Electricity for Atlanta: Six Hydroelectric Dams, A Submerged Town and Silenced Waterfalls

When executives of an Atlanta electric utility peered into Tallulah Gorge in 1909, they quickly saw the answer to their problem. 

A growing Atlanta was hungry for electricity. The Tallulah River roaring through the gorge would power a hydroelectric generating plant. Every kilowatt of that electricity would be transmitted to Atlanta. Problem solved. 

However, an even larger vision was taking shape. 

The 1,200-foot drop in elevation along a 26-mile stretch of the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers in Rabun, Habersham and Stephens counties was ideal for additional hydroelectric plants. Six dams and generating stations ultimately were built between 1913 and 1927, sending 166,420 kilowatts of power to Atlanta. 

The Tallulah and Tugalo rivers thus became the most completely developed, continuous stretch of waterway in the country for hydroelectric power. 

The development of these rivers was hailed as one of the engineering marvels of its time. But progress can come at a price. In the case of Rabun County, progress meant one entire town had to be submerged under 65 feet of water. And the raging Niagara of the South in Tallulah Gorge was tamed and silenced forever. 

Starting in northern Rabun County and moving south, the six hydroelectric facilities along the Tallulah and Tugalo Rivers are: Burton (forming Lake Burton), Nacoochee (impounding Lake Seed), Mathis Dam and Terrora Plant (creating Lake Rabun), Tallulah Falls (forming Lake Tallulah), Tugalo (creating Lake Tugalo), and Yonah (impounding Lake Yonah). All six plants are still in operation, and some of the original generating equipment remains in use today. 

Burton Hydroelectric Plant 

Built in 1919, the Burton dam was not intended originally as a hydroelectric generating station. Instead, it was planned as a storage and flow-regulating facility for the Tallulah Falls plant that was built about 20 miles downstream several years earlier. 

Georgia Railway and Power, a predecessor of Georgia Power, started acquiring the entire town of Burton and much of the surrounding land in 1917. Sixty-five property owners eventually sold thousands of acres to the company. These families moved to higher ground in the Tallulah valley or settled in Tiger and Habersham County. 

Construction of the 128-foot-high Burton Dam was completed in December 1919, and the reservoir was completely filled by August of 1920. The town of Burton’ was completely submerged under 2,775-acre Lake Burton. Capable of holding five billion cubic feet of water, the lake’s reservoir was the equivalent of generating 55 million kilowatt-hours at the Tallulah Falls plant. 

The hydroelectric powerhouse, considered of secondary importance to the dam, was not completed until 1927. The Burton plant had a generating output of only 6,120 kilowatts, the second smallest capacity of the six plants. 

Nacoochee Hydroelectric Plant 

The Nacoochee dam and plant are located downstream between Burton Dam and Mathis Dam at the head of Lake Rabun. Completed in 1926, the dam, which is 75 feet high and 490 feet long, impounds 240-acre Lake Seed. The facility’s hydroelectric station includes two generating units for a total operating capacity of 4,800 kilowatts, making it the smallest of the six plants. 

Mathis Dam and Terrora Hydroelectric Plant 

Mathis Dam, 108 feet high and 660 feet long, is downstream from Nacoochee and impounds 834-acre Lake Rabun. Completed in 1915, the dam was initially built to create a storage reservoir for the Tallulah Falls plant. 

The Terrora hydroelectric plant was not built at the dam. It was located farther south at the head of Tallulah Lake (impounded by the Tallulah Falls Plant) to take advantage of the 190-foot drop in elevation between these two lakes. To best capture this drop, a mile-long tunnel was blasted through a mountain of solid rock to take water from Lake Rabun to the Terrora hydroelectric station. In late 1923, two crews starting blasting through the mountain from opposite sides. Nine months later in 1924, the two teams met. The tunnel was hailed at the time as the longest in the Southeast. 

At the south end of the tunnel, two steel penstocks or pipes, each nine feet in diameter and 900 feet long, pass the water to two 8,000-kilowatt generators. The Terrora plant entered service in 1925. 

Tallulah Falls Plant 

The Tallulah Falls plant is the oldest and largest of the six hydroelectric plants on the Tallulah and Tugalo Rivers. It was also the most controversial, sparking Georgia’s first environmental battle. 

Georgia Power Company purchased land at the rim of Tallulah Gorge and started building Tallulah Falls Dam in 1910. Due to the need for additional capital to finance this mammoth undertaking, the company was reorganized through a series of mergers into Georgia Railway and Power Company. 

In response to environmental damage caused by the dam’s construction, Helen Dortch Longstreet of Gainesville spearheaded a highly vocal movement to save Tallulah Gorge, heralded as the Niagara of the South. It was feared that the dam would reduce the flow of water through the gorge to a comparative trickle. Mrs. Longstreet and her colleagues ultimately were proven correct. 

A lawsuit was filed contesting Georgia Railway and Power’s claim to ownership of the gorge. If the Rabun County court had found in favor of the Dortch group, construction of the dam would have been halted. However, the jury ruled in favor of the company in 1912, and construction of the dam was completed in 1913. Impounding 63-acre Lake Tallulah, the dam is 126-feet high and 426-feet across the river. 

Completed in 1914, the powerhouse is located on the floor of Tallulah Gorge. Water from Lake Tallulah is directed to the hydro plant by a 6,666-foot-long tunnel and six massive penstocks. The powerhouse has five 12,000-kilowatt generators for a total capacity of 60,000 kilowatts. 

This made the Tallulah Falls plant the third largest hydroelectric facility in the nation at the time. 

Tugalo Hydroelectric Plant 

The Tugalo Plant is located about two miles downstream from the Tallulah Falls Plant, where the confluence of the Tallulah and Chattooga Rivers form the Tugalo River. This places the facility in parts of Rabun and Habersham counties. 

Construction of the Tugalo dam was begun in 1917, but due to the outbreak of World War I, work was halted and not resumed until 1922. Completed in 1923, the dam,155-feet high and 940-feet across the river, impounds 597-acre Lake Tugalo. By 1924, four generating units were operating in the powerhouse, giving the Tugalo plant a total capacity of 45,000 kilowatts. 

Yonah Hydroelectric Plant 

The Yonah Plant is located three miles downstream from the Tugalo Plant. The western half of Yonah dam is in Stephens County, the eastern half in Oconee County, South Carolina. 

Construction of the dam was begun in 1923 and completed in 1925. Impounding 325-acre Lake Yonah, the dam is 90-feet high and 980-feet long. The hydroelectric plant was placed in operation in 1925. Its original three generators, which have a total capacity of 22,500 kilowatts, are still in use today. 

As a result of the hydroelectric development along the continuous stretch of the Tallulah and Tugalo Rivers, Atlanta received the electric power it needed, and a series of large recreational lakes were created in Rabun and neighboring counties. In the process, a town was lost and roaring waterfalls were silenced. And Rabun County, itself, was not fully electrified until the 1950s.


This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in July 2020.

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.