Where: Tallulah Falls, Georgia
Trip Date: 9/26/17
Last week I spent a day hiking through the beautiful Tallulah Gorge and seeing the sights. There were so many things to draw that—in an effort not to take too much time out of your day—I will break this article into two parts. So today I will give you a very brief history of the gorge, and next week I will talk about the hike. Here goes.
Early History of Tallulah Gorge
Tallulah Gorge rests at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, a chain of rolling mountains older—and once much taller—than the Rockies. It has been estimated that at their peak—ha—these mountains were approximately two miles taller than they are today. Much of the stones forming these mountains were comprised of quartzite, one of the hardest stones on Earth. Yet, over thousands of years, the constant motion of the Tallulah River carved through hundreds of feet of rock to form the gorge.
Native peoples called the Tallulah area home for more than 12,000 years. Tribes such as the Creek and Cherokee evolved from these early inhabitants, and the Cherokee dominated the southeast for nearly 500 years. The name Tallulah may come from the language of some of these early inhabitants, either meaning “the cry of the frog,” or “leaping water” referring to the Tallulah River’s rapid and rocky path through the gorge. Alternatively, it may mean absolutely nothing.
By 1800, traders had established relations with the local tribes, and settlers followed soon after, and in 1838 much of the Cherokee tribe left the area (in this context “left” means “were forced out of their ancestral lands after the discovery of gold in the area”).
The Town of Tallulah Falls
As more settlers moved into the area, the town of Tallulah Falls began to grow throughout the 19th century. The gorge became a popular site for visitors and artists looking to capture the beauty of the region.
But Tallulah Falls was still in a very remote area and difficult to reach. The journey from Savannah took about a week and involved a 200-mile steamboat cruise. As one visitor put it:
“Get on a train in Atlanta and ride northeast one day. Then take a horse and buggy for a day. Ride on horseback for another day, hike up on the trail another day, then get on all fours and crawl until you climb a tree, and when you fall out you’ll be in Rabun County.”
–Unnamed visitor to Tallulah Gorge
This all changed when the railway came in 1882. In the span of just a decade, Tallulah falls grew from 2,000 annual guests and one hotel to a resort town over a dozen hotels and cottages and many thousands of visitors.
The Tallulah Falls Dam
In 1908 the Georgia Railway and Power Company—predecessor of Georgia Power— began the process of acquiring land around Tallulah Falls, and by 1910 they began construction on a dam to harness the power of “White Coal”—hydroelectricity. In 1913 the first units of the power plant went into operation. The dam was 129 feet in height and 426 feet wide, the third largest in the U.S. at the time. The electricity it produced was sent to power the city of Atlanta. The North Georgia area would not be electrified for several more years.
The dam can still be seen today, underneath Highway 441 as it crosses Tallulah Gorge.
Tallulah Gorge Today
Tourism to Tallulah Falls began to decline in the 1940s, and in 1946 the railway discontinued its passenger service. And by 1960 the rail line was abandoned altogether.
Although the idea of preserving Tallulah Gorge as a park was discussed as early as 1905, nothing official was done until the 1990s when the State Parks Service was able to acquire some of the land from Georgia Power. Tallulah Gorge State Park now features more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails along the rim and through the gorge, some of which I will cover next week.
- This has been a massively condensed history of Tallulah Gorge. For more in depth information, go visit the park. Seriously, it is beautiful.
- My father, Morton McInvale, worked for the Park Service in the early 2000s and worked with Tallulah Gorge State Park on historical research and setting up the exhibits. I pulled most of my information for this article from his research, so if any of it is in error, you know who to blame.