The roar of the river cascading over Tallulah Gorge’s six waterfalls could be heard from over a mile away.
And onlookers were shrouded in mist rising from the turbulent waters.
That was before 1913. That was the year when Georgia Railway and Power, the predecessor of today’s Georgia Power, completed its hydroelectric dam at Tallulah Gorge.
The dam was conquered the gorge and silenced the raging falls.
But it did not happen without a fight.
Georgia’s first environmental battle was fought in Rabun County in 1911-1912 between an electric utility needing power for its streetcars in Atlanta and environmentalists led by the widow of a Civil War general, Helen Dortch Longstreet.
Niagara of the South
The Tallulah River has carved a spectacular gorge in southern Rabun County, extending two miles at a depth of nearly 1,000 feet. Dropping 650 feet in the gorge’s first half mile, the river plunges over six waterfalls, the highest, named Hurricane, at nearly 100 feet.
The gorge aptly was called the Niagara of the South.
The coming of the Tallulah Falls Railroad in 1882 transformed the sleepy village of Tallulah Falls into a major tourist destination. Over time the town boasted 27 hotels catering to tourists from all over the nation.
Early Attempt to Protect Gorge
The Chattahoochee River just north of Atlanta was dammed in 1904 to generate electricity for the city. At the same time, developers were eyeing Niagara Falls for a hydroelectric plant. It was widely assumed the Niagara of the South would suffer the same fate.
To protect the gorge, a movement was begun to make it into a state park. A committee of the Georgia legislature estimated that a tract of one thousand acres would be needed to establish a park at an average price of $1,000 per acre.
Further study was recommended to justify spending $1,000,000, but, as with many government studies, nothing was done.
Damming Tallulah River
The same cannot be said of Georgia Electric Light Company, whose top executives visited Tallulah Falls in 1909. Peering into the gorge, they saw the answer to Atlanta’s growing need for electricity.
The company purchased a tract of land on the rim of the gorge for $108,960. Construction on the dam began 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.
Helen Dortch Longstreet
In response to environmental damage caused by the dam’s construction, the Tallulah Falls Conservation Association was formed in 1910. However, the association did nothing to slow or stop construction until Helen Dortch Longstreet took command of the organization in 1911.
Born in Gainesville in 1863, Longstreet attended Georgia Baptist Female Seminary, now Brenau University. She later was appointed Assistant State Librarian in 1894, making her the first woman to hold a state government office. She also became Gainesville’s postmistress.
She married Confederate General James Longstreet, second in command to Robert E. Lee, in 1897. She was 34; he was 76. After he died six years later, she launched a crusade to restore the reputation of the general, who had been scapegoated for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg.
Longstreet also turned her attention to public affairs. Protecting the environment became a passion. So she took on Georgia Railway and Power.
Fighting to Save Tallulah Gorge
Longstreet committed her last penny to saving the falls. To raise funds for advertising and legal representation, she pledged her $2,600 annual salary as postmistress of Gainesville. She also took out a bank loan of $5,000, pledging her jewelry and wedding ring as collateral.
She felt that losing the falls would mean the disappearance of another piece of the antebellum South. This was unthinkable.
She proclaimed that the people of Georgia “were wrought up over the destruction of Tallulah as they have been stirred over no civil question since the Civil War.”
Like a biblical prophet, she intoned, “The day of judgment is ahead…The Judas Iscariots are not all underground. Some of the men who would betray their lord for a handful of silver are doing business in Georgia today.”
And she lambasted the utility company as “commercial pirates and buccaneers” plundering “the most wonderful natural asset of the Western Hemisphere.”
Longstreet made a bold legal attack in 1911. She claimed the utility company did not own the gorge but only the land it purchased on the gorge’s rim. According to this argument, Georgia Railway and Power had no legal right to alter the flow of the river through the gorge.
Governor Hoke Smith ordered a survey to determine ownership of the gorge. It was found that 300 acres inside the gorge were never included in the state’s original 1820 survey of Rabun County. However, since no conclusion was drawn about the gorge’s ownership, the governor declined to litigate the matter.
Longstreet refused to surrender.
Mounting a heavy public relations campaign, she succeeded in having the Georgia legislature pass a resolution ordering the new governor, Joseph M. Brown, to bring suit against the power company to determine the property rights to the gorge.
In 1912 the case went to trial in Rabun County. The jury found in favor of the power company. Longstreet’s lawyers appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court ruling.
The last hurrah was sounded for Longstreet’s movement to save Tallulah Gorge.
Dam Completed in 1913
The dam was completed in 1913, creating a 63-acre lake. An engineering marvel, it was 116 feet high and 400 feet long across its top. From the dam, a 6,666-foot tunnel was blasted through solid rock that carried water from the lake down to the bottom of the gorge to drive the turbines in the powerhouse.
In September 1913, 18,000 horsepower of electricity was transmitted from the hydro plant to Atlanta. This made the Tallulah Falls plant the third largest hydroelectric station in the nation.
Five more dams and power plants eventually were built along the Tallulah and Tugalo Rivers. These projects literally transformed Rabun County’s landscape with the creation of Lakes Burton, Rabun and Seed.
Tallulah Gorge Silenced
Water still flowed through Tallulah Gorge, but, as Longstreet feared, it was only a trickle in comparison to times gone by. The taming of the falls caused tourism to dwindle, and the town of Tallulah Falls went into a steady decline.
The Atlanta Constitution shrugged, “To be sure, the majestic gorge of the Tallulah Falls is not possessed of that glory of old days before modern progress…but it (the dam) is a wonderful and impressive sight.”
Longstreet Bankrupted by Crusade
The battle to save the gorge bankrupted Longstreet. Her home was auctioned off to satisfy her debts. She forfeited the collateral of her jewels and wedding ring on her bank loan. Longstreet also lost her position as postmistress of Gainesville, allegedly as payback from politicians she had angered during her crusade.
To recover from these blows, she retreated to Atlantic City, N.J., admitting later she had suffered a nervous breakdown. However, Longstreet did not stay down for long.
Activist and Riveter
She became an activist for women’s suffrage, civil rights for African-Americans and the establishment of the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville.
During World War II at the age of 80, Longstreet went to work as a riveter at the Bell Bomber Plant in Marietta to support the war effort. When her age became known, Longstreet was asked to quit. She refused, stating she had the eyesight and perfect health of a 20-year-old. She continued at her job for the duration.
Longstreet ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for governor against Herman Talmadge in 1950. She died at 99 in 1962.
Georgia Power leased three thousand acres to the State of Georgia in 1992 to create Tallulah Gorge State Park. Longstreet’s legacy of environmental preservation was rewarded in 1999 with the naming of the Helen Dortch Longstreet Trail System in the park.
Longstreet probably would have been pleased at this turn of events. However, she undoubtedly would have continued railing about “the ruin that it will take nature 1,000 years to repair.”
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Clayton Tribune on February 27, 2020.