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The Tallulah Gorge

Written by Buzz Williams
*This article will be featured in the upcoming Chattooga Quarterly

Hurricane Falls surrounded by rich fall foliage. Photo c/o Peter McIntosh.

The Tallulah and Chattooga Rivers are inextricably connected by geologic origin and location.  Both rivers evolved millions of years ago as a result of mountain building episodes that heated, folded, and compressed sand, sediment and mud of an ancient seabed into hard metamorphic rock with igneous inclusions. These mountains are believed to have once been as tall as the Rocky Mountains. The streams that preceded the Tallulah and Chattooga Rivers, fed by a climate producing excessive rainfall, cut through and wore these tall mountains down, reducing them by as much as 10-15,000 ft. in height to create the lower, more rounded Blue Ridge Mountains we see today.  Over time, factors including humidity, aspect, soil types and the absence of glaciation spawned incredible biological richness in the Tallulah and Chattooga watersheds.  They also share an equally rich human history.  Both rivers are natural wonders, but the Tallulah River is often overshadowed by the Chattooga River, which escaped the disastrous development that destroyed much of the Tallulah and basks in the accolades of National Wild and Scenic River designation.  The focus of this writing is aimed at telling the story of that place on the Tallulah River known as the Tallulah Gorge that, although it suffered tremendous human impact, remains one of the most impressive natural wonders in the eastern United States.

Today, the headwaters of both rivers originate from the summit of the southeastern-facing Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, between Whiteside and Standing Indian Mountains, on either side of a ridge extending down from Black Rock Mountain near Clayton, Georgia.  They drop swiftly down the steep escarpment, cutting deep gorges, and converge at the state line between Georgia and South Carolina to form the Tugaloo River in the Savannah River watershed, which eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  Some scientists believe that the Tugaloo River once flowed into the Chattahoochee River but was “captured” by a headwater stream of the Savannah River as it eroded backwards across the divide between rivers.  Since the Savannah River dropped more rapidly across elevation differences, deep gorges were cut in the bedrock.  This process was accelerated by erosion at the base of waterfalls that caused them to collapse and erode deeper into the earth. As a result, the Tallulah Gorge is 800 ft. deep in places, with spectacular waterfalls ranging from 16 ft. to almost 100 ft. in height.

A peregrine falcon nest discovered on the north rim in 2015 was the first found in a natural setting in the state of Georgia in nearly 80 years.

The various ecological niches that have developed in the Tallulah Gorge provide habitat for an unusual array of plants and animals. Forests surrounding the gorge where dry, sandy soils prevail are home to the Table Mountain Pine, a species that has evolved with natural wildfires that cause their spiny cones to open and spread seed.  The Bachman’s Sparrow and Appalachian Lilly are also found in this habitat.  Along the dry, rocky, south-facing north rim, mountain laurel, blueberries, and Bird’s Foot violets thrive.  On a rocky ledge of the north rim (pictured, left), a rare Peregrine Falcon lays eggs and fledges her chicks.  The south rim is more shaded and moist, where the endangered Green Salamander hides among lichens and moss.  Its dark body covered in green blotches serves as camouflage, protecting it from predators.  Two other beautiful herbaceous flowering plants that grow here are the Round Leaf Sundew and the White Fringeless Orchid; in fact, Tallulah Gorge is home to the largest population of these orchids in Georgia.  The upland hardwood forests that thrive on the more gentle slopes beneath the rim consist of multiple layers of vegetation.  In March, the rare Persistent Trillium grows beneath the rhododendrons and mountain laurel.  The Bird-on-the-Wing Orchid also brightens the forest floor where one may find snails, copperheads, and shrews in the forest litter among decaying logs.  Along the lower slopes, the Carolina hemlock, white pine, mountain laurel, blueberries, and Pinxter Azaleas grow in the acid soils of the talus.  Gathered around the smaller streams teeming with macroinvertebrates, such as mayflies and caddisflies, are striking herbs including Bloodroot and Showy Orchids.  Tucked away in the dark grottoes are delicate filmy ferns.  And though the aquatic ecosystem has been greatly disrupted, the Whitefin Shiner still exists in the main river.  One spring trip to the gorge is enough to convince anyone that it is a biological wonder.

George Cooke’s “Tallulah Falls”, 1841. (c/o Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia)

The Tallulah Gorge is also rich in human history.  No one knows for sure who the first person was to enter the gorge, but it was almost certainly an “Indian trader.”  Early visitors claim to have observed initials carved on a beech tree, with the date “1718.”  This jibes with known accounts of Scots-Irish fur traders originating out of Charleston, SC, who lived among the Cherokee people around that time.  Other traders who had warehouses at Silver Bluffs near Augusta, GA, were known to operate in the area in the early 18th century.  It is said that they traded blankets, axes, knives, trinkets and other goods to the Native Americans for furs, and then assembled at a place called “The Gatherings” where they prepared for the long journey back to the European settlements.

The Tallulah Gorge and surrounding lands were in the domain of the Cherokee people until 1817, when the United States government acquired them by treaty.  Then in 1820, the State of Georgia sold the land in blocks by lottery. Soon, homesteads began to appear near the gorge.  One interesting character who bought 102.5 acres near the rim of the gorge in 1841 was Adam “Squire” Vandever.  Another was “Grindstone” Weaver, who claimed that he had discovered chunks of gold in the gorge as big as a grindstone, and that he had killed over 500 deer in his hunting career.  Several “hermits” also lived in the gorge around the time of the Civil War, including John Cole Vandever, and most likely those who were deserters from the Confederate Army.  At least one hermit was known to have lived in the Tallulah Gorge as late as WWII.

