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A Brief History of the SAM Shortline
The mainline operated today by the Heart of Georgia Railroad and used by the SAM Shortline’s passenger trains has an interesting history that reaches back into the late 19th century. In fact, 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.
The Dream Emerges
While Georgia’s existing railroads were busy rebuilding and expanding their lines following the Civil War, many schemes for new railroads were being developed by both honest and dishonest entrepreneurs during the post war era. In 1866 alone, the Georgia General Assembly granted charters to ten new railroad companies. Of those chartered, only six of the proposed lines were actually constructed.
The only railroad serving Sumter and surrounding counties prior to and immediately after the Civil War was the South Western Railroad, which was organized in Macon in the late 1840s, reached Americus by October 1854, and entered Albany through the purchase of additional track constructed between 1856 and 1857 by the old Georgia and Florida Railway. (The Georgia and Florida Railway, which sold out to the South Western, had no connection to the later railroads of the same name.)
The coming of the South Western Railroad in the early 1850s caused Americus to boom prior to the Civil War. In 1869, the Central Railroad and Banking Company leased the 258-mile South Western Railroad, which included the South Western’s line from Smithville, Georgia that would cross the Chattahoochee River and make connection with Montgomery, Alabama by 1870.
Facing no competition in Southwest Georgia and virtually no government regulation, the South Western, and its lessee, the Central Railroad, were able to charge what Sumter County residents believed to be “unjust tariffs,” thus causing a decline in business. Americus men responded by petitioning the State Constitutional Convention of 1868, asking that it give the General Assembly broad regulatory powers over the railroads.
Chief among those protesting the Central’s unfair rates in the 1870s and early 80s was Samuel H. Hawkins. Hawkins, a successful lawyer, banker and civic leader, advocated the establishment of a state railroad commission to regulate tariffs. The Central of Georgia retaliated by removing the name Americus from its system maps and instead designating the growing town as “Way Station Number Nine.”
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.
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 farsighted business and community leaders like Samuel H. Hawkins. Thus Hawkins, along with other wealthy Americus investors, 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.
A Construction Boom
The original charter of the AP&L called for a narrow gauge or three-foot line to be built from Americus west to 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 and from Americus east to Abbeville, on the Ocmulgee River. By 1889, the railroad began operating steamboats down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers to Savannah and Brunswick by way of Darien.
Hawkins’ and his associates’ dream expanded significantly in 1888 when they decided to convert the narrow gauge line to standard gauge (4 ft. 8 1/2 in. between the rails) 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, or S.A.M. Upon its completion the SAM’s mainline would stand at 340 miles in length.
The effect of the new railroad’s arrival in the rural areas east and west of Americus was immediate. Villages and towns sprang up overnight. Many were planned directly by the railroad and its holding company. The Americus Investment Company established Cordele in what was then Dooly County, Dooly County being divided to create Crisp County in 1905. The new town of Cordele was named in honor of Sam Hawkins’ wife and his eldest daughter, both of whom were named Cordelia.
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.
In Sumter County, the first new community to develop as a result of the AP&L Railroad was Plains. 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. Milton Leander Hudson gave the land for the depot as well as the new town of Plains. He also served as the town’s first postmaster and railroad agent.
The depot in Plains is a noteworthy survivor from the AP&L era, having made a brief comeback when it was reopened on April 18, 1975 to serve as Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Campaign headquarters. It was also from this depot that the “Peanut Special” departed—an Amtrak train that carried friends and supporters from Plains to the inauguration in Washington, D.C.
Though officially chartered in 1892, the town of Leslie began earlier as a tiny settlement in connection with the Bailey plantation east of Americus. Originally named Jeb for J.E. Bailey, the community’s name was mistakenly corrupted by the post office into Job, a mistake not welcomed by residents. In 1890, the name was changed to Leslie in honor of J.W. Bailey’s younger daughter.
Leslie grew rapidly as a result of the railroad. By 1907, the town of approximately 600 residents boasted a high school, 14 mercantile stores, a hotel, a wagon and buggy manufacturing company, a hardware and furniture company, turpentine still, and a cotton gin and warehouse.
A short distance further east, the Americus Investment Company established the town of DeSoto, when it bought and subdivided a parcel of land owned by Samuel Hawkins since 1877 and began selling lots to the town’s first citizens. The town’s name derives from the legend that tells of the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto’s stopping briefly in the area in 1540 and digging a well to provide his men and horses with drinking water.
Though the town of DeSoto was quickly becoming a community of some size following the railroad’s arrival, a massive fire cut short that growth in 1906. Only a small portion of the business block was rebuilt, and the town never regained its original size. Interestingly, the depot, though moved a short distance from its original location, still stands in DeSoto.
