Last revised: October 25, 2023
By: Adam Burns
If you are a railroad enthusiast or simply enjoy history, Georgia's heritage with the iron horse is colorful and fascinating. Its earliest was the Central Rail Road & Banking Company of Georgia, which opened its first 26 miles in 1838.
The state was later an important route in the movement of troops and materiel during the Civil War, most notably the Western & Atlantic which provided the only rail-link from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tennessee via the southern Appalachian Mountain chain.
This was also the location of the fabled "Great Locomotive Chase," otherwise known as Andrews' raid, which occurred on April 12, 1862. It involved a group of Union soldiers who stole a Confederate locomotive in an effort to cause as much damage to the railroad as possible.
From the coastal plains to rugged mountains, Georgia was as important point for railroads like the classic Seaboard Air Line, Louisville & Nashville, Southern Railway, and Atlantic Coast Line. Today, several museums and heritage railroads keep alive its long history with trains. Some of these organizations even host special events throughout the year, including train rides during the Christmas season.
(Blue Ridge): Tourists railroads found along the Appalachian Mountains attract a great many visitors thanks to the incredible scenery they offer.
The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway is no different; a division of short line Georgia Northeastern it takes guests on a 26-mile round trip of the old Louisville & Nashville's "Hook & Eye."
This line was built in stages between 1867 and 1887 by the Marietta & North Georgia (M&NG) linking Marietta, Georgia with Murphy, North Carolina.
At the latter point a connection was made with the Southern Railway's Murphy Branch (FYI, part of this line hosts another popular excursion train, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad!).
The M&NG joined the L&N in 1902 where it acted as the railroad's direct north-south link to Atlanta while in later years it acted as a secondary corridor.
The Blue Ridge Scenic is one of the region's top tourist attractions thanks to the scenery, proximity to a major metropolitan area, on-board services, and different excursions available.
The railroad's popular, self-proclaimed Santa Express runs from late November until late December with daytime and nighttime trips. During the one-hour ride the kids get to see Santa and his elves, sing songs, and hear a Christmas story.
(Cordele): One of the longer train rides available, the SAM Shortline offers various trips along a route that spans a total of 34 miles between Cordele and Archery.
The name "SAM" is a nod to the Savannah, Americus & Montgomery Railroad which built the original corridor that, in its entirety, ran from Montgomery, Alabama to Savannah. In the "modern" era it was a component of the Seaboard Air Line.
In the 1980's CSX Transportation sold the remaining track to the Heart of Georgia Railroad, a startup short line. Today, this company services freight customers while excursions are managed by the Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority.
The railroad offers a number of holiday-themed trips such as a once-annual event known as the Christmas In Plains where patrons travel to Plains, Georgia and enjoy the sights of area Christmas lights and decorations.
They can also partake in a parade and seasonal music. SAM's other holiday-themed rides include:
(Duluth): One of the South's must-see railroad museums; the Southeastern Railway Museum was formed in 1970 by the Atlanta Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society to highlight the Southeast's and Georgia's rail heritage.
Since that time they collected an impressive roster of locomotives (steam and diesel), passenger cars, freight cars, and other equipment.
Nearly all of their 90+ pieces operated somewhere in the South while in service. In 2000 the group was recognized as Georgia's "official transportation history museum." You can also catch a train ride with trips hosted over the museum's 30 acres of property.
During the holidays they offer a number of Santa-themed events. The first is "Santa Arrives On The Train" where kids can enjoy a meet-and-greet with the Big Man. In addition, the museum hosts breakfast and lunch events with Santa. To learn more please visit their website.
(St. Marys): The St. Marys Railroad is a historic short line freight carrier based in St. Marys with a heritage dating back to the early 20th century.
At its peak the little system operated just 11 miles from a connection with the Seaboard Air Line at Kingsland to St. Marys. It primarily served a paper mill and traffic related to the production of such.
However, it also handled some general freight and in 1955 constructed a new spur to serve a military munitions depot (which later closed). When the paper mill ceased production in 2002 it appeared the railroad would as well.
However, the company has persevered and remains in business today. In recent years it has found a new source of income, tourists. The idea has proven a great success and the railroad now hosts a wide range of special events.
The Santa Express is one such popular production, held during late November and into December. The train journeys to Santa's Village and Santa himself rides the rails during the return trip.