The first written account of the Tallulah Gorge appeared in 1819 in Georgia Review, a newspaper published in Milledgeville, GA, written by David Hillhouse.  “The cataract of Niagara, and its great whirlpool and banks, is the only superior natural curiosity to the rapids of Tallulah, that I have ever seen,” he wrote.  News of this spectacular natural wonder spread, prompting adventurers, writers and artists to brave the wild to see for themselves.

Historical photo of the Witch’s Head prior to construction of the dam in 1913.

Tourists had discovered the Tallulah Gorge as early as the 1840s.  The small town of Clarkesville, about 10 miles south, was beginning to attract well-to-do Southerners from the lowlands around Savannah, GA, looking for respite in the cool mountains to escape the heat and mosquito-borne diseases like Yellow Fever.  Large Victorian boarding houses sprang up to accommodate them, and offered various recreational opportunities, including what they called the “Grand Tour.”  The Spencer House provided this tour, which hired horse-drawn buggies and took tourists to Currahee Mountain, Nacoochee Valley, Toccoa Falls and Tallulah Gorge. The trip to Tallulah Gorge was a rough trip along a primitive dirt road, and accommodations. once there. were even worse.  The only place to stay was a small log cabin with a leaky roof known as the “Rough and Ready.”  A few trails had been built into the gorge, and tourists began giving names to prominent rock formations, overlooks and waterfalls, including L’Eau d’ Or, Tempesta, Hurricane, Oceana, Bridal Veil, Serpentine and Sweet Sixteen.  One of the most popular rock formations was the Witch’s Head (pictured, left).

In 1882, completion of the Tallulah Railroad to Tallulah Gorge greatly increased tourist travel.  By 1885, the small town of Tallulah Falls had grown considerably, and by 1890, several grand hotels and an 80-ft. observation tower had been constructed.  The largest hotel was the Cliff House, which featured a band that played to greet tourists as they disembarked at the train station across the street.

One of the greatest tourist attraction schemes was a stunt by a tight rope walker known as Professor Leon, on July 24, 1886.  Hotel owner W. D. Young had once seen Professor Leon walk a tight rope between two buildings in Atlanta. Hoping to attract more tourists to Tallulah Gorge, he hired the aerialist to walk across the gorge and back on a tight rope for the price of $250.  The feat was advertised as the highest and longest high wire walk ever attempted at 1,000 ft. across and 1,000 ft. above the floor of the gorge. The hemp rope was strung across the river, and held steady by a series of guy ropes. On the day of the event, over 6,000 tourists arrived at Tallulah Falls to watch the death-defying walk.  In the late afternoon, the professor, steadying himself with a 30-foot pole weighing 46 pounds, started his walk from Inspiration Point on the North Rim.  About a quarter of the way across, one of the guy ropes snapped, causing the professor to gyrate wildly to keep his balance as the main cable swayed.  Finally, he managed to sit down on the cable for 9 minutes until the guy rope was retied.  Steadily, he stood and resumed his walk the rest of the way to Lover’s Leap on the South Rim.  Though the contract was for a return walk, Professor Leon was paid in full for his one trip.

Tallulah Falls after the fire of 1921. (Photo: Rabun County Historical Society)

Tourism thrived at Tallulah Gorge until Georgia Railroad and Power Company finished construction of the Tallulah Falls Dam at the head of the gorge in 1913.  When the waters in Tallulah Lake behind the dam were finally diverted into the penstock–bypassing the gorge–to generate electricity at the power plant below, the mighty roar of the rapids and scenic beauty of the falls of Tallulah Gorge were no more.  Tourism dwindled, but the near death knell came in 1921, when a roaring fire of unknown origin, fueled by vicious winds, burned the town of Tallulah Falls to the ground.  The railroad, that had been extended by this time across the Blue Ridge Mountains, now passed by the dry gorge and the burned-out town on its way carrying tourists to other destinations.

Poster advertising Karl Wallenda’s 1970 high-wire walk across the gorge.

Tallulah Gorge remained somewhat forgotten until 1970, when it became the object of another daredevil event.  The Great Wallenda, a famous German circus performer, accepted the challenge of local promoters to duplicate the high-wire crossing of the gorge by Professor Leon 84 years earlier.  On July 18th, at about 3:00 p.m., the 65-year-old aerialist walked out onto the cable stretched over the gorge as 25,000 tourists, including Governor Lester Maddox, held their breath.  It took Karl Wallenda 18 minutes and 541 careful steps, pausing twice to execute two remarkable headstands, to complete the amazing feat.

Other events gradually revitalized public attention to Tallulah Gorge, including its use for part of the filming of Deliverance in 1972.  A dream came true in 1993 when the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Georgia Power Company collaborated to build Tallulah Gorge State Park on the north rim.  Then in 1996, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required Georgia Power Company to schedule recreational and aesthetic water releases through the gorge, as a requirement for relicensing Tallulah Power Plant.

Today, Tallulah Gorge State Park draws hundreds of visitors on a sunny day to see the magnificent Tallulah Gorge. Whitewater enthusiasts gather from afar to brave the falls and rapids during spring and fall water releases.  Peregrine Falcons return regularly to nest, and the Persistent Trilliums, along with all the rich biological displays within the gorge, wait to inspire anyone who comes to visit.  Hopefully, the beauty and majesty of this natural wonder–even as affected by human travesty–will inspire the protection of our increasingly rare wild places.