Cornelia, GA - Franklin, NC: The Tallulah Falls Railroad
Perhaps the most beloved of Southeastern rail lines (with the possible exception of "Flagler's Folly" to Key West FL), with one of the most peculiar histories, has to be the mountain short line operated for most of its life by the Tallulah Falls Railroad. Dubbed the "Total Failure" by wags due to its chronic financial woes and a handful of spectacular mishaps, it opened the remote, spectacular Tallulah Gorge, and several heretofore-isolated communities of northeast Georgia and western North Carolina, to the outside world. For a while it made a very popular resort, which overlooked the gorge, feasible and accessible to the wealthy of Atlanta and other major cities. When the railroad reached its ultimate terminus at Franklin, the 58-mile line included no fewer than 42 trestles of various sizes, all originally in wooden truss construction. Before ending its strange career, it served as a location for two major motion pictures of the early 1950's.
As early as 1836 schemes were being floated for building railroad links over the mountains between the ports of the southern Atlantic seaboard to the communities inland around the Tennessee and Ohio valleys, such as that abortive project that came to be known as the Blue Ridge Railroad. The region of "Rabun Gap", in northeast Georgia, one of the lowest and least rugged portions of the southern Appalachian chain, attracted much of this kind of interest, especially after gold was discovered in Dahlonega, GA to the west.
In 1854, construction began on the abortive Blue Ridge railroad intended to link Anderson, SC with Knoxville, TN. The state of Georgia got involved by chartering the "North Eastern Railroad" in 1854 to link from Athens to the proposed Blue Ridge line at Clayton, but no actual construction on the North Eastern commenced until after the war, in 1871. By this time the Atlanta and Richmond Air Line had built a southwest-northeast trunk line through the region. A road was constructed from Athens to the A&RAL, and used trackage rights to Cornelia (formerly named Rabun Gap), where it turned out again and headed north.. Construction by the Richmond and Danville system passed the Habersham County seat of Clarkesville to reach the resort town of Tallulah Falls at the Tallulah Gorge in 1882.
Tallulah Gorge had been a place of awe to the Cherokee who ruled the region prior to the arrival of European settlers. The thousand foot deep gash in the earth where the Tallulah River rushes toward its confluence with the Tugaloo River is the deepest canyon in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. According to a Cherokee legend reported by an early explorer, the gorge was inhabited by a mysterious hostile race of "little people". They supposedly trick or abduct hapless trespassers into falling to their deaths, or drowning in the raging river at the bottom. Approaching Tallulah Falls from the south, the railroad actually skirted the southern rim of the gorge for a short distance.
The town of Tallulah Falls had already become one of the most popular vacation resorts in the Southeast by the 1870's. The arrival of the railroad in 1882 made the rugged trip from Atlanta and Athens downright convenient. A number of magnificent hotels and inns catered to tourists and rest-seekers. The town boomed until about 1913 when the first dam in the gorge was constructed. During this period the shortline railroad was said to be quite profitable. Meanwhile, in 1894 the A&RL became part of the newly formed Southern Railways system.
A seemingly unrelated innocuous event during that period may have planted the seeds of the short line's eventual demise. The Richmond and Danville system, later part of Southern Railways, acquired a rail line between Atlanta and Knoxville, TN shortly after the "North Eastern" line reached Tallulah Falls. This greatly reduced the motivation for extending the "North Eastern" road or attempting to revive the Blue Ridge scheme. The Cornelia- Tallulah Falls section was put up for sale.
The Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad, planning a Savannah-Knoxville connection, bought the line but ran out of money. In 1898 the Tallulah Falls Railway Company acquired the twenty-one mile section then in existence from Cornelia to the town of Tallulah Falls. The railroad was continued north to Clayton, the seat of Rabun County, by 1904, where it joined and used the grade constructed for the never-completed "Blue Ridge Railroad" project from that point northward. It continued over the eastern continental divide near Mountain City and reached Franklin, NC, in 1907, where a wye allowed trains to turn around.
At that point no investors willing to finance further extension could be lined up. There had always been ideas of eventually continuing construction north, perhaps to Almond, NC. There, it would have connected to the Western North Carolina Railroad, creating a through connection that might have generated more revenue. But Franklin remained the end of the line.
The wooden trestles were a major liability for the railroad. Originally there were 58 of them, average of one for each mile, but some were replaced over the years by fill. Relatively weak, and demanding of expensive frequent maintenance, they figured in several incidents. Had the line survived into recent times, the wooden trestles would be grossly inadequate for modern high-capacity rolling stock and large locomotives.
Two spectacular trestle collapses in particular claimed lives, disrupted operations, and gave the railroad an ill reputation. One was at Panther Creek in 1898, and the other was at Hazel Creek in 1927. It was this kind of incident, as well as the chronic financial instability, that earned the line its nickname "Total Failure".
