The railroad lost money practically every year from its inception in 1897. Collapsing wooden trestles plunged trains into deep ravines. Its wood-burning steam engines were antiquated.
Many locals dubbed the Tallulah Falls Railroad the “Total Failure.” But the importance of the TFRR is inestimable.
Northeast Georgia had few passable roads by the late 1800s. The area, poor by virtually any standard, was isolated even from neighboring North and South Carolina.
The TFRR opened this region to the world. For 64 years, the people and economy of Rabun, Habersham and Macon (N.C.) counties relied upon the railroad for daily passenger, mail and freight service. The TFRR was a game-changer.
Intended as a Feeder Line
The history of the Tallulah Falls Railroad began in 1854 when Athens, Ga. chartered the Northeastern Railroad as a feeder line connecting Athens with the Blue Ridge Railroad at Clayton. The Blue Ridge was envisioned as a major east-west railroad that would pass through Rabun County from Charleston to Cincinnati.
Due to the Civil War, nothing was done about the Northeastern until 1871 when construction started on tracks from Athens to Lula. In 1881, the company was sold to the Richmond and Danville System, which extended the rails to Cornelia and then Tallulah Falls in 1882. The Richmond and Danville was sold to the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad in 1887. Investors acquired that line to form the Tallulah Falls Railroad in 1897.
Southern Railways acquired the capital stock of the TFRR in 1905. The line operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Southern for the rest of its existence.
58 Miles from Cornelia to Franklin
The TFRR was extended to Clayton in 1904 and then to its northern terminus at Franklin, N.C. in 1907. The 58-mile run from Cornelia to Franklin made 23 stops in six hours.
The Blue Ridge Railroad was never completed, despite numerous attempts to revive it. And in 1886 a rail line from Atlanta to Knoxville was finished that bypassed Rabun County. Rendered useless as a feeder line to an east-west route, the TFRR was left as a short line: a strictly local railroad with no connection to a major freight route. The seeds of the TFRR’s demise were sown from the outset.
Wooden Trestles and Wood Burning Engines
Massive wooden trestles were the most distinctive aspect of the TFRR.
When the railroad was built, wooden trestles were cheaper to build over rivers, streams, and ravines than earthen fills and steel bridges. The TFRR originally crossed 58 trestles, one for every mile of the road. Over time, this number dropped to 42, the remaining ones having been replaced with fill.
The trestles were built with enormous lumber beams sawed 12 inches square. The TFRR’s longest trestle was 940 feet near Wiley, Ga. The trestle over Panther Creek, south of Tallulah Falls, was the highest at 100 feet. The only exception to the wooden trestles was the 585-foot steel and concrete bridge built later to cross Lake Tallulah, created by construction of a hydroelectric dam on the rim of Tallulah Gorge in 1913.
Wooden trestles were extremely expensive to maintain. They also lacked the strength and durability of fills and steel. These were additional factors contributing to the TFRR’s eventual demise.
The TFRR operated Baldwin steam locomotives. Several wood-burning engines were already antiquated when placed in operation. In 1917, the railroad reported that it was operating five steam locomotives, 10 passenger cars, 46 freight cars and six service cars.
Collapsing Trestles and Spectacular Accidents
Train derailments were a common occurrence due to poor roadbed maintenance. However, two spectacular accidents contributed to the TFRR’s colorful legacy.
The first mishap occurred at the Panther Creek trestle in 1898. The middle section of the trestle collapsed, plunging the locomotive, tender and first passenger car 100 feet into the ravine. One fatality and several injuries resulted from this accident.
The middle section of the Hazel Creek trestle near Demorest, Ga. collapsed in 1927, taking the engine and two passenger coaches to the bottom of that ravine. One passenger was killed and 14 were injured.
Continual Operating Losses
As a short line railroad serving only three counties, the TFRR never had sufficient numbers of freight customers. Weak freight revenue, combined with the high cost of maintaining wooden trestles, caused the TFRR to report annual operating losses in most of its 64 years of existence. After only 11 years in operation, the railroad went into receivership in 1908 for a short time.
The hydroelectric projects of Georgia Railway and Power Company on the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers had a mixed impact on the railroad. The TFRR hauled the materials and equipment needed for building six dams and generating plants between 1910 and 1926. However, the dam at Tallulah Gorge, by silencing the “Niagara of the South,” resulted in declining numbers of tourists traveling by rail to Tallulah Falls. That dam also necessitated an expensive line relocation and bridge over the newly created Lake Tallulah. Passenger service took a major hit in 1921 when a fire destroyed the entire town of Tallulah Falls.
Bankruptcy Filed in 1923
The TFRR went into bankruptcy in 1923 and remained in receivership for the rest of its existence.
The Great Depression took a heavy toll on the TFRR’s freight and passenger business. The Interstate Commerce Commission granted a request by the receiver to abandon the line in 1933. However, no action was taken due to a public display of support for the railroad. The TFRR limped on.
In 1946 engine No. 73 struck a log truck at a crossing in Habersham County. Damage to the train amounted to only $100, a small sum but not affordable for the ailing line. Passenger service was abruptly and permanently ended on July 31, 1946.
The TFRR sold its steam locomotives in 1948 to purchase two diesel engines. “Dieselization” reduced the operating costs of the line from over $90 per operating day to under $20. This helped prolong the life of the railway.
Walt Disney’s “Great Locomotive Chase”
Further temporary financial relief came when Hollywood discovered the TFRR. 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 TFRR $10,000 for six weeks of filming on the railroad’s tracks around Tallulah Falls.
By this time, the railway had lost its mail contract. In addition, over-the-road trucking was cannibalizing the TFRR’s freight business. In an ironic twist, the TFRR hauled the supplies and equipment needed for building Highway 441 in 1960-61, which ran near its tracks through Habersham, Rabun and Macon Counties.
Final Run in 1961
By 1960, the line’s debt totaled a staggering $5 million. The TFRR filed for abandonment in November 1960 and made its final run on March 25, 1961. Following an unsuccessful effort to purchase the railroad by the Rabun Industrial Development Company, the TFRR’s assets, including its steel rails and trestle lumber, were auctioned off.
The Tallulah Falls train depot and five concrete bridge piers in Lake Tallulah are the only remnants in Rabun County of the railroad that dramatically and permanently transformed life for the people of northeast Georgia. The tourism and logging industries would not have been possible without the TFRR, nor would the creation of six hydroelectric dams and recreational lakes.
The TFRR was anything but a Total Failure.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in September 2020.