HISTORY OF THE SAM
The story of the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway illustrates New South boosterism, boom, and bust in Georgia during the 1880s and 1890s. Founded in Americus by Samuel Hugh Hawkins and other ambitious men eager to secure the continued prosperity and dominance their city enjoyed during the post-Civil War period, the SAM created what in fact was a second railroad boom for Americus, the first boom having occurred with the arrival of the South Western Railroad thirty years earlier in 1854. Promoting not only the fortunes of Americus, the SAM spawned the development of numerous new towns along its 265-mile route stretching eventually from Montgomery, Alabama to Lyon's, Georgia.
Prior to and immediately after the Civil War, the only railroad serving Sumter and surrounding counties was the South Western, which was organized in Macon in the late 1840s, reached Americus by October 1854, and entered Albany through the purchase and construction of additional track between 1856 and 1857. The coming of the South Western Railroad in the early 1850s caused Americus to experience its first population and construction boom, transforming it from a small courthouse town to the center of the region’s expanding wagon trade.
Facing no competition in southwest Georgia and virtually no government regulation, the South Western, and its lessee, the Central Rail Road & Banking Company of Georgia, were able to charge what many Sumter County residents believed to be exorbitant and discriminatory rates, thus contributing to a decline in the city’s trade. Americus leaders responded by petitioning the State Constitutional Convention of 1868 to give the General Assembly broad regulatory powers over the railroads. Chief among those protesting the Central’s rates in the 1870s and early 1880s was Samuel Hugh Hawkins. A successful Americus lawyer, banker and civic leader, Hawkins advocated for the establishment of a powerful state railroad commission to regulate tariffs. The Central allegedly retaliated by removing the name Americus from its system maps and instead designating the growing town as “Way Station No. 9.”
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. Several of these proposed lines would have bypassed Americus completely. 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 business and community leaders like Samuel H. Hawkins, thus Hawkins led local investors in the organization of the Americus, Preston & Lumpkin Railroad in 1884 to ensure that Americus would continue to dominate the region’s trade. From the company’s headquarters in Americus, Hawkins would serve as president of the AP&L and its successor, the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railway, until foreclosure in 1895.
The original charter of the AP&L called for a narrow-gauge line (3 ft. between the rails) to be built from Americus west toward the Chattahoochee River through 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, Georgia and from Americus east to Abbeville, Georgia, the county seat of Wilcox County situated on the Ocmulgee River. By 1888 the railroad began operating steamboats down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers to Savannah and Brunswick by way of Darien.
In 1888 Hawkins’ and his associates’ plans expanded significantly 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, known simply as the SAM. Upon its completion the SAM’s mainline would stand at 265 miles in length and extend from Montgomery, Alabama to Lyons, Georgia. From Lyons, the SAM entered Savannah under a reciprocal agreement to operate over the tracks of the newly-constructed Savannah & Western Railroad, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Central. The termination of this beneficial agreement in 1891 would in fact contribute to the downfall of the SAM.
The territory east of Americus through which the SAM's mainline was constructed was largely undeveloped and sparsely populated before the railroad's arrival. The Americus Investment Company, the holding company of the SAM, and its president, Sumter County native Henry Clay Bagley, capitalized on the railroad's eastward progress by creating towns across Dooly (now Crisp), Wilcox, Dodge, Telfair, and Montgomery (now Toombs) Counties. In addition to Plains and Richland, both west of Americus, the following towns to the east owe their existence to the building of the SAM Railway: Cordele, Seville, Pitts, Rochelle, Rhine, Milan, Helena, Alamo, Vidalia, and Lyons. Cordele’s name honors Samuel H. Hawkins’ wife and daughter, both named Cordelia, while the towns of Seville, Rochelle, Rhine, Milan, and Lyons bear their names, the story goes, as a result of the Hawkins family’s travels through Europe.
In Sumter County, the first new community and eventually the most famous to develop as a result of the AP&L Railroad was Plains, the home of President Jimmy Carter. 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 and created the new town of Plains.
In Americus, the result of the SAM Railway’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 eighth 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.
During this era, in addition to many new downtown commercial buildings being constructed, a new county and city government complex was built. Moreover, one of the earliest electrically-driven streetcar companies chartered in Georgia operated in Americus by 1890. But of all the construction and development related to the New South boom of the late 1880s and early 1890s, the town’s crowning achievement was the Windsor Hotel, opened in 1892.
The great boom was halted by the announcement of the SAM Railway 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 launched 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 reeled from the financial panic in 1893, the Savannah Americus and Montgomery was sold to John Skelton Williams of Richmond, Virginia and his associates 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.
Despite the downfall of Samuel H. Hawkins, who reportedly lost nearly one million dollars of his own money in an effort to preserve local control of the railroad, the SAM continued under new ownership to provide an important link in the railroad connections from the Midwest to the Atlantic. It provided employment for hundreds of Sumter county residents through the years and contributed to the growth and development of towns across its corridor through Georgia. In fact Samuel Hugh Hawkin’s railroad continues to serve the region today under the freight-hauling Heart of Georgia and the passenger excursion operation known as the Historic SAM Shortline Railroad.
The excursion train founders began putting the train together in 2000. It took two years to locate all of the cars and restore them. The first public run was on Oct. 26, 2002. All of the state-owned cars were built in 1939 or 1949 and have seating for up to 80 people. 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.