Water Flowing East and West, a Land Speculating Sheriff and Passover: The Story of Mountain City

Mountain City’s history is entwined with a Native American legend and a sheriff who saw the lucrative potential of a railroad.

Our story starts centuries ago in the time of Notla, son of a Cherokee chief, who wanted to marry Hiawassee, daughter of a Catawba chief. Hiawassee’s father, who had no love for the Cherokees, told Notla that the Catawba drank the waters of the east (present-day North and South Carolina), while the Cherokee drank the waters of the west (Georgia and Tennessee). If Notla could find where these waters united, then and only then, would he be permitted to wed Hiawassee. The Catawba chief was confident this mysterious place never would be found.

The love-struck Notla went off on this seemingly impossible search. After months of exploration, so the legend goes, he came to a mountain valley containing a pool of water that was acting strangely. From the west end of the pool, the water flowed west. From the pool’s east end, the water flowed to the east. Notla realized he had found the spot where the waters were united before running off to the Catawabas in the east and the Cherokees in the west. Though now able to claim Hiawassee as his bride, her father was nevertheless furious at this turn of events. To escape his wrath, the couple fled to an area now known as the town of Hiawassee.

Passover Founded Atop Eastern Continental Divide

Fast forward to 1903 when Sheriff D. W. Johnson of Hart County, Georgia, traveled to Tennessee to return an escaped prisoner. On his way back, he passed through Rabun Gap (not the town of the same name a few miles to the north), a scenic passage through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Rabun County. Said to be taken by the beauty of this place, Johnson acquired approximately 600 acres in the valley. After having the land surveyed into lots, he incorporated the area in 1904.

He called his town Passover. Not to be confused with the sacred Jewish holiday, the name Passover, or Pass Over as the town was initially called, was chosen because people traveling through Rabun Gap passed over the eastern continental divide at nearly 2,000 feet.

Just as Notla witnessed long ago, water on the north side of the continental divide flows west into the Little Tennessee River and then to the Tennessee River, Ohio River and Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Water on the south slope of the divide flows east into the Chatooga and Tallulah rivers, the Tugalo River and the Savannah River, before emptying into the Atlantic.

Capitalizing on Tallulah Falls Railroad

When Sheriff Johnson acquired the land in 1903 that became Passover, the Tallulah Falls Railroad was being built northward in stages from Tallulah Falls. It was not until 1906 that the line was extended to Passover before reaching its terminus at Franklin, North Carolina in 1907.

Johnson was more than an admirer of beautiful terrain. He also was a shrewd investor, who was speculating on the coming of the railroad from the outset of his land purchases. With that apparently in mind, he built the Blue Heights Hotel in 1903. It became popular with tourists traveling by horse and buggy. He likely figured business would explode when tourists could make the journey to Passover faster and easier by train.

1906 Land Auction

To take maximum advantage of the railroad, Johnson held a land auction in 1906. A newspaper ad carried a map of Passover, surveyed into approximately 800 lots. Headlined “Big Barbecue, Land Sale at Auction, and a Railroad Celebration at Passover (Rabun Gap) on the New Tallulah Falls Railway (Rabun Gap Route),” the ad extolled the many virtues of Passover. “The construction of the Tallulah Falls Railway through Rabun County (now completed to this point) has opened up one of the most healthful and picturesque spots in all of Georgia, if not the whole South, to those who seek fortune and health. The great forests and mineral wealth of this section are already famous, and the construction of this enterprise opens fields for investments unsurpassed in the whole South. Anyone wishing to invest in these properties can do so without fear of financial loss or pecuniary doubt.”

Passover Becomes Mountain City

In a nod to marketing his land, Johnson changed the town’s name in 1907. The Georgia legislature’s articles of municipal incorporation stated that “the village now known as Passover, located in Rabun Gap, at the highest point of the Tallulah Falls Railroad, in the county of Rabun, be…hereby incorporated under the name and style of the ‘Town of Mountain City…’ ” The document defined the corporate limits of Mountain City as “extending three-quarters of a mile from the center of the railroad, where it passes over the watershed (continental divide) of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Johnson was appointed Mountain City’s first mayor.

The new mayor took his own advice about the investment-worthiness of Mountain City. In 1907, he built his second hotel, the 40-room New Rabun Hotel. A newspaper ad said: “Our rates are very low, considering the service: ranging from $12.50 to $25.00 per week and $3.25 to $4.25 daily.” Among the hotel’s bargain-rate services was a farm-to-table dining experience. “We serve vegetables from our own garden; poultry from our poultry yard; milk from our dairy; and country ham.” The ham apparently was sourced from someone else’s hogs.

Apples and Clogging

In addition to tourism, Mountain City also benefited from apples, which became a significant business in the 1920s. A packinghouse able to store 20,000 bushels of apples was built in 1933 near the train depot in downtown Mountain City. Given the fact that Rabun County was the moonshine capital of Georgia, there is a strong likelihood that a certain portion of the apple crop was transformed into applejack in stills hidden in the mountain hollows around the town.

During the 1950s and 1960’s, Mountain City was best known for its Playhouse, where crowds gathered every Saturday night for traditional Appalachian folk dancing. In addition to clogging, buck dancing and square dancing, locally-distilled liquid refreshments (possibly applejack) were said to be available to patrons in the parking lot. The Playhouse closed its doors in the early 1980s.

The hotels, the apple warehouse, the applejack stills (well, most of them) and the Tallulah Falls Railroad have been gone for decades. Today, travelers on U.S. 23/441 pass through Mountain City much as they passed over the continental divide in the days of Passover, albeit at much slower speeds. And water in Mountain City continues to flow west to the Gulf of Mexico and east to the Atlantic.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in January 2021.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.