Several smaller settlements such as Huntington, Cobb, Flintside, and Coney also developed along the SAM railroad in Sumter and Crisp Counties, often providing homes for railroad section gangs—groups of four to five railroad track workers that maintained a designated section of mainline under the direction of a foreman. Consisting of only a small depot, post office, and perhaps a store or two, communities such as these were very dependent upon the railroad for both their livelihood and connection to the larger world.
In Americus, the result of the SAM Railroad’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 8th 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. In 1891, the railroad constructed a large new shop facility on the east side of Americus, currently the location of the Heart of Georgia’s yard.
During this era, in addition to many new downtown commercial buildings being constructed, a new county and city government complex was built. Moreover, the first electrically-driven streetcar company chartered in Georgia operated in Americus in 1890. But of all the new construction and development related to the boom of the late 80s and early 90s, the town’s crowning achievement was the Windsor Hotel, opened in 1892.
The great boom was halted by the announcement of the SAM Railroad 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 made matters worse by launching 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 experienced a financial panic in 1893, the Savannah Americus and Montgomery was sold to John Skelton Williams of Richmond, Virginia, 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, making the Georgia and Alabama a division of the Seaboard by 1902.
A New Century
From the turn-of-the-century until the onset of the Great Depression, railroads enjoyed a golden era during which lines expanded, railroad technology improved, and revenues grew. This was the era before the automobile came to dominate passenger travel and before the truck captured the freight business. It was a time when even the most remote hamlets in Georgia were connected to the greater world by passenger trains, a time when mail and express deliveries, as well as every other conceivable form of freight, moved by rail.
In Sumter and Crisp Counties, carloads of agricultural products such as grain, cotton, peaches, and watermelons were loaded at the numerous freight houses, packing sheds, and rural sidings along the Seaboard’s mainline. The railroads also hauled various forest products and large quantities of fertilizer. By 1919, Plains was shipping 76 cars of hogs and cattle, a record number for the state at that time.
Until 1951, communities along the Seaboard enjoyed the ability to board one of the railroad’s passenger trains and travel into Americus or Cordele to shop or conduct business. Many of the counties’ rural citizens rode trains 11 and 12, variously known as the “Shoo Fly,” “Dummy” or “Butthead,” the names Dummy and Butthead deriving from the Seaboard’s cost-saving use of unusual rail motor cars over the lightly–traveled Savannah to Montgomery mainline. Though not great revenue producers for the railroad, these passenger trains provided a vital service to the rural residents of settlements such as Archery, the location of a Seaboard Air Line section gang and the boyhood home of former President Jimmy Carter.
Although the benefits of rail transportation were significant, the overall economic importance of the Seaboard Air Line in Sumter County cannot be measured solely by its role in providing transportation for the county’s freight and passengers. The Seaboard was itself an employer of more than three hundred men and women in Sumter County during its peak of operation, with the Alabama Division’s headquarters being located in Americus until 1956. In the early years, Americus was a major shop on the Seaboard, and in later years it continued to be an important repair and refueling facility.
In 1967, the Seaboard Air Line (SAL) and Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) Railroads merged to form the Seaboard Coast Line (SCL). In 1980, a new corporation took control of the old SAM when CSX was formed as a holding company for the merged Chessie System Railway and Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. CSX held control of the former SAM line until June 5, 1989, when the tracks were officially transferred to their new owner, RailTex Corporation (now RailAmerica, Inc.), a holding company for numerous shortline railroads across America.
The newly created Georgia Southwestern Division of the South Carolina Central Railroad Company would operate the tracks from Rhine, Georgia to Mahrt, Alabama as well as the former Richland Subdivision from Columbus to Bainbridge, Georgia as the Georgia Southwestern Railroad or GSWR. The operation would continue until declining business led corporate managers to begin seeking either a buyer or abandonment.
A New Era for the SAM
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 line from Mahrt, Alabama to Helena, Georgia. 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.
After purchasing the line, the state began seeking a possible operator. In December 1999, Brad Lafevers and a group of other investors formed the Heart of Georgia Railroad, Inc., known simply as the HOG. On March 29, 2000, the HOG’s operation of 177 miles of the former SAM Railroad from Mahrt, Alabama to Vidalia, Georgia officially began.
With its purchase of the former SAM mainline, the State of Georgia began rehabilitating the track between Rochelle and Vidalia, a project completed in 2000. In 2002, the portion of track from Rochelle to Preston was rehabilitated, and plans are underway to rehabilitate the remaining part of the line across the Chattahoochee River to Mahrt, Alabama.
The SAM Shortline Reborn
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.
A Rolling Park
The rebirth of passenger trains on the old SAM mainline provides the citizens of Georgia as well as visitors to the state a rare opportunity to travel back in time and experience the romance and excitement of train travel. Rather than read about the region’s historic sites or view traditional exhibits about them in museums, passengers are surrounded by the places themselves as they roll across Crisp and Sumter Counties, stopping at towns which have contributed so much not only to our state’s great history, but also to our nation’s.
History by Lee Kinnamon
© 2015 - Georgia Department of Natural Resources
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