Rabun County: The First 200 Years

Rabun County turns 200 years old on December 21, 2019. 

From its beginnings as a remote and sparsely populated frontier in 1819, the county has developed into a growing magnet for mountain tourists…with a thriving downtown in its county seat…and elegant homes dotting the shores of pristine lakes. 

To find out how this transformation happened, let’s take a brief tour of 200 years of Rabun County history. 

Before There Was Rabun County, There Were the Cherokee Mountains 

Archeological evidence indicates that the Cherokee and their ancestors lived throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains for at least 1,000 years before white settlers arrived. To the early explorers and settlers, the Appalachians in northeastern Georgia were known as the Cherokee Mountains. 

The Cherokee were divided into three groupings, depending on their location and dialect: Lower, Middle, and Over-the-Hill. Rabun County was home to at least four Cherokee settlements. A Middle settlement was located on Stekoa Creek, southeast of Clayton. An Over-the-Hill settlement called Tallulah was situated on the upper portion of the Tallulah River to the west. Two other Cherokee settlements are of unknown grouping: Chicherohe (Chechero), located along Warwoman Creek east of Clayton and destroyed during the Revolutionary War, and Eastertoy (Estatowee) several miles to the north near Dillard. 

Located at present-day Clayton was the confluence of five major Cherokee trails known as The Dividings. This intersection linked the Cherokee in and around Rabun County to such points south as Charleston, Augusta and Savannah and areas to the north in western North Carolina and Virginia. 

We travel every day on these old Cherokee trails that led out of The Dividings: Highway 441/23, Highway 76 and Warwoman Road. 

Rabun County: Carved Out of Cherokee Land 

During the first decades of the 1800s, the Cherokee came under intense pressure to surrender their ancestral homelands and make way for the steady influx of white settlers. The land that became Rabun County was ceded (a polite term for a forced transaction) by the Cherokee to the state of Georgia in 1819. 

Rabun County was created by an act of the Georgia General Assembly on December 21, 1819. The new county was named after William Rabun, the eleventh governor of Georgia. Claytonsville, named after a prominent jurist and congressman, Judge Augustin S. Clayton, was founded 1821 as the county seat. The town was incorporated in 1823 and renamed Clayton. 

Under state law, the boundaries of every new county had to be surveyed and the land divided into numbered lots on a map. The lot numbers were written on slips of paper that were delivered to the office of the Secretary of State in then-capital Milledgeville. Finally, white settlers would draw the numbered slips in an advertised lottery. 

Rabun County’s initial landowners were the winners of The Georgia Land Lottery of 1820. The land they were awarded sold for about $1.00 per acre during the following decade. 

So Rabun County was formed and organized, but the dealings of the government with the Cherokee were not finished. 

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the federal government the power to exchange Native-held land east of the Mississippi for land to the west in the Indian Territory, now present-day Oklahoma. By 1838, only about 2,000 Cherokee had left their Georgia homeland for Indian Territory. President Martin Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott and 7,000 soldiers to expedite the removal process. They marched the Indians more than 1,200 miles to Indian Territory. Whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation were epidemic along the way, and historians estimate that more than 5,000 Cherokee died on the infamous Trail of Tears. 

The Cherokee of Georgia were no more. 

The Civil War: A Pro-Union County Fights for the Confederacy 

Like most mountain counties, Rabun’s topography prevented the formation of large farms, eliminating the need for any significant amount of slave labor. According to county records, only 248 slaves were owned by 60 Rabun families in 1861. Given these factors, sentiment in Rabun County, along with most other mountain counties in Georgia and North Carolina, was generally pro-Union during the lead-up to the Civil War. 

“Colonel” Sam Beck, the holder of 19 slaves, was elected to represent Rabun County at the secession convention in Milledgeville in 1861. Ironically, this slaveholder initially voted against seceding from the Union, consistent with the county’s pro-Union feelings. But he and his fellow representative Horace Cannon succumbed to pressure from firebrands and eventually voted for secession. 