Curves and steep grades were another Achilles' heel of the shortline. From Clayton to Mountain City on the Eastern Continental Divide, the high point of the line, the grade rose 250 feet over three miles.
Southern Railways acquired the capital stock of TFRR in 1905, contemplating extending it to form a through route, but the company remained a nominally independent entity. The northward extension of the road did open isolated Rabun County, Ga, and Macon County, NC, to the outside world. Timber, leather, and livestock were local products marketed to the world on the mountain shortline. As is often the case, the railroad itself provided jobs (including a demand for local timber for crossties and, in the early woodburning days, boiler fuel) and other incidental benefits such as reliable fast mail service and a telegraph line.
While the railroad continued to figure in various schemes to link to other lines and cities across the mountains, nothing ever came of them. The railroad first went into receivership for a short period in 1908. The observant reader might readily see that the "Total Failure" was not fated to live long and prosper, especially once the resort lost popularity and the idea of further extension failed to gain support. The railroad remained a secondary branch line without the stable revenue of through traffic between major markets, vulnerable to the local economy and the inexorably increasing competition from cars, buses, and trucks, particularly on US 441 that followed its route in the 1920's. On the other hand, the multiple trestles, curves, deep cuts, and steep grades ensured high maintenance and operating costs per mile. That it lasted as long as it did is amazing.
After the resort market faded, the six nearby hydroelectric projects of Georgia Railroad and Power provided revenues for "Old TF" into the mid 1920's. The 1913 line relocation at Tallulah Falls, to accommodate the Tallulah dam and lake, required a new cut through rocky hillsides, and a new concrete and steel plate girder bridge (the only such bridge on the line) to replace the old wooden trestle and howie truss bridge. This raised the level of the roadbed at that place 50 feet.
The hydroelectric projects of Georgia Railway and Power Company that developed the water resources of the area to feed the growing demand in Atlanta were a mixed blessing for the railroad. While they created considerable business for the short run, they helped to ruin the resort at the gorge, they required a very expensive line relocation and bridge at Tallulah Dam, and the power company ultimately was only a temporary railroad customer.
A 1921 fire destroyed many Tallulah Falls houses and hotels, ending an era of elegant resort tourism in that region that had already been heavily impacted by the hydropower projects. Passenger usage fell off so much after that time that passenger trains pulled only a single carriage. The 1921 fire was said by some accounts to have been started by sparks from a passing train.
The railroad went into receivership again in 1923, in which state it remained to the end of its corporate operating life. Permission to shut down and abandon was actually granted in 1933, but the line continued in operation for the interim. H.L. Brewer, a career railroad employee, was appointed receiver in 1938 and remained in that office until its 1961 demise. His name, with the title "Receiver", appears on the second line of company letterhead from that period. One sure sign that a railroad stock may not be a wise buy is that the company stationary prominently states the name of the receiver front and center in the letterhead.
Passenger service, sparsely patronized since the 1920's, ended abruptly in May of 1946, when a truck struck a train at a crossing, doing $100 worth of damage to the locomotive, and shattering windows onto passengers in the single 1914 vintage passenger carriage in service.
The railroad was "dieselized" in 1948. A stable of venerable, mostly Baldwin steamers were replaced with two small boxy utilitarian GE 70-ton road switchers. This removed much of the remaining romance from the mountain line, but reduced locomotive-related operating expenses from $90/day to approximately $20/day. A self-powered diesel-electric unit continued to be used as a Railway Post Office and Railway Express Agency facility into the 1950's, presumably until mail service on the railroad ceased in 1954.
In 1950, the failing railroad gained recognition as a movie location. The 1950 film "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain" brought steam engine # 75 out of retirement for railroad scenes during the opening credits that included shots of the train crossing Tallulah Falls Lake steel trestle.
Then in 1955 Walt Disney used the railroad to film "The Great Locomotive Chase" starring Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter, with authentic Civil War period locomotives and rolling stock borrowed from the B&O Railroad's museum and other collections. It was based on the true 1862 story of "Andrews Raiders" mission to cut the Confederacy's vital Marietta-Chattanooga rail line, which was and is still in operation and much too busy to be tied up for a movie shoot, as well as too modernized to be authentic. The TF was chosen in large part because most of its structures were still of 19th century design. A number of locals were recruited as extras and even given minor speaking parts, including the then mayor of Clayton. (The town of Clayton was 'cast' in the part of wartime Atlanta!).
