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The "Peanut Special" Heads to Washington

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January 18, 2013

A few weeks ago, I was sorting through a box of archival material when I stumbled upon a set of menus from the “Peanut Special,” a charter train organized to carry supporters and friends of Jimmy Carter to his inauguration in January 1977. In honor of the 57th Inauguration to take place on January 21, 2013, I thought it would be fun to look back at these mementos related to Amtrak and the 39th President of the United States.

The railroads were an integral part of Jimmy Carter’s childhood in rural Sumter County, Ga., where his father owned a farm and ran a general store patronized by neighboring farm families. Railroads were conduits for moving agricultural goods to market, and they also helped residents understand spatial relationships within the region. Although Carter is often associated with the town of Plains, site of his presidential campaign headquarters, he actually grew up a few miles to the west in an area known as Archery. He recalled: “Of course, Archery was not incorporated or organized in any way; it was just the name of the rural community and train stop.”

Numbering some two dozen families, the small village included railroad and agricultural workers. Neighbor Edward Herman Watson was a section foreman for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad running through the community. As a boy in the 1930s, little Jimmy followed the steel rails to Plains where he sold bags of peanuts for a nickel and gained insight into the workings of the agricultural economy. Then, as today, Georgia is famous as a major producer of peanuts; different varieties are used to make peanut butter and candies, or sold for snacking.

Amtrak Florida Poster
Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter greets
supporters during a "Democratic Whistlestop" tour.

In 1976, Carter rented the Plains Seaboard Coast Line Railroad depot, last used for passenger service in 1951, to serve as his national campaign headquarters. Staff and volunteers answered phones, prepared mailings and greeted approximately 10,000 visitors a day who came to learn about the candidate. The depot is now part of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service to “explore the historic resources and rural southern culture that had an influence in molding the character and political policies of Jimmy Carter.”

Campaign aide Maxine Reese arranged for the special Amtrak charter between Plains and Washington, D.C. Dubbed the “Peanut Special,” the “sleek and silvery Amtrak streamliner”1  consisted of three SDP40F locomotives pulling three coaches, eight 11-bedroom sleepers, three 10-6 sleepers, lounge car, dining car, kitchen-dormitory and sleeper-lounge.2  Most of these were part of the Heritage Fleet, made up of cars Amtrak had hand-picked from the private railroads when it took over national passenger rail operations in 1971.

Amtrak Florida Poster

According to a newspaper reporter, the charter cost about $80,000; tickets per passenger for the 18 hour trip were $172.80 for coach or $272.80 for Pullman sleeper accommodation.3  Amtrak “deadheaded” the train (ran it empty) from New Orleans to Plains, where approximately 380 passengers boarded at the old depot on the morning of January 19, 1977. Prior to the noon departure, president-elect Carter, “clad in a tan, lined raincoat and gloves in crackling cold weather,”4  arrived and spoke to his supporters: “It’s going to be a new day, a new beginning, a new spirit for our country…I will try to do a good job for you.”5

With a toot of the horn, the train headed east to Waycross, Ga., stopping there around 5:30 in the afternoon to change crews. Hundreds of well-wishers lined the platform of old Waycross Union Station to greet the train. Jubilant passengers waved from windows and doors, passing out little bags of peanuts. Describing the scene in one of the “lounges turned night club,” a Waycross Journal-Herald reporter wrote, “The ride was an occasion for song and cheer, most of all because ‘our Jimmy’ had fulfilled many a schoolchild’s version of the American dream…there were chorus after chorus of…old railroad songs and country music favorites…”6  Leaving town, the train switched over to the old Atlantic Coast Line mainline northward to Richmond and the nation’s capital.

In a nod to Carter’s Georgia roots, passengers enjoyed special lunch and dinner menus peppered with southern favorites. Lunch might start with peanut soup and close with peach ice cream, while dinner entrée options included baked sugar-cured Georgia ham with orange slices and candied yams and southern fried chicken with Georgia peach fritters. As evidenced through a simple Internet search, many of these one-time menus were kept as souvenirs and are now sought after by collectors of railroad and presidential memorabilia. The cover of the dinner menu has “Peanut Special” written across the top in white letters against a dark green background; it also features a seal with the Capitol dome and a bald eagle.

The “Peanut Special” pulled into Washington Union Station on time the next day at 7 a.m. Following a full day of inaugural festivities, it departed Washington on Friday, the 21st. As Maxine Reese’s husband noted, “It was about half partying and half sleeping on the way back.”

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1 “Peanut Special Pauses Here Enroute to Capital,” Waycross [Georgia] Journal-Herald, January 20, 1977.

2 According to Michael Palmieri, who photographed the “Peanut Special” on January 18, 1977, the train consisted of SDP40Fs 582, 595 and 588; coaches 5404, 5475 and 5442; 11-bedroom sleepers 2252 Star Leaf, 2263 Placid Lake, 2203 Silver Swan, 2201 Silver Quail, 2250 Star Bay, 2215 Indian Maid, 2211 Indian Drum and 2214 Indian Lake; 10-6 sleepers 2638 Pacific Trail, 2626 Pacific Plateau and 2618 Pacific Lodge; lounge 3409, dining room car 8800, kitchen-dormitory 8801 and sleeper-lounge 3205 Gulf Stream.

3 Peanut Special will begin regular runs into Plains,” The Daily Sentinel (Pomeroy-Middleport, Ohio), December 28, 1976.

4 “Carter is Ready For Great Day,” Sarasota [Florida] Herald-Tribune, January 20, 1977.

5 “Plains Peanut Special,” The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan), January 20, 1977.

 6 “Peanut Special Pauses Here Enroute to Capital,” Waycross [Georgia] Journal-Herald, January 20, 1977.

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