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Sunday, June 21, 2015

275 years of adventure tourism through Rabun County


“It was a good country to come from, but a hard country to get to”

Most travelers, have little trouble finding Rabun County, Georgia, today; but that was not always the case. What remains one of the jewels of North East Georgia was not always so convenient, but it has taken two- and- three- quarter’s centuries of early adopters, through a rich and colorful history, to create and preserve our location as one of the most enduring tourist destinations in the South. We seem so close to everything, few travelers could believe how deeply historic travel roots run through our mountains. Today, most travelers find us the high tech way, using TripAdvisor, and GPS at every intersection, but our origins were decidedly low tech. Our early tourists moved through the County, much as they continue to do into the present day, all be it without the bells and whistles, and in truth were really not tourists at all. The Cherokee Nation ranged from the Appalachian Mountains all the way to the Mississippi River, and from the Ohio River to the Piedmont of present –day Georgia and Alabama. This area of some 100,000 square miles was first inhabited by a Mound builders, a civilization beginning in about 2500 BC and lasting to about 1400 AD. By the time of first Spanish contact with the Cherokee and the beginning of epidemics (1697) there may have been as many as 50,000 members of the Nation.

The movement on North- South routes convenient through the Appalachian Mountains was the Cherokees natural transportation corridor crisscrossed by trails connected villages near present day Franklin, North Carolina, to Hiawassee, Georgia and all along the Chattooga River.  Of the many large and small villages established along these routes, the closest, Turura, (a name thought to be a variation on “Tallulah”) was in the Tallulah Falls area. Continuing north, present day Clayton, Georgia was once known by the Cherokees as “Dividing’s”, several miles north is present day Mountain City, Georgia originally named “Passover”.  Each of these names were descriptive of geography as well as the natural flow of travel into and out of the area. As in the case of “Passover” one would passover through the Gap in essence crossing the Eastern Continental Divide.

Military tourism, not typical of today’s Priceline Negotiator was the order of the day, and each group traversed the well-worn Cherokee path. Early European explorers, the first real tourists, who traversed this gateway through Appalachia may have included Hernado De Soto (1496-1592) who in 1540’s, hunting for gold (on his way from Florida like many travelers today) ventured through the area.The History of American Indians in 1775. Each of these travelling expeditions described what they found. In his account of the area, Adair described “French Waters” or “Herbert’s Spring”. According to his account, Carolina traders into the Cherokee Nation, after exceeding their planned stay, reported that whosoever drank of Herbert’s Spring could not possibly leave the Cherokee Nation for seven years. This location is thought to be along this same path near present day Mountain City, Georgia, and is possibly Darling Springs today.
William Bartram
American naturalist William Bartram ventured through the area in 1775. Irishman and American explorer, James Adair (1709-1783) lived amongst the native peoples in the area for some forty years prior to publishing his book

“Whosoever drank of Herbert’s Spring could not possibly leave the Cherokee Nation for seven years”
The military adventures continued during the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), as French, British and American forces moved through the area. The British trudged from Charleston over the Chattooga (1759-1761) during the so called Cherokee Wars. They visited their forts along the Tennessee River. Again, British and Americans visited during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). We were indeed very fortunate to see such early travel to the region, while unfortunately it continued to squeeze out the Cherokee, it also sketched out an area of rich and diverse resources. These early adventures certainly manufactured interest, and the influx of land and fortune seekers it brought put pressure on the Cherokee residents, until control of the region ended for the Cherokee and the ceded lands were organized as Rabun County in 1819. The first land rush began to this land, soon followed by the gold rush when substantial amounts were found in the 1830’s, far earlier than the ‘49ers began our Manifest Destiny to the West. All of these events and the influx of people produced reports and stories that lead to the advent of very early tourism for tourism sake. 

