Cornelia, GA to Franklin, NC

The Tallulah Falls Railroad

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The concrete piers of the 'new' 1913 bridge still rise majestically out of Tallulah Lake by the state park. The arched bridge to the right backgroundis old US 441. Photo by Mitch Bailey.

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 1950s.

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 1870s. 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 1920s. 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 1920s. 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 1920s, 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 1950s, 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 1980s, but has abandoned since that time, probably around the time the new US 441 bypass was under construction in the mid 80s. 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 1980s; 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.

References:

  • 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 1970s.
  • Local Legends of Georgia
  • A white explorers 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.

Thanks to Mitch Bailey for contributing information about this route.

At one time I attempted to model this old railroad, and spent many long days railfanning its remnants. To say the route is totally abandoned though, well that's a bit incorrect. A very small portion, being barely long enough to hold a few locomotives as well as rolling stock remains currently in use by Norfolk Southern. This section of track is the former interchange track between the TF and Southern railroad. Also, a small scrap dealer has taken up residence where the TF's original Turntable and engine house stood. The TF was a bit curious in that its locomotive house and turntable were located inside the Wye connection between the Southern and it. The current museum located in the old depot actually has its parking lot built on the turntable and house's location.

Historically, the TF never had a major yard in Cornelia, having at best two tracks which were used for switching. This was repeated in Franklin where the route terminated. At Franklin there were three stub tracks which served as the yard, a simple turntable, depot, and not much else. Contrary to the book, local historians note that it had always been a plan to continue on turning the route into a "bridge" route between two lines, however the railroad ran out of money. Many have attributed this to Southern's leadership.

At one time, Tallulah was the main terminus for the route, and as such it once had its own small turntable. I never found the exact location of this, but suspect the road was built over it, or a portion of it.

I'm still working on the model of the line and can be reached at my address should the webmaster want to.

Kitsune Dawn
Savannah, GA
11/27/2009

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Thanks for writing, Kitsune! Wow, a model of this line! I'd wanted to do that myself, but I don't have remotely the skill. I'd once messed w/ MS Train simulator a bit & thought I'd like to simulate the TF. It would be rather challenging. I'd love an opportunity to see it when done. Maybe Greg would post pix?

I take it the part of the RR still connected at Cornelia must be the north leg of the old wye. That is a funny arrangement, packing all the facilities inside the wye.

Per Carver, the Northeastern RR reached Tallulah Falls in 1882. After the Tallulah Falls RR was formed & acquired the line in 1898 it immediately began building past Tellulah Falls. I suspect you're probably right about the turntable location because if the station had always been where it is now, about the only possible site is just a little north of it, just about where US 441 goes by. After that the line crossed town over the long trestle that wouldn't have been there until TFRR Co resumed building north.

The wye shown on old topo maps at Franklin may have replaced the turntable there at some point.

Funny, neither of my source books really deny that the TF intended to extend; as I pointed out, various ideas were floated over time but due to lack of $$$ they were never acted upon. Carver states that if the RR had been extended as far as Almond, NC and connected to the Western North Carolina RR, it might have lasted longer, maybe to the present day. However, the TVA Fontana Lake project eliminated that possibility.

So far I haven't had a chance to visit Cornelia on a weekday when the museum should be open, but I'll have to try to go there when I can, now.

Mitch Bailey
Lexington County, SC
11/29/2009

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Hi!

I'm also a big fan of the TFRR. We moved to Rabun County in 1980 and at that time there was still a bit of track embedded in the pavement at the little connector between "old" and "new" US-441 at Wiley. That intersection was completely reworked and now the track is gone with the rest of it.

Mitch, I'd love to see the topo that shows the "Y" in Franklin. I just finished tracing out the route of the rail with USGS topo maps and posted these with the Sanborn maps I have found for Cornelia and Demorest at my new blog, which is intended to capture my efforts to model the TFRR as a garden railroad (tfrr.blogspot.com). But I have never been able to find any detail maps of Franklin. I'd also read there was a "Y" there rather than a turntable.

Progress on the garden RR and the blog have both been slow, but then I figure it took the TFRR decades to be completed also. :-)

Best rgds,

Ed

PS: The gas-electric car has been recovered for restoration. Here's a link to the story: http://tinyurl.com/26myhr5

PPS: There is a bit of track diagram in Brian Boyd's book that shows the turntable in Tallulah Falls - page 10 in my copy. That spot looks like it is now right in the middle of the highway.

