Along a lonely stretch of highway known as US 441, spanning the border between Habersham and Rabun counties sits Tallulah Gorge. In earlier times this gash in the earth's crust was the vacation destination for more people than any other place in the Southeast. The only visible evidence of the past splendor in the town of Tallulah Falls is the train depot, now converted to a storefront. Yet this splendor is still evident in the gorge. Ladore("L'eau d'or"), Tempesta, Hurricane, Oceana, Bridal Veil;the names of the falls on the Tallulah River are a litany to those who love the outdoors, so beautiful they were nicknamed "Niagara of the South."
The hard granite walls of this gorge fall perpendicular to the land above forming steep cliffs that astounded early settlers. The roar of the falls into this canyon could be heard for miles from the deep cut in the face of the earth. After it's discovery word spread quickly of the gorge Native Americans called Tallulah. Students from the fledgling State University in Athens were frequent visitors, traveling by horse and buggy. At the time this trip took a week over what were enthusiastically called roads and no hotels were nearby to service their needs. Locals began to take visitors into their homes and soon a burgeoning tourist industry arose. Letters of the day complain of the discomfort of the trip, only to be offset by the beauty of the Gorge. Descriptions of the area drew members of Atlanta's elite and plantation owners from the coast.
North Georgia's first tourist attraction drew thousands every summer, and with the arrival in 1882 of what would become the Tallulah Gorge Railroad thousands a year turned into thousands a week. On Sundays during the summer the twice daily railroad excursions would expand to 5, bringing 2000 people on that day alone. The booming town of Tallulah Falls, around the rim of the attraction quickly grew. Hotels, 17 in all, and bars lined the dirt streets on both the Rabun and Habersham sides of the Gorge. To make the roads passable after rains, street width wooden logs were buried beneath the dirt.
Repeatedly swept by fire the small town rebuilt, each time better than ever. The people always came back. Then one day Georgia Power took an interest in the area. Expansion in Atlanta had reached a fever pitch and the need for power was growing. Technically, the walls of the gorge were perfect for the project planned by the utility's engineers, affording a strong surface into which the walls of dam could be tied. The company brought rights to land further north and intended to cut off the waters that contributed to the attraction. A number of politically powerful people, including the governor, supported the project.
Governor Brown felt "it was too late to disturb titles made in good faith." Only when both state houses objected was a formal hearing instituted
Yet the raging river had its proponents as well, most notably Helen Dortches Longstreet, widow of Confederate General James Longstreet. In what was one of the largest environmental battle to date in the United States, Ms. Longstreet used her name and money in an attempt to fend off the power barons of the state and nearly won. At a time when women were not allowed to vote in the state(or nationally), Longstreet waged a highly regarded effort invoking the will of the people, repeatedly pointing to the sweetheart deals some of the pols had cut themselves and conflicts of interest. Many of the tactics she employed would re-surface 60 years hence in the pitched environmental battles of the 1970s and early '80s.
Sources list the date of completion of the dam as 1913. We went to the owners of the dam, Georgia Power, and according to them the dam was completed in 1912 and power generation began in 1914.
Northeast Hydro-electric Generating Complex, including Tallulah Gorge State Park Courtesy Georgia Power
Although barely 3 miles long and a quarter-mile wide the cliffs at one point drop 1200 feet to the bottom of the gorge. Twice men have ventured across the tear in the fabric of Mother Earth, both times successfully. Professor Leon made it across on July 24, 1886 and Karl Wallenda repeated the feat 84 years less one week later (July 18, 1970). However hikers frequently fare worse. In one particularly bad year 6 fell to their death or drowned in separate incidents.
As the falls dried up so did the tourists. Fire gutted the city in 1921 and even with U. S. 441 nearby, a major North-South route in the early days of the automobile, the town began to die. Inviting Wallenda to walk across the gorge briefly sparked interest in the area. In 1971 Jon Voight climbed out of the gorge in Deliverance, pictured as part of the fictional Culawahassee River.
Now disaster stuck the town. A "supercell" of tornadoes known as the "Palm Sunday Killer Tornadoes" ravaged the northern tier of Georgia and Alabama counties on March 27, 1994, cutting a swath through the center of Tallulah Falls, doing extensive natural damage to the surrounding area, especially the south rim of the gorge. The storm destroyed 5 homes and a business in the town.
Time was on the side of the Tallulah Falls and Tallulah Gorge. As part of a plan to widen all of U. S. 441 in Georgia a 6 mile section opened at the entrance to the park in September, 1993. Less than a year earlier Georgia Governor Zell Miller, an avid outdoorsman himself, announced the creation of a new state park on the rim of the Gorge. The plan, unique to this park, called for shared management responsibilities on the part of the state and Georgia Power. Work began on improvements shortly after the announcement. Trails and a visitor center would be added and existing camping and picnic facilities enhanced. And a plan, initially opposed by Georgia Power, was devised to increase the waterflow. Home to many endangered species including persistent trillium, the gorge was the perfect place to release peregrine falcons, also endangered.
In 1996 the Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center opened its doors. The 15,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility is one of the best in the country featuring comprehensive displays on the history and wildlife of the gorge as well as local and regional information.
Today the park sports some of the most diverse facilities of any state-run park. A white sand beach adorns Tallulah Lake along with a beach and bathhouse. Fishing is nearby. Picnic shelters, a pavilion, and conference center are available. Trails surround the gorge and allow access to the campground and Terrora Day Use Area. From the interpretive center it is an easy (.2 mile) walk on the North Rim Trail to Hawthorne Overlook, which allows an excellent view of the upper gorge including Tempesta and L'eau d'Or("Water of Gold") Falls. A longer walk (.5 mile) takes you to the tower that Karl Wallenda used while crossing the gorge. A matching tower can be found on the south rim of the gorge. While somewhat less spectacular, this trail does offer a number of unique views, including many of a falls that comes out of the north side of the gorge. The trail to the floor of Tallulah Gorge is challenging at best, dangerous at worst. The park requires a check-in at the interpretive center before attempting this trail, which is frequently closed.