train! Enjoy dinner onboard a nice train ride on this very special day. Different seating is available.
Or, the Wine & Cheese Train, for a 1 hour and 30 minute round trip train ride. Ride air-conditioned historic railroad cars aboard for a quick train ride while you enjoy wine tasting and cheese.
PLAINS GEORGIA AND PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER
Most of the SAM Shortline excursions include a stop in Plains, Ga – Jimmy Carter’s hometown. You can certainly eat lunch here, there are two great hometown restaurants. But, with two National Historic Sites and plenty to see, you’ll be glad that you ate on the train before stopping.
Kim Fuller – Billy Carter’s daughter, Jimmy Carter’s niece and the Executive Director of the Friends of Jimmy Carter National Historic Site- met the train with a wonderful itinerary. We followed it to the letter and loved every minute….
- Leave the train and head across the street to the Billy Carter Museum, housed in his old service station. We loved seeing cans of his beer and some of his crazy outfits.
- Take a short walk to Plains High School, which is home to the JCNHS Visitor’s Center. Be sure to snap a picture behind a replica of Carter’s desk in the oval office. You’ll also see paintings done by Carter, his Nobel Prize, and more. Don’t leave without stamping your National Park’s passport – there are three stamps here.
- Head back over the main street to the “downtown” area. Your first stop should be Plain Peanuts. The peanut butter ice cream here is HEAVEN!! You’ll get a free sample, but that won’t be enough to satisfy you.
- You can also tour Plains Antique Mall, Indigo Planet and The Trading Post, all with antiques and fun political memorabilia.
- After you eat your ice cream, head to the Plains Depot which serves as Carter’s campaign museum, and is also part of the JCNHS.
You’re back near the train. Grab a photo in front of the engine, hit the restroom (located right there) and then board the train!
PROXIMITY TO GEORGIA VETERANS STATE PARK
SAM Shortline Excursion train tours leave from Cordele Ga Veterans State Park. You can also pick up some excursions in Americus. We stayed the night at Lake Blackshear Resort the evening before – it sits within the park. Rooms are comfortable, and the amenities are fantastic. There’s a pool, a marina, restaurant on site, and lots of room for kids to run and play. The State Park also has a military museum and equipment that makes a great pre-train tour.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR GEORGIA VISIT
- YOUR GEORGIA VACATION
- GA ROAD TRIPS: 31-Day Trips From Atlanta That Should Be Top of Your Bucket List
- LAKE BLACKSHEAR: 9 Undeniable Reasons to Visit Lake Blackshear Resort
- COLUMBUS: 21+ Things to do In Columbus GA You Will Love
- ALBANY: The Ultimate Guide To Family Fun
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