Ed Kelly
North, GA
5/5/2010

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After I returned home from the Navy in WW II, I received an appointment to the Railway Mail Service. I took an acclamation trip on the line. I think the regular clerk in the postal clerk was a man named Bell. I think he lived at a large white colored hotel in Cornelia with his parents.

Victor Lee
Gainesville, GA
10/4/2012

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I saw a book on this line at a local used bookstore in the San Diego area so I looked it up. I may have to go back and get that book now.

If you'd like to model the line, I recommend Trainz Railroad Simulator. It's about the easiest program for modelling in that I've found.

There's even a program called HOG (Hand Of God) that uses USGS DEMs and TIGER lines to generate a ground file.

You would have to draw the railroad onto the TIGER image by hand, using old maps for reference. I did that with the Ft Dodge, Des Moines and Southern interurban line, and it's actually pretty easy.

It's a pretty interesting little line.

Claude
El Cajon, CA
10/2/2013

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December 16 2013 I Just Bought the Moss House next to the Tallulah Falls Train Depot. The Moss House was Built in 1897 By the Moss Family out of Athens Ga. They were a family of wealthy means. Hired to help build the Tallulah Falls Rail Way. They also built many of the Hotels in the Town.The Massive Cliff House they Built and operated it till it burnt down in the Great fire. They Built the house to be near the Main reason they came to the Gorge. The Moss house is where the Moss Family owned and lived in From 1879 to 1981. Tom Moss was one of the Presidents of the ole TF. The Family use to own the Tallulah George at the town and crossed Habersham County in to Rabun County Georgia. I Bought this house to restore this Grand ole Lady to her former Glory. I hope I make My Mentor The late Bradly J Brown. The former Mayor of Tallulah Falls and whose daddy was a conducter and Engineair of the Tallulah Falls Railway. Proud of the House. I do this projcet in Bradlys Honer. He loved the House. In the Great Fire of the 1020's The Moss House is the only Structure that was known to survive The great fire. The Train Depot was Distroyed right next door. Later rebuilt to what you see today. The Grand ole Lady still endures. At the time of this message December 16 2013 she is 135 years old. A True test of time.

Dan A Hayes
Tallulah Falls, GA
12/14/2013

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I need to correct myself. The Moss House was built in 1879.I hit the wrong Keys. Sorry

Dan A Hayes
Tallulah Falls, GA
12/14/2013

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I want to help you answer a issue you have in your page here. You ask about where the turntable was in Tallulah Falls.It was right in the middle of what use to be the old hwy 441. In between the RailRoad depot and the old Caboose on the other side of the road.It was right in the middle. remember.There was no modern road at that point in time. No Electric,No cars No lake Tallulah. No Ga Power.Nothing,The road turned left and went down into town. The Huge Tressle Towered over the town.The river is all that was.And of course the Gorge. It is hard to see it now but NO roads that go toward Clayon. The raod to Clayon was far from the town of Tallulah Falls. There was no road going over the gorge.The Train Tressle was the only thing that crossed the Tallulah River. I hope this help you get more of what you need to understand the route the TF took north. Remember Rufus Layfayette Moss Sr. was the Grandmaster who brought the train to town. It was Rufus Moss was was part of the Northeast railroad company who brought the train to town. He was from Athens Ga. He owned Two Cotton mills. He owned a Bank. He fought in the Civil War. In Cobbs leagon. Then he took the road as you have outlined it out of Athens. I am puting a Name to who built it. Your page does not put a name with it. I am.He is documented to be the man who did this.If you wish to come visit me at The Moss House. On Moss street in Tallulah Falls I welcome you. I love the road as much as you do. I want Moss credited for this whole thing. I have the State of Ga helping me Honor the family with a plaque to be placed in front of the house.The Marker in front of the Train Station does not say a word about Rufus Lafayette Moss Sr. That alone is unexceptable. So I aim to change this. The Moss house was the second Home for the family. Moss used it as he brought the road north as his headquarters.

Dan A Hayes
Tallulah Falls Georgia, GA
8/15/2014

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The TTRR museum in RabunGap is full of memorabilia collected bt rail fan and TF enthusiast Dess Oliver. He and his industrial arts students at Nacoochee School built a full size 2 foot gauge train which includes a working locomotive, passenger car, caboose, crane, and putt putt. Call

7069820495 for hours and info.

Jackie oliver
Rabun gap
8/16/2014

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