"Georgia’s Rolling State Park” follows a 40-mile stretch of railroad track between Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park near Cordele and the tiny community of Archery just west of Plains.
Among Georgia’s 65 state parks and historic sites, SAM Shortline Excursion Train is the most unique, if only because of its mobility. The rolling park came under the management of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources about 10 years ago.
Originally called the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railroad, SAM spelled out the first name of the old line’s founder and president, Col. Sam Hugh Hawkins, a Confederate cavalry officer and 19th-century entrepreneur.
Today’s SAM Shortline allows passengers to relax in air-conditioned, 1949-vintage passenger cars while enjoying the gentle rocking motion of the train, connecting with fellow passengers or gazing on southwest Georgia’s landscape from large bay windows.
After first crossing the 8,700-acre Lake Blackshear, it rolls through shady pecan groves to huge fields of peanuts, cotton, corn and other produce.
In some areas, Georgia’s wild vegetation has grown right up to the tracks, creating a green wall on either side of the train. During late spring and summer, most trees and shrubs are covered with yellow honeysuckle, trumpet honeysuckle and wisteria.
One of the more popular SAM Shortline rides takes place during the last two weeks in October, when Thomas the Tank Engine leads the train. Children get an opportunity to meet Sir Topham Hatt, take part in storytelling and enjoy live music.
Depending on the ride chosen, the train’s first stop could be the community of Leslie, home of the Rural Telephone Museum, or it may not stop until it reaches the town of Americus. Those rides that stop in Americus stay for two hours, as there is a lot to see, including Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village, Rylander Theater and the Windsor Hotel. There also is shopping and dining.
Next stop is Plains, birthplace of Jimmy Carter, America’s 39th president, in 1924. As a boy, Carter supposedly made $1 a day during summer by walking the three miles from his family farm to Plains where he’d sell bags of boiled peanuts that were grown on the farm and prepared by his mother the night before.
SAM Shortline stops at the depot that was Carter’s campaign headquarters in 1976. Carter and wife Rosalyn still live in Plains. Visitors can see his house from the locked gate, which still is manned by Secret Service agents.
The last stop on any SAM Shortline ride is the tiny community of Archery, where visitors can walk the grounds of Earl and Lillian Carter’s farm, which they bought just before the start of the Great Depression when Jimmy was about four. The home and surrounding farm is maintained by the National Park Service, whose park rangers maintain the grounds and answer questions about the site and the Carter family.
In addition to certified train conductors, much of the work on SAM Shortline is done by volunteers like Tim McLaughlin.
“I’ve been volunteering my whole life,” said McLaughlin as he joked with passengers to get them to loosen up and talk with him and other passengers. “I’ve been here most of the summer. It’s great because you get to meet so many great people.”
Originally from Albany, N.Y., McLaughlin said he was living in Greenville, S.C., until late last year when he sold or gave away everything he owned but his Dodge Ram and 5th-wheel RV trailer. He has since lived at state and national parks, where, as a volunteer, he’s allowed to stay for free at park campgrounds.
McLaughlin struck up a conversation with Bob and Jean Broadwell, who brought their 10-year-old grandson Nate McMinn along for their vacation.
“We use Georgia’s park system as often as we can,” said Bob Broadwell as Nate pressed his nose to window to see Lake Blackshear during the return trip. “Our 28-foot pull-behind (trailer) and the RV camping facilities at Georgia’s parks provide us with all the comforts of our home in Loganville.”
For more information about SAM Shortline’s schedule, go to www.SAMShortline.com. For ticket information, call 1-877-427-2457.
For information about Lake Blackshear Resort and Golf Club at Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park, go to www.lakeblackshearresort.com or call 1-800-459-1230.