Above: SAM Shortline Train. Photos courtesy of Terry Miller, manager of the Historic SAM Shoreline Railroad, Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites

This year, the Historic SAM Shortline Railroad season started with a visit from Cupid. It seems there’s a lot of love going around on the old-fashioned train ride. It was January when the annual Valentine’s dinner trip was announced — and reservations came rushing in from all around the Southeast.

The SAM Shortline is the successor to the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery railway — hence the name SAM — which was chartered in 1888. The current route runs from Cordele, Ga., west to Archery, Ga., and serves several picturesque towns along the way, including Plains, Ga.

The diesel-electric locomotive pulls several climate-controlled, 1949 vintage rail cars, allowing passengers to enjoy a mix of yesteryear with the excitement of today’s South, according to Terry Miller, Site Manager for the Historic SAM Shortline Railroad.

“The Valentine’s dinner event is such a favorite with couples from outside the local area that it sells out almost immediately,” Miller said. To resolve the overflow of this year’s Valentine’s Day crowd, Miller said that they immediately planned a no-meal option to allow for extra riders.

“Our late-ticketed passengers still enjoyed popcorn and holiday treats while taking in the fun of riding on one of Georgia’s historic trains,” he said. And no one seemed disappointed.

Yet this and other SAM Shortline rail excursions may fall into the category of one of Georgia’s best-kept secrets — at least for metro Atlanta residents.

The train is currently in full swing for the summer. Excursions operate most Fridays and Saturdays. It leaves from either the Cordele station or nearby at Georgia’s Veterans State Park during the summer months, with a few extra special event days.

Depending on which day you travel, the train stops long enough for passengers to get on and off the cars, usually about five minutes, although a few itineraries offer a longer stopover with time to walk and shop.

In fact, Miller says that full-day excursions have at least one such stop. “This provides leisure time for passengers to explore one of the towns along the route, such as Leslie, Americus or possibly Plains,” he said.

Chamblee resident Wayne Mahfuz says that he has special memories of taking the SAM Shortline with his late wife Wanda. “We rode it on three different occasions,” Mahfuz recalled.

A retired teacher in his late 60s, Mahfuz still does substitute teaching, and he has been a volunteer guide on Amtrak’s Southern Crescent train that runs between Atlanta and New Orleans. He became interested in trains by volunteering with the Trails & Rails program, a unique partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service that educates travelers about trains and natural resources while traveling by rail.

On one SAM Shortline trip, Mahfuz remembers staying in Cordele overnight to be ready for their early morning departure with a stopover in Plains. After returning Saturday afternoon, Mahfuz says they drove to Plains on Sunday — about 42 miles from Cordele.

That particular day, Mahfuz and his wife watched former President Jimmy Carter teach the Sunday school lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, a high point for them. (These days, however, the President’s teaching schedule is much less frequent.)

“We had extra time on that ride to look around town,” he said, adding that all three trips created fond memories for him. “The Christmas train is a lot of fun, too,” Mahfuz said.

The SAM Shortline Railroad is operated by Georgia’s State Parks and Historic Sites.For info, special event details and to buy tickets, check the website at samshortline.com, or call toll-free 1-877-427-2457, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are non-refundable, but you can transfer your ticket to another trip if space is available. Schedules are subject to change.

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.