The history of the Tallulah Falls Railroad is part and parcel of the schemes of southern railroad builders in the nineteenth century to link the port city of Charleston with midwestern markets at Cincinnati. In 1835, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, former U.S. vice president and staunch defender of slavery, was among the first to propose an east-west freight line. Under his plan, the Blue Ridge Railroad would run from Charleston, through South Carolina, north through Clayton and the Rabun Gap and make connections with other lines on its way to Cincinnati.
Construction of the Blue Ridge Railroad commenced in 1854. Determined to share in the prosperity that it believed the railroad would bestow, the city of Athens requested a charter from the State of Georgia in 1856 to establish the Northeastern Railroad to connect Athens with the Blue Ridge at the proposed depot in Clayton. However, work on the Northeastern did not start, which was fortuitous since the Civil War halted construction of the Blue Ridge.
Rails Extended from Athens to Tallulah Falls
In anticipation that the Blue Ridge would be revived after the war, work on the Northeastern commenced in 1871. The line reached Lula in 1876, where it connected with the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railway. The Richmond and Danville Railroad acquired the Air-Line in 1881, while also purchasing one thousand shares of Northeastern stock from Athens. As part of this transaction, the Richmond and Danville agreed to extend its tracks from Lula to Cornelia and then proceed to Clayton where it would connect with the still-unbuilt Blue Ridge Railroad. As agreed, the Richmond and Danville promptly laid tracks to Cornelia and entered Tallulah Falls in 1882.
But by that time, it was abundantly clear that the Blue Ridge never would be completed, which removed the reason for laying rails to Clayton. However, under its agreement with Athens, the Richmond and Danville nevertheless was obligated to do just that. The railroad delayed construction of the unnecessary route to Clayton but continued to operate the Cornelia-Tallulah Falls line, since traffic to Tallulah Gorge was booming with tourists flocking to the once-sleepy village from Athens and Atlanta by way of the connection at Cornelia. Within a few years, Tallulah Falls became one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Southeast.
Tallulah Falls Railroad Formed in 1898
Experiencing financial difficulties on other segments of its route system, the Richmond and Danville sold its Cornelia-Tallulah Falls line to the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad (BR&A) in 1887. The BR&A defaulted on its bonds in 1892, entered receivership and was reorganized as the Tallulah Falls Railroad, or TF, in March 1898.
The TF extended its line from Tallulah Falls to Clayton in 1904 as part of a new plan to revive the dream of the Blue Ridge Railroad. A year after reaching Clayton, the railroad was acquired by Southern Railways, which had a depot at the TF’s southern terminus at Cornelia on its route from Atlanta. Under Southern ownership but continuing to operate independently, the TF laid tracks north from Clayton through the Rabun Gap until it reached Franklin, North Carolina in 1907. However, as with the Blue Ridge, nothing came of this latest attempt to build an east-west freight line from Charleston to Cincinnati, leaving the TF orphaned as a 58-mile short line running from Cornelia to Franklin. As a purely local railroad serving a three-county market and lacking a seamless access to a freight line, the TF never was able to generate sufficient revenue, a condition that plagued the line throughout its history.
Daily Passenger and Freight Service
By 1908, the TF was scheduling daily passenger service, except for Sundays, between Cornelia and Franklin. The 58-mile run took approximately three hours. By horse and buggy, that trip required one full day or longer, depending on conditions of the area’s notoriously bad roads. The TF also scheduled one daily freight train, except Sundays, that took about four hours each way.
Construction of the TF provided badly needed jobs for poor mountain people, who scratched out meager livings as subsistence farmers. Workers were paid 10 cents an hour for 10-hour days, six days a week. Despite the low pay and long hours of backbreaking labor, people flocked to the railroad for work. For many, it would be their first paying jobs.
Opening Northeast Georgia to Outside World
The TF also was the catalyst for the economic development of northeast Georgia. The railroad carried thousands of tourists to the region, first to Tallulah Falls and then to the towering mountains of northern Rabun County and western North Carolina. Hotels and boardinghouses sprang up along the route from Tallulah Falls. In addition, the TF made industrial-scale logging possible by enabling lumber companies to ship their products to northern markets. The TF also hauled the materials and equipment for building six hydroelectric dams on the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers between 1910 and 1926. The recreational lakes impounded by these hydroelectric dams—Burton, Rabun, Seed, Tallulah, Tugalo and Yonah—are direct legacies of the TF. And starting in 1909 under a contract with the U.S. Postal Office, nearly every TF passenger train pulled a mail car. In all these ways, the TF launched the process of opening this remote and isolated corner of Georgia to the outside world.
The TF operated Baldwin steam locomotives. Several wood-burning engines were already antiquated when placed in operation. In a 1959 interview, T.L. Brewer, the TF’s receiver and general manager, 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.” The railroad eventually purchased more efficient coal burning engines, and by 1917, the TF was operating five locomotives, 10 passenger cars, 46 freight cars and six service cars.