Despite pro-Union sympathy, 300 Rabun County men served in the Confederate army. The Civil War did not touch Rabun County in terms of battles and bloodshed. However, about two-thirds of the Rabun County men who served in the army were married, leaving their wives and children in near-destitute conditions. Food and other basic necessities were scarce if not impossible to find. 

Nearly one-third of the Rabun men who were conscripted or volunteered at the start of the war were either killed in action or died of disease, the greatest killer on both sides of the conflict. Many others were wounded and permanently disabled. There are 173 marked Confederate gravesites in Rabun County, including those of two black soldiers. Three Union soldiers, who most likely deserted, also are buried here. 

Tallulah Falls Railroad Opens Rabun County to the Outside World 

Following the end of the war, Rabun County remained isolated, sparsely populated and poor. Most people made a living through subsistence farming, with more than a few supplementing their meager incomes with moonshining. Gold also had been discovered along what is now the western shore of Lake Burton, but small-scale gold mining was more a dream of riches than a profitable undertaking. Roads, if they existed at all, were treacherous and often impassable. 

Things changed dramatically with the coming of the railroad. 

The Tallulah Falls Railroad was a 58-mile short line that started in Cornelia, Georgia and eventually ran north to Franklin, North Carolina. The railroad arrived in Tallulah Falls in 1882, making the falls a major tourist destination. The line was extended to Clayton in 1904. 

With Rabun County opened to the outside world for the first time, the railroad resulted in a boom in tourism. Rail transportation also made large-scale lumbering possible. The economy of Clayton and the entire county was on the upswing. 

The railroad’s nickname was the Rabun Gap Route, although wags dubbed it the “Total Failure” due to its chronic financial woes and a number of spectacular accidents. The railroad’s equipment included five locomotives, 10 passenger cars, 46 freight cars and six service cars. A trip from Cornelia to Franklin crossed 42 wooden-truss trestles. 

The Tallulah Falls Railroad gained popularity as a movie location in the 1950s, appearing in the opening scene of the 1951 drama “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain.” In 1955, Walt Disney selected the railway as the location of principal photography for “The Great Locomotive Chase.” 

The railroad eventually fell victim to the automobile and the use of trucks for hauling freight. Passenger service ended in 1946, and the last freight train ran in 1961. 

Dams and Hydroelectricity Literally Reshape Rabun County 

Another important chapter of Rabun County’s history started in the early twentieth century courtesy of the need for electricity to power Atlanta streetcars operated by Georgia Railway and Power Company, the predecessor of Georgia Power. To meet this need, Georgia Railway obtained the land rights around Tallulah Gorge to build a dam and hydroelectric generating station on the Tallulah River. 

Conservationists led by Helen Dortch Longstreet fought the proposed damming of the river since it would forever ruin the spectacular falls in the gorge, then known as the Niagara of the South. After a protracted court fight won by Georgia Railway, the company completed the Tallulah Falls dam and hydroelectric plant at the head of Tallulah Gorge in 1914. 

The Tallulah Gorge project was followed by five additional facilities constructed along a 28-mile stretch of the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers. Of the remaining projects, the most important was the damming of the Tallulah River in northern Rabun County, which formed Lake Burton. 

To make this possible, something had to go. And that was the century-old town of Burton. 

J.E. Harvey of Tallulah Falls was hired by Georgia Railway and Power in 1917 to acquire the entire town of Burton and much of the surrounding land in the Tallulah valley. Sixty-five property owners eventually sold thousands of acres to the company. Some of the displaced families moved to higher ground in the river valley, while others migrated to Tiger and Habersham County. 

Construction of the 128-foot-high Burton Dam was completed in December 1919, and the reservoir was completely filled by the following August. In anticipation of the coming floodwaters, Burton’s houses and buildings had been torn down or moved and cemeteries were relocated to higher ground. 

Burton lies submerged under the 2,775-acre lake that took its name. 