As early as 1819, the September Georgia Journal firmly established the new era of tourism to the area when it published a description of Tallulah Falls as “one of the greatest known curiosities in the United States”.
Currier and Ives-Tallulah Falls
These high praises began enticing people to explore the region at the most basic level. Travelers, often with guides traversed the wilderness any way they could. Soon, engravings appeared in illustrated periodicals of the day where Tallulah Falls took on a life of its own as “the Grand Canyon of the East” or “Niagara of the South”. It is indeed impressive as in less than a mile, the River plunges 500 feet with six major waterfalls: Ladore (46 Feet), Tempesta (76 feet), Hurricane (96 feet), Oceana (50 feet), Bridal Veil (17 feet) and Lover’s Leap (16 feet). The other waterfalls in the area (19 major falls, a many more minor) were first described by these adventurers, who as early as 1835, used rough camps throughout the area as forward bases for tourism.

“Tallulah is destined to be the resort of the South”
York Ad c 1907
In 1854 construction went forward on two tunnels in Rabun County to connect the Blue Ridge Railroad connection into South Carolina. While North East Georgia saw no Civil War action, it squelched any railroad progress during the War. At the conclusion of the war, numerous railroad schemes were planned as travelers once again began to venture to the area. Athens Banner- Watchman announced that “Tallulah is destined to be the resort of the South”.   Tallulah Falls was one of the largest attractions in the South at that time, with as many as 2000 visitors hiking the Gorge on a typical Sunday afternoon. Justice Logan Bleckley (1827-1909) once wrote about Rabun County, “It was a good country to come from, but a hard country to get to”. That, in ways, has a bit of truth to it, even today. Getting around our area can be difficult at times, especially when you get off the beaten track and feel that you have fallen into a scene from Deliverance. But that is part of the adventure, and part of the fun that has captivated! Many people in the early days arrived for the cool summer climate and to escape malaria-carrying mosquitos or the typhoid fever epidemics that periodically racked the large cities. Temperate climate, fresh air and clean spring waters were the best antidote for the respiratory infections and diseases of the day. There were limits, however, our Inn, The York House, offered accommodation to guests after about 1910 with the caveat “no consumptives taken”.
York Ad c 1910


Northbound Freight-Clayton
Many, were encouraged by the completion of the fledgling Tallulah Falls Railroad, which arrived from Atlanta and Athens in 1882. Some old timers describe the “TF” as standing for a “Total Failure”, but it was far from that. Before long a “sort of Athens Colony “of wealthy families had homes in the area, and in 1884 the

The rails that began expanding access to the region did so in an efficient and inexpensive way. For as little as a $3.35 round trip ticket from Atlanta, visitors swarmed into the area for the day, week or months at a time.
1904 Excursion to Tiger
These eco travelers of yester year, pushed the Tallulah Falls Railroad extension, but even so, it took until 1904 to complete the line to Clayton and in 1907 it finally reached the remainder of the distance to Franklin, North Carolina. Tourism development activities which drew people to visit were of course good for business as they are today, “Professor Leon” a daring aerialist performed the feat of tightrope walking across Tallulah Gorge in 1886. This was almost one hundred years prior to Karl Wallenda, for which Rabun County will celebrate the 45th anniversary of his walk, this year.

Cliff House c 1906
The railroad fueled swell of tourism encouraged an era of grand hotels and boardinghouses to be developed all though out the area. Many of the wealthy adventurers we not used to roughing it apparently, and the abundant supply of trees kept the many sawmills busy during this railroad and lodging building boom. By 1900 up to seventeen hotels and boarding houses were available in Tallulah Falls alone.
TFR 1918 Timetable
Many more sprung up all through Rabun, roughly following the route of “Old Highway 441”. There were many small cottages, meant to accommodate perhaps thirty guests, all the way up to the largest hotels such as the Cliff House, Grand View or Tallulah Lodge which lodged over 300 guests in travel guide worthy accommodations.

These full service hotels and boarding houses drew visitors following railroad progress along the line. Several, including the Dickerson House in Wolffork Valley, Rabun Gap continued operating faithfully for each new “Season” of visitors into the 1970’s.

