It was a grand vision of economic development cut short by the Civil War. That is the story of the Blue Ridge Railroad.
No freight cars ever ran through its roadbed and long tunnels, the remnants of which are still visible in Rabun County and South Carolina. The Blue Ridge was never completed, making Rabun County wait another half century before a railroad opened it to the rest of the world.
Promoted by South Carolina Firebrand
The Blue Ridge was promoted by former U.S. Vice President and South Carolina firebrand John C. Calhoun in the 1830s. He wanted a railroad to connect Charleston with the Tennessee River at Knoxville and then run to the Ohio River at Cincinnati. This route over the Appalachians to the Ohio Valley would funnel lucrative western trade to Charleston’s docks and warehouses.
Rail lines already connected Charleston with Anderson, S.C. and Knoxville with Cincinnati. What was missing was a 195-mile link between Anderson and Knoxville. Completing that link would create the Blue Ridge Railroad.
Battling Over Planned Route
Wrangling over the route of this link delayed the start of construction for over a decade.
Calhoun wanted the route to pass through a mountain gap in Rabun County called Rabun Gap. Welcoming this plan were Rabunites Henry T. Mozeley and James Bleckley. Mozeley was one of the incorporators in the Blue Ridge Railroad’s Georgia Charter of 1838. Bleckley was a director of the group.
Calhoun’s fellow South Carolina Senator, Robert Y. Hayne, who was president of the corporation in charge of the state’s share of the railroad, wanted the Blue Ridge to pass through Asheville along the French Broad River and then proceed to Knoxville.
Rabun County Route Selected
Calhoun eventually won the battle to run the Blue Ridge through Rabun County, it being a more direct and less expensive route.
Nearly $5 million was raised, primarily from South Carolina investors, to finance construction of the route from Anderson to Rabun Gap. Work began in 1854, four years after Calhoun’s death. It was scheduled for completion in 1859.
Clayton Railroad Station
The planned route from Anderson passed through three tunnels in South Carolina before crossing the Chattooga River near Sandy Ford. The tracks would continue through two more tunnels in Rabun County: the Dick’s Creek Tunnel near present day Warwoman and Saddle Gap roads and Warwoman Tunnel near Warwoman Dell.
A railroad station was planned for Clayton. The tracks would then head north through Rabun Gap, where it would follow the Little Tennessee River into the western North Carolina before arriving in Knoxville.
Tunnels and Stone Culverts
The Blue Ridge was built on the premise that the added expense of a first-class roadbed would be offset by lower track maintenance and train operating costs. Instead of using flimsy, high-maintenance wooden trestles, creeks and chasms would be crossed by using enormous stone masonry culverts covered with massive earthen fills. Rather than curving around mountains, the Blue Ridge would tunnel straight through them. In Rabun County, there were to be only two bridges. All other streams were to flow through the stone culverts. More than 2,000 laborers, including many Irish immigrants, took part in this monumental undertaking.
The Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel northwest of Walhalla, S.C., was planned to be 5,863-feet long, making it the longest tunnel in the world at that time. Workers manually chiseling and blasting with black powder (dynamite was not yet invented) from opposite ends of the tunnel came within 12 feet of meeting when work was halted in 1859 due to the onset of the Civil War.
Dick’s Creek and Warwoman Tunnels
The Dick’s Creek Tunnel through Wall Mountain in Rabun County was to be 2,421 feet long. Roughly 60% of the tunnel was completed by 1858 when its contractor went bankrupt. The entrance to the east end of the tunnel is in the Chattahoochee National Forest. The west end is not accessible to the public.
Only 545 feet of the Warwoman Tunnel’s 1,954-foot total length was completed by 1859 when work on it was halted. Legend has it that a cave-in killed 40 Irish immigrant workers who remain buried in the tunnel. No physical evidence remains of this tunnel.
In addition to the two tunnels, 23 stone culverts and one bridge abutment have been found in Rabun County. The fact that these structures are standing after nearly 170 years is testimony to the quality of their construction. Stones were meticulously cut and fit so tightly that no mortar was required.
Civil War Halts Construction
The growing threat of the Civil War brought all work on the Blue Ridge Railroad to a halt in 1859.
By that time, approximately 80% of the roadbed, culverts and tunnels had been completed. Since the contractors believed work would resume after the war, construction tools were stored for safekeeping in the unfinished tunnels.
A number of plans were hatched after the war to resurrect the Blue Ridge. Most notably, in the 1890s, Albert E. Boone, a railroad promoter, advocated building the Black Diamond Railroad from the Ohio Valley through Rabun Gap to the Atlantic Coast. His line would incorporate portions of the Blue Ridge roadbed. Nothing came of Boone’s plan or any of the other schemes to finish the Blue Ridge.
Tallulah Falls Railroad
The rail line that did come to Rabun County was the Tallulah Falls Railroad. Starting in Cornelia, Ga., the TF came to Tallulah Falls in 1882 and was later extended through the county in the early 1900s before reaching its terminus in Franklin, N.C. The TF was built on portions of the defunct Blue Ridge Railroad’s right-of-way through Rabun County.
If the Blue Ridge Railroad had been completed, Rabun County would have been transformed dramatically long before the Tallulah Falls Railroad came to town. Instead, the county had to wait another 50 years for the benefits of a railroad. Ironically, this half-century wait resulted from the secessionist and pro-slavery stances advocated by the Blue Ridge’s greatest promoter, John C. Calhoun.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in August 2020.