Town of Tallulah Falls History
Profoundly impressed, the early adventurers spread the word about what they had seen: A deep gorge, surrounded by heavily forested mountains, and six thundering waterfalls. Their reports intrigued others, who determined to view for themselves such awe-inspiring scenery. Some of them decided to stay, and thus began the history of the Town of Tallulah Falls.
Even before it was incorporated on October 7, 1885 -- in fact, as early as the 1870s -- hotels, boarding houses and restaurants had been built to accommodate visitors. It seems, however, that the first boarding house, Beale's (also known as "Rough 'n' Ready"), apparently existed before the Civil War. Later guests had their choice of Young's Hotel, the Grandview, the Willard House, Maplewood Inn, Arcadia, Garson House, the Tallulah Lodge, the Cliff House and the Oakes, among others.
At first, the journey to Tallulah Falls involved life-threatening risks due to its wilderness location. But after the railroad, constructed in 1882, made travel easier, the town began to grow and tourists streamed to the area in ever-increasing numbers. Soon it became one of the most popular resorts in the South for newlyweds and families who visited or made it their summer home.
Besides the three-mile long, approximately 1000-foot deep Gorge with its falls, one of the attractions to the area may have been the hospitality extended to its guests. A brass band greeted train riders. Hotels also provided their own bands and entertainment. Recreational opportunities available included dancing, bowling, fishing, hiking, hay, buggy and surrey rides, and horseback riding. Geographically the Gorge is three miles long. However, because of the way the river twists and turns, visitors usually only see the heart of the Gorge, which is approximately one and one-half miles in length.
Two sensational tight-rope-walking events also helped focus the spotlight on the area. The first to tight-rope walk over the gorge was "Professor Leon" (professional name of J.A. St. John) in 1886. He made it across, though not without incident -- one of the main guy lines attached to the rope either broke or was cut. The second, Karl Wallenda, performed his act in 1970 in front of a crowd of 35,000, including the then-governor of Georgia, Lester G. Maddox.
By the time Wallenda crossed the Gorge via wire, however, the tourist trade had decreased. Why?
Tourism began to slow down for various reasons. The extension of the railroad to Clayton, Ga., and Franklin, N.C., caused many travelers to by-pass Tallulah Falls. In 1913 the construction of a dam and the diverting of the waters of the river virtually eliminated the falls, one of the area's main attractions, at that time. Fortunately, that is no longer the case today. The average daily water flow now is 45-50 cubic feet (cfs) per second. In the spring and autumn, 200 cfs rushes through the gorge during the aesthetic water releases and 500 cfs (Saturday) and 700 cfs (Sunday) during whitewater boater releases.
The fire of 1921 -- which consumed almost all the hotels and shops in the town, as well as the railroad tracks -- destroyed any hope of the area's recovering its former glory. Many of the residents simply did not have the money to rebuild. Another blow was the discontinuance of passenger service via train and, in 1961, of the railroad itself.
Did Tallulah Falls become a ghost town? By no means! Although not as many people come as did in its heyday, the area still attracts many people every year. Various types of recreation, such as swimming, hiking, and camping, may still be enjoyed, and the shops -- some perched on the edge of the gorge -- are a good place to acquire souvenirs.
In addition, Tallulah Gorge State Park schedules many interesting activities, including ranger-led hikes, craft workshops, natural and cultural interpretive programs, and other unusual and fun projects. Check our events calendar for listings of special activities planned by the state park and the Town of Tallulah Falls.
Information obtained from The Hills of Habersham, by Mary L. Church; Georgia Place Names by Kenneth Krakow; and A North Georgia Journal of History (Volumes III and IV), by Olin Jackson. Special thanks to the Tallulah Gorge State Park for additional information and assistance with checking the facts about the Gorge and Falls.)