Massive Wooden Trestles
Massive wooden trestles that were engineering marvels became the most distinctive feature of the TF. The railroad chose to build wooden trestles over rivers, streams and ravines, since they were cheaper to construct than earthen fills and steel bridges. The line originally crossed 58 trestles, an astonishing one for every mile of roadbed. Over time, this number dropped to 42, the remaining ones having been replaced with fill. The longest trestle was 940 feet, or longer than three football fields, that ran over the rooftops of Tallulah Falls. The trestle over Panther Creek, south of Tallulah Falls, was the highest at 100 feet. Adding to the railroad’s colorful legacy were two spectacular accidents, caused when trestles collapsed in 1898 and 1927 that plunged locomotives and passenger cars into deep ravines.
Lacking the strength and durability of steel bridges and earthen fills, the wooden trestles required expensive ongoing maintenance that pressured the TF’s financial condition throughout its history.
Due to these high maintenance costs and inadequate freight revenue, the TF entered receivership in 1908 but emerged in 1909. The railroad again went bankrupt in 1923 and remained in receivership for the rest of its existence.
Freight Business Cannibalized by Trucks
The TF deepened its financial problems in the 1920s by hauling hundreds of carloads of paving materials and equipment needed for improving roads in Habersham, Rabun and Macon (N.C.) counties. As a result, trucks began making inroads into the TF’s freight operations. For example, apple traffic dropped from 1,322 carloads in 1928 to only 121 cars in 1932. Substantially all of the apple traffic was lost to trucks. Similarly, rail shipments of minerals such as mica had dropped steeply by 1932. The onset of the Great Depression knocked the remaining props under the TF. Freight revenues declined sharply, and the railroad’s passenger count fell from 16,391 in 1928 to 3,467 in 1932.
In the face of these dismal operating statistics, the TF’s receiver petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in early 1933 for permission to abandon the line. In November, the ICC granted permission for the abandonment. However, the federal receivership court did not act on the ICC’s recommendation, possibly persuaded by the outcry of public support for the TF in its three-county market. The court also may have felt that the slight upturn in the U.S. economy in 1934 might give the TF a chance to survive. The railroad was permitted to struggle on.
Persistent Operating Deficits
There was some reason for optimism. The railroad’s operating deficit of more than $50,000 in 1932 had dropped to only $563 in 1934. Over the balance of the decade, the TF’s operating deficits fluctuated from a high of nearly $9,800 in 1937 to only $143 in 1939. During the war years, the TF’s operating performance continued to post steep swings. The railroad posted its first surplus in many years in 1942 but operating deficits returned after that.
Passenger service was terminated abruptly in 1946 when the TF’s last remaining coach was damaged in an accident, and the railroad could not afford the needed repairs. The TF sold its steam locomotives in 1948 to purchase two diesel engines that reduced the line’s expenses from over $90 per operating day to under $20, thus helping prolong the railroad’s life. Further financial relief was realized when Hollywood discovered the TF. Paramount Studio paid the railroad as the backdrop for filming “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” in 1950. Walt Disney also chose Rabun County as the location for his 1956 movie “The Great Locomotive Chase.” He paid the TF $10,000 for six weeks of filming on the railroad’s tracks around Clayton and Tallulah Falls.
Debt of Five Million Dollars
Despite dieselization and Hollywood’s cash infusions, the TF’s financial condition continued to deteriorate rapidly. The railroad posted operating deficits of $60,490 in 1958 and $94,700 in 1959, fueled by the cannibalization of its freight business by trucks, the loss of its government mail contract and persistently high maintenance expenses. Given the mounting losses and a staggering debt of five million dollars, Southern Railways, the TF’s parent company, decided to pull the plug on the railroad in 1960. Southern was granted a court injunction against the TF’s receiver, enjoining him from further eroding the line’s financial condition by performing any maintenance other than what was absolutely necessary. Fearing the railroad would be unsafe to operate, the TF’s receiver filed for permission with the ICC to abandon the line. The ICC granted this request in November 1960, and the TF’s final run was made on March 25, 1961. Locomotive engineers tossed packs of chewing gum to kids waiting along the tracks for the last time.
Most of the TF’s property, including rails, depots and trestle wood, was sold as scrap that May. The remaining property was sold for $266,000 to the Rabun Industrial Development Company that was formed by a group of local businessmen to preserve rail service in the area. However, nothing came of this initiative. The TF was finished after 63 years of operation.
Today, little remains of the TF. Depots in Cornelia, Demorest and Tallulah Falls are standing, as are the concrete bridge piers that stand like silent sentinels in Lake Tallulah. And in some places, the raised roadbeds on which the TF ran are still visible Other than that, the railroad that helped open northeast Georgia to the outside world and served as an economic catalyst is merely a distant and fond memory.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in June 2023.