While the revenue from the movie gave the road a brief tonic, the shadow of mounting debt continued to loom as the twilight of the shortline's life deepened. The TFRR was $ 2 million in debt by 1933, and $ 5 million in debt by 1961, a staggering sum for a small railroad at the time. Its revenues in 1960 amounted to $155,000, against expenses of $226,000. Disney is said to have expressed some interest in acquiring the line to operate as a scenic tourist railroad, but, sadly, it didn't come to pass. The two movies now preserve otherwise lost memories of the railroad's operations.
In March of 1961, a federal judge granted the TFRR permission to cease operations and abandon the line. In the aftermath of the closure, a local committee raised $100,000 toward its $266,000 bid to acquire the road and settle its debts. Southern Railways offered to settle its account for one dollar, but the Railroad Retirement Board, owed $300,000, held out in hopes of getting a lien on the revived line for the full amount. Caught between the Board's intransigence and a court deadline, the effort collapsed. The bid was assumed by a steel salvage firm. Ironically, the RRR Board ended up only getting $17,000 in the sale. Southern Railways purchased the portion from the turnout at Cornelia to Clarkesville. The salvage firm promptly removed the rails and fittings past Clarkesville. One resident who helped take up the railroad reported that the rails ended up reinstalled in sugar cane processing plants. By early 1962 the railroad from Clarkesville northward had been removed. It appears that much of the Cornelia-Clarkesville section owned by Southern might have been abandoned soon afterwards.
Many wooden trestles remained in place slowly rotting. Some still stood at the time of the "Foxfire" local history and culture project of 1976, but disappeared in the quarter century since.
The best-known relic of the short line may be the old Tallulah Falls railroad depot with its distinctive orange tile roof, which has been occupied by the Co-op Craft shop for decades. It was recently designated a historic place by the state of Georgia. Nearby, at the northern end of the lake, the largest and most durable physical relics of the actual railroad itself still rise out of the waters: the huge concrete piers that supported the steel bridge, topped by steel brackets that once supported the plate girders. It is reported that when the lake is lowered, the old stone piers that once supported its predecessor, the pre-1913 howie bridge, can also be seen. The state of Georgia has incorporated part of the old ROW to the north as part of its Tallulah Gorge Park hiking trail system.
A topographic map indicates that a short spur off the Norfolk-Southern main line was still in use in Cornelia as late as the early 1980's, but has abandoned since that time, probably around the time the new US 441 bypass was under construction in the mid '80's. Most of that ROW is still readily visible. The wye at the old Cornelia depot where the TF once left the Southern has been disconnected, with only short lengths of rail on the former wye, yard, and the old shop remaining in place. A museum and preservation society has taken over the depot and the nearby shop, which were surrounded by the arms of the wye. There appeared to be restoration work of diesel locomotives underway at Cornelia when the author visited (on a Sunday). They do not appear to be original TF equipment
A private museum has been maintained at Wolffork featuring a replica depot, a length of narrow-gauge line used by a replica train, and an extensive collection of TFRR relics and memorabilia. Another similar collection is reported to be located at the Cornelia depot and shop.
A former TF caboose is on display at Cornelia; another is on display on a short piece of grade in Tallulah Falls. The diesel mail/express unit was purchased and placed by old US 441 north of Clayton by a local entrepreneur originally intending to open a diner. It once had been used as a cabin, but is reported to have been burnt and abandoned. The depot at Demorest has also been preserved, but most of the others are long gone. In various places such as just south of Clayton and along the south rim of Tallulah Gorge, lengths of the ROW grade are still visible. However, much of the ROW that once ran from the outskirts of Cornelia to just south of Tallulah Falls was obliterated by the new US 441 bypass in the mid 1980's; apparently the Georgia DOT agreed that was the best route to be found through Habersham County into the foothills. However, here and there in places such as Turnerville a few stray lengths of fill from the old railroad bed can still be discerned.
The Tallulah Falls Railroad: A Photographic Remembrance by Brian A. Boyd (1998, Fern Creek Press of Clayton, GA) was a major information source as it summarizes much pertinent history quite nicely. An inexpensive paperbound volume, it includes dozens of photos of the railroad and its surroundings when it was in operation. Highly recommended to anyone interested in this vanished little piece of Americana.
Memories of a Mountain Shortline, edited by Kaye Carver and Myra Queen, 2001, Foxfire Fund and Fern Creek Press. (Reissue of a 1976 Foxfire title). In addition to factual information, reminisces of people who had worked on, used , or otherwise remembered the railroad were collected in the early 1970's.
A white explorer's record is cited of a Cherokee legend believed authentic, that claimed that a party of medicine men investigating the disappearance of a hunting party discovered the gorge and its strange unfriendly dwarf inhabitants, who refused to talk to them. The medicine men concluded that the hunters had been tricked into falling or drowning in the gorge.