Tallulah Falls Path Toward Becoming a Grand Resort: Little People, Hernando de Soto, Indian Traders and Hermits

Long before Tallulah Falls became a tourist mecca in the 1880s, Tallulah Gorge and its raging waterfalls was the domain of what Indians claimed was a race of ferocious “little people.” Hernando de Soto may have passed nearby in the 1540s. European traders were frequenting the area by the early 1700s, and a few hermits called the place home before the town exploded with tourists. Tallulah Gorge and its environs seemed to offer something for everyone.

Cherokees, who lived in a settlement near Tallulah Falls hundreds of years before the arrival of the first white settlers, avoided 1,000-foot-deep Tallulah Gorge as a foreboding place. Legend has it they believed the gorge was inhabited by the Yunwi Tsundi, a race of little people, who lived in the caves and crevices of the gorge’s cliffs. Cherokees wandering into the gorge ran the risk of being captured by these fierce people and spirited off to their hidden strongholds. No Cherokee taken by the little people was ever seen again. With prudence getting the better part of valor, Cherokees steered clear of the gorge. Other versions of this legend exist, but they all paint the Yunwi Tsundi as hostile and menacing to anyone from the outside world daring to enter their domain. Late nineteenth century tourists visiting the gorge seem to have been immune to the power of the Yunwi Tsundi.

Hernando de Soto Passed Nearby…Maybe

Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his army of 600 soldiers marched north from Florida through Georgia in the early 1540s on their quest for Indian gold. No evidence exists that de Soto saw Tallulah Gorge, but he may have traveled nearby on his way to a sizeable Indian village in northwestern South Carolina. However, it is known that European traders were visiting the area’s Cherokee villages by the early 1700s. A visitor to the gorge in 1821 claims to have seen the year 1718 carved into several trees in the area.

The first white settlers around Tallulah Gorge are believed to have been hermits. One of them was John Cole Vandevere, who lived in a log cabin near the upper end of the gorge in the early 1800s. Like Greta Garbo, he just wanted to be alone…and he was except for the Cherokees who permitted him to live on their land.

The first published description of Tallulah Gorge was written by David Hillhouse after visiting the falls in 1819. His account, which was published in Georgia and throughout the eastern United States, made the gorge and its falls known to the outside world. Hillhouse’s writing kick-started tourist interest in the gorge.

12 Hour Round Trip to Tallulah Gorge

Visitors made the arduous trek to the gorge by horse on Indian trails during the ensuing decades of the 1800s. The most popular route to the gorge was via Clarkesville, which already had developed as a summer resort. The round trip on horse from Clarkesville took about 12 hours. Visitors wanting to stay at the gorge camped in tents. Despite these hardships, hardy souls kept coming in growing numbers.

Entrepreneurial types soon took notice of a business opportunity. To capitalize upon the expanding flow of visitors to Tallulah Gorge, the Shirley Hotel opened in 1871. Then, in the mid-1870s, W.D. Young built Young’s Hotel, which was located on the edge of the gorge above Indian Arrow Rapids.

Railroad Extended to Tallulah Falls in 1882

The rails of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which became the Tallulah Falls Railroad in 1898, were extended to Tallulah Falls from Cornelia in 1882. Tourists now could travel in comfort on a Southern Railway train from Atlanta to Cornelia and then transfer to the Richmond and Danville for the journey to Tallulah Falls. A trip that once took days by horse was reduced to a matter of hours. Thanks to the railroad, tourism exploded in Tallulah Falls, ushering in an era of grand resorts. Within 20 years of the railroad’s arrival, Tallulah Falls was home to more than two dozen hotels and boardinghouses.

Rufus Lafayette Moss, Sr., a businessman from Athens and a founder of Tallulah Falls, built a large two-story home, Pine Terrace, in 1879 that still stands near the edge of the gorge. His was one of several “cottages” built by wealthy families from Athens, creating what was called the Athens colony. Moss was a driving force behind the extension of the Richmond and Danville line to Tallulah Falls. He knew what he was doing.

90 Room Cliff House Hotel

Moss built the first large hotel in Tallulah Falls in 1882, the Cliff House. Named after the Cliff House in San Francisco and situated on the brink of the gorge across the tracks from the train depot, Moss’s Cliff House was a 90-room hotel on a 40-acre tract. It accommodated 300 guests, and the hotel’s dining room seated 250. Based on photos from the time, the hotel was packed during the summer months. The Cliff House featured lawn tennis, bowling, billiards, table tennis and card playing. In addition, bands that spent the summer in exchange for free room and board played for tourists disembarking at the train station.

Young’s Hotel burned in the mid-1880s but was soon rebuilt due to its prime location. The Banner-Watchman newspaper in Athens wrote in 1885 that Young’s Hotel “has a fine band on hand, and there is dancing every night. It is a gay place, and a number of lovely ladies are now his guests.” The newspaper added, “There are Billiards and Cards, Horses and Carriages, Tenpins and Dancing, and Deer, Turkey, Squirrels and Quail for those sportively inclined…$3 per day, $10 per week, $30 to $40 per month…Servants $16 per month.”

Grand View Hotel

The Grand View Hotel, built in 1886, was another Young family venture. The Grand View was an ornate Victorian structure situated on a small rise above the railroad line. A park extended from the front of the hotel to the edge of the gorge’s south rim, providing guests with an expansive view of the gorge. The Grand View was known for its mineral spring that reportedly had great medicinal value. Mr. Young built a third hotel, the Willard House Inn, in the early 1890s about 100 yards behind the Grand View. His two hotels were connected by a long, covered walkway.

The Grand View was destroyed by fire in 1897. An article in the Tallulah Falls Spray newspaper gave the value of the hotel at $15,000 to $20,000 but insurance coverage was listed at only $8,000. Perhaps this is why Mr. Young never built or rebuilt another hotel.

Tallulah Lodge Hotel Built for $35,000 in 1899

The magnificent Tallulah Lodge was built in 1899 about one mile south of Tallulah Falls. Tallulah Lodge, which became a flag stop on the route of the Tallulah Falls Railroad, was an imposing white, colonial-style structure that catered to wealthy tourists.

The Atlanta Constitution reported construction of Tallulah Lodge would cost $35,000, at that time a princely sum provided by a syndicate of Atlanta investors. The newspaper wrote, “The hotel is to consist of three stories and will have 100 rooms…The entire building will be heated with steam, and be supplied with electric lights from its own (generating) plant…Each room will be provided with a fireplace and with a private bath, and the hotel will be fitted up with all the modern conveniences…It will be built a short distance from the grand chasm (Tallulah Gorge) and immediately on the line of the Tallulah Falls Railroad.” In addition to a two-story lobby featuring a massive fireplace, a special parlor for ladies was located at the eastern end of the lobby.

Great Fire of 1921

Although the hotel featured a fire protection system, Tallulah Lodge suffered the same fate as Young’s Hotel and the Grand View. It burned to the ground in 1916. Then in 1921 a fire broke out in a Tallulah Falls auto repair shop. High winds blew embers onto nearby buildings and soon the entire town was engulfed in a blazing inferno. Since Tallulah Falls had no fire department, virtually every hotel and boarding house was destroyed. None were rebuilt. One of the few to survive was the Cliff House, but it, too, went up in flames in 1937 from a kitchen fire.

The great fire of 1921 brought down the curtain on Tallulah Falls as a grand resort, and the town’s population dwindled dramatically. The Yunwi Tsundi now were able to enjoy a life free from unwelcome visitors.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally  published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in October 2023.

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.