None of the electricity generated by these hydroelectric plants benefitted Rabun County and other north Georgia locales. Every kilowatt was transmitted to Atlanta. The streetcars ran in Atlanta but county residents continued to rely on kerosene and candles. 

The Lumber Industry and the Government 

During the early years of the twentieth century, large timber companies clear-cut huge swaths of Rabun County’s forests. One of these companies cut yellow poplar exclusively for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Other large timber companies with Rabun operations included Gennett, Blue Ridge Lumber and Morse Brothers. 

In 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Law, authorizing the federal government to make large-scale purchases of timbered land around the nation. Two federal agents were dispatched to Rabun County the following year to begin purchasing land for what would become national forests in the watersheds of the Tallulah and Chattooga rivers. A federal judge was seated for several years in Clayton to examine land titles and purchase transactions, and Roscoe Nicholson became the county’s first forest ranger, a job he would hold for 40 years. 

The federal government owns 148,000 acres or nearly 60 percent of Rabun County’s land area. The U.S. Forest Service manages the Ellicott Rock Wilderness area and the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River that 

forms the Georgia/South Carolina border. State-run wildlife management areas on USFS tracts allow for hunting of deer, turkey, wild boar, bear and small game. The USFS currently is planning to sell certain tracts of its county holdings to the public. 

The Great Depression 

The Great Depression was particularly hard on poverty-stricken Appalachia, and Rabun County did not escape the effects of this severe decade-long downturn. 

Under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, Rabun County was the recipient of several federally-funded programs that provided badly needed relief. 

The Civilian Conservation Corps put 1,000 men from Rabun County and surrounding areas to work at a pay rate of $1 a day. These men worked out of four CCC camps in the county: Warwoman east of Clayton; Gaston or Tree, located on the Tallulah River in northernmost Rabun; Lake Rabun; and Moccasin Creek on the west side of Lake Burton. 

Corps members built Warwoman Road from Clayton to Pine Mountain, Plum Orchard Road, Patterson Gap Road, Wolf Creek Road, Pool Creek Road, and Bridge Creek Road to Burton Dam. They hacked out new trails or improved old ones in national forest areas, strung telephone wires in remote areas, constructed a fire tower, carved the road and trail to the summit of Rabun Bald, and created the Warwoman Dell recreation area. 

Funding from the Works Progress Administration helped build a gymnasium (now the Rabun County Civic Center) and a new school in Tiger. The WPA also built a home economics facility, a nine-hole golf course and public swimming pool near Clayton, canneries and a meeting place and small park called The Rock House in the center of downtown Clayton 

Perhaps most important of all, the Rural Electrification Administration started bringing electricity on a widespread basis to the homes and farms of Rabun County. 

The March to the Present…and Future 

Prior to the 1950s, there was no manufacturing employment in Rabun County. This changed in the mid-50s with the establishment of the Clayburne Manufacturing shirt factory, followed by James Lees and Sons, which built a 700-employee carpet manufacturing plant in Rabun Gap. 

Tourism has become the primary growth engine of Rabun County. Visitors from around the country have fueled the development of a vibrant downtown in Clayton. Boutique shops and restaurants of all types cater to city dwellers seeking a respite in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

The stately summer homes on the county’s lakes have significantly strengthened the county’s tax base, allowing for an excellent public school system and range of public facilities. In addition, Rabun County has become a destination for retirees seeking a different life style in the mountains. 

The local economy also is benefiting from Rabun County’s draw as a movie-making location. The county was “discovered” by the movie industry with the 1970 filming of Deliverance. Since then, movies including Grizzly, Decoration Day, The Apple Dumpling Gang, The Long Riders, Trouble With the Curve, The Hunt for the Unabomber, Killing Season and Jennifer Aniston’s Wanderlust have filmed scenes here. Most recently, scenes for Hillbilly Elegy directed by Ron Howard were filmed in Clayton this past summer. 

It is safe to say that a foundation for Rabun County’s future growth and prosperity has been firmly established. It is also a good bet that future years will be as exciting and eventful as the past 200.


This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Clayton Tribune on December 26, 2019.

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.