Known as the Rabun Gap Route, the Tallulah Falls Railroad was born as the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad in 1881. It began in Cornelia, Georgia and was completed to Tallulah Falls in 1884. Crossing the Tallulah River in 1903 the railroad was in Clayton two years later.
There were numerous railroads chartered under the name "Blue Ridge". Although some of the land is similar, the others were distinct companies that had nothing to do with the companies that actually built and ran the line from Cornelia to Clayton. There was a single railroad, the North Eastern Railroad, chartered in in Georgia in 1854 to run from Gwinnett County to Rabun Gap. It was a legislative pipe dream and had nothing to do with the Northeastern Railroad from Athens to Rabun Gap, chartered in 1870.
The Northeastern Railroad grew out of Athens' frustration with the Georgia Railroad, which originally was chartered to connect Augusta and Athens. By the time the railroad was completed Atlanta and the Western and Atlantic Railroad had become the major destination. Athens looked for the Northeastern Railroad to create competition for the route to Atlanta by connecting to the Atlanta and Richmond Air Line at Lula.
The Northeastern Railroad was chartered to run a line from Athens to Clayton or Rabun Gap in 1870. Construction from Athens to Lula began in 1871 was completed in 1876. The Northeastern Railroad would use the track from the Atlanta and Richmond Air Line between Lula and Cornelia, then head into northeast Georgia.
Work began on the section from Cornelia to Clayton in 1877. In 1882 the city of Tallulah Falls was reached, creating an economic boom for the area as visitors would journey to visit Tallulah Gorge. However, the spanning the Tallulah River posed a serious hurdle for the Northeastern Railroad company, now on the brink of receivership.
In 1883 The Northeastern Railroad south of Lula was leased to the Atlantic and Danville Air Line. That same year the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad was organized to run the 20.9 miles of track from Cornelia to Tallulah Falls. The Blue Ridge and Atlantic was never a strong company, so no one was surprised when line fell into receivership in 1891. After a series of financial woes the line was reorganized as the Tallulah Falls Railway in 1897.
One of the first goals of the reorganized railroad was to push across the Tallulah River to Clayton and beyond. The river was finally crossed in 1903 and track to Clayton was completed in 1905. Franklin, North Carolina would take a while longer, not arriving until in 1907.
Clarksville, county seat of Habersham County, Georgia grew as a supply center for miners during the Georgia Gold Rush. It became a destination for wealthy coastal Georgians in the 1840's. After The Civil WarHabersham County recovered slowly and many of the Clarksville mansions remained empty in spite of twice weekly private stagecoach service from Athens. Other routes connected Clarksville to Toccoa, Cleveland and later, Clayton.
When the Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad reached the city in 1882, the depot was built south of the city limits, apparently because of the cost of acquiring right-of-way in Clarkesville. Soon after, the twice weekly stagecoach service to Athens ended and in 1883 a new woolen mill was added. To take advantage of the commercial traffic at the depot the city expanded to the depot. In 1890 Hunt's General Store opened next to the depot, culminating this expansion.
From 1882 until the Tallulah River was spanned in 1903, Tallulah Falls was the end of the Blue Ridge and Atlantic and, later, the Tallulah Falls Railroad. During this time 20 hotels were built to house visitors who wanted to see Tallulah Gorge. People who wanted to travel further north before 1904 had to take a stagecoach from Tallulah Falls.
As the railroad expanded north after the turn of the century Tallulah Falls became a staging area for both workers and materials. Georgia Power quietly began buying up land adjacent to the Tallulah River in 1905. Although visitors continued to come even after the river was dammed in 1913, the Christmas fire of 1921 ended what was left of the resort towns.
Clayton had been known as The Dividings until 1824, when it was renamed in honor of Augustin Smith Clayton. As a member of the Georgia House, Clayton had been a strong supporter of the Treaty of 1817 that secured Rabun County.
In the early 1870's the route of the railroad was known as the Rabun Gap Route.
As the Tallulah Falls Railway was built north of Clayton, it became the staging area for work further north. Rabun Gap had been developed about 1900. The York House Inn was used by the workers building the railroad north of the city, although Clayton continued to be used as a staging area.
Today the town is home to the Tallulah Falls Railroad Museum, built by students of the Rabun Gap-Nachoochee School to hold memorabilia from regional railroads. Rabun Gap is also a stop on the Six Flags Atlanta Railroad.
The engines used on the Tallulah Falls Railway were steam locomotives until 1946 built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works at both the Broad Street location in Philadelphia and the Eddystone location after 1906. After 1946 GE diesel engines provided the motive power.