By 1959, the Tallulah Falls Railroad was nearing the end of its run that began in 1887. Passenger service had long since been discontinued. Freight traffic was anemic. Debt in the millions of dollars was piling up. While the TF was still running, a writer for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine took what he called “a sentimental journey on a freight train” in the summer of 1959. For the article, he interviewed several TF employees he met on his trip from Cornelia, Georgia to Franklin, North Carolina. This article is based on some of the employees’ memories and accounts of their work.
T.L. Brewer was the TF’s general manager and receiver. The railroad had been in bankruptcy since 1923, and Brewer was the railroad’s receiver for much of that time. He said he went to work for the TF in the auditor’s office at the age of 18 “for nothing a month to learn the business. I’ve done every job on the road except run the engines. But I’ve run as brakeman and conductor. I’ve walked the trestles—every deck in all 42 of them—inspecting the timbers. I think we’ve still got a pretty good track. The trestles don’t shake, and I’m not afraid to ride over any of them.”
Little Teapots of 35-40 Tons
Brewer recalled, “When I went to work for the TF, it was running wood burning engines, little teapots of 35 or 40 tons, with stacks almost as big as the engines. I never saw an engine blow up, but I was on one once when I thought it might happen. The engine had trash in the (steam) injector and we couldn’t get it (the water) to boil.”
Brewer said the last time a trestle “fell” was in 1927 when the middle section of the Hazel Creek trestle in Demorest, Georgia collapsed, plunging the steam engine and two passenger coaches into the ravine. He recalled, “It took us two weeks to get the train running through again. Luckily, we happened to have a coach and an engine on the other side so we could still operate by transferring passengers from one train to the other at the trestle.”
Engine Flipped Into the Water
However, there were other mishaps both before and after 1927. H.B. Walker, a TF conductor, remembered, “…we got the cab (engine) off the track once and threw it in the river with me in it. It was the Cartoogechaye Creek near Franklin. The car next to (behind) the cab derailed on a trestle 25 or 30 feet high and flipped the cab into the water like the end of a whip. It turned over completely and tore it up. I jumped before it got in the river.”
Walker also recounted the time he got left behind by his train. “It was going slow up a pretty steep hill in the rain, and I was walking beside it. I had on two pairs of pants, one them corduroy, and they were soaked through. When I tried to climb on the train, I could not get my leg high enough to step up, and the train went without me. After I got left, I walked over to the highway, thumbed a ride and caught up with the train.”
Cement, Gas and Kettles
Before leaving the Cornelia depot, Dispatcher R.F. Davis reviewed the freight the train would be hauling that day. “There’s a car of feed for C.M Walker three miles up the track; two cars of stone for paving at Demorest, the first town on the line; a car of cement for Tallulah Falls where they’re rebuilding the highway; gasoline for Clarkesville and Clayton; and two carloads of kettles for Rabun Gap. They are vats a rug factory will use to heat rubber in. There’s a merchandise car making stops all along the way at Clarkesville, Clayton, Dillard and Franklin. We’ve got a good train today, 10 cars loaded…We run five days a week and six if there’s an emergency.” He said they could run two trains a day “if we have enough business, which we haven’t had in a long time.”
Engineer Goldman Kimbrell said there was only one thing that made him scared. It was when a car was approaching a track crossing. “You don’t know what he’s going to do. You stop if you can but it takes just so long to stop and there’s nothing you can do about it. But I never hit anybody except to bump a fender or something.” Along the run to Franklin, Kimbrell and his fireman threw chewing gum to waiting children, some said to be regular customers. They would go through three or four packs a day.
Comforts of Home in Caboose
The freight train’s caboose was said to have the comforts of home. These comforts included an oil lamp attached to the wall; two leather couches long enough for napping; a pot-bellied coal stove with a rim around its top to prevent a coffee pot from falling off; and a wash basin and metal box for ice. The leather-covered seats in the caboose’s cupola gave the brakeman a commanding view of the freight cars and engine as well as the mountains.
The TF’s passenger service was discontinued in 1946, but even if the railroad still carried passengers, Brewer stated, “There’s no chance on earth of ever doing any summer tourist business on our line. I can recall when Clayton and Mountain City and Franklin were just covered with people in the summer. Back in the heyday of the summer tourist business, the train was the only way to get to the mountains. We’d have Sunday excursions out of Atlanta when hundreds of people would come to spend the day. Now, they can get here in two hours in their cars.”
Brewer also lamented the TF’s financial condition. “Our revenue keeps dropping down on us and with the present amount of traffic, we lack a good deal of being able to pay our bills…Maybe the trucks have taken over, and besides that, we’ve had big decreases in shipping forest products, mostly pulpwood, and minerals like mica. Uncle Sam took the mail away from us in 1954, and then we had to get rid of our express service because it was too expensive.
The TF made its final run on March 25, 1961. The engineer and fireman threw gum to waiting kids one last time.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in September 2021.