“Hydro- Electric Company” survivors
Tallulah Lodge c 1904-1906
While tourism worked its magic in the area, so too did the tremendous hydraulic resources of the rivers. It didn’t take long for the “Hydro- Electric Company”, Georgia Railway and Power Company (now Georgia Power) to dam up the entire operation in the 1912-1913 period streaming electricity to Atlanta. Power from hydroelectric sources in nearby Dillard reached our Rabun Gap location in 1907. This operation was the beginning of the end to the major attraction of Tallulah Falls raw power, and thus the decline of the grand hotels and lodging in the area began. While the dam operation was the largest Hydro power operation until the TVA, the number one producer of electricity in Georgia for many years, it still impacted tourism in the Tallulah Falls area which was essentially finished off with the fire of 1921 which destroyed almost all available lodging. Perhaps offsetting this loss, was the construction of many homes along the newly minted shorelines along Lakes Rabun and Burton. The Cliff House constructed by “the father of Tallulah Falls”, Rufus Moss survived until 1937 when fire sealed its doom as it did throughout the years to the rest of the areas lodging operations. Now only the Rufus Moss House (1880) survives in Tallulah Falls, its days of a great lodging area now passed.   
Chance Vickers and W S Long Tallulah Falls c 1905

York House c 1907
Sadly, our Inn, the York House established in 1896 is now one of the last surviving examples of this great era.
With the distinction as the only lodging place on the National Register of Historic Places in the area, the oldest continuous business in the County, we are also the oldest continuously operating Inn in the State of Georgia. At the time it was established, York advertised its availability, being only a “five hours drive from Tallulah Falls” (a trip that today approaches 15 minutes!). With the arrival of the railroad and a Rabun Gap stop, what began as two rooms in the original chestnut log cabin, transformed with the help of railroad travel in 1907 to 26 rooms.
York House Inn today

The trip from Tallulah Falls was only 1 hour 24 minutes to the Rabun Gap stop just 400 yards from the York House front door! Hoping off the train, weary travelers were “driven” to the York House front door. Travelers, restrained only by the available timetable of the railroad, ventured into the area to spend a few days, weeks or even months exploring.  We are constantly reminded of the “legs” of this era of tourism, as we are visited by families who have been visiting with us for upwards of 80 years. Several examples of Inns of the later 1920’s period remain operational today as well, namely the Lake Rabun Hotel and Beechwood Inn.

The first automobile
Traveler to York House 1930
The first automobile was seen in Rabun County in 1911, and with it came the slow demise of rail traffic ( Tallulah Falls Railroad ceased operation in 1961). Road improvements were however still very rough and it was not until the 1930’s that paving was completed that could carry travelers from Atlanta to Franklin, North Carolina.
1st car up new road to Blackrock 1931
Still tourism continued as the area and improved roadways became an important element of travel. With the arrival of the Great Depression and through World War II, Rabun County experienced great hardship. Notwithstanding the works of the WPA and CCC, the County would have been even more desperate without tourists who continued to favor the area. Kids were also welcome, and there were, and are to this day, many children’s camps in the area which were quite busy throughout this period.
Y Camp
Many of these camps provided recreational outlets while the Greatest Generation were in their youth. Lillian Smith’s Camp Laurel Falls for Girls (1925-1948) were hugely popular, and many such as Camp Dixie for Boys and Girls (1914) continue to this day.
Tallulah Gorge Lookout c 1930
Even with rail and wheels, options to get out and explore were primarily localized as many areas were very difficult to reach. The road to the top of Blackrock Mountain( the highest state park in Georgia) was not completed until 1931 and which point cars to travel to the top so occupants could see Georgia, North Carolina and even Tennessee from the comfort of a car. Rabun’s agriculture a key element in its economic survival would sustain its residents and tourists, but most food was still grown at the site of an Inn or hotel. Our Inn produced its own food and continued to use a spring house for water and keeping foods into the 1950’s. Most guests stayed around their hotels, rocking away on the porches, or returning when the bell rang to mark three daily meal times, another practice which continued at the York House through the 1960’s.

“Where Spring Spends the Summer”
Fortunately, the vast government holdings of available land was the answer to a wilderness prayer. Today Rabun County is graced with the largest holding of State Parks in Georgia, and the Chattahoochee National Forest. An incredible 60% of the County remains in State or National Forest or protected by the 20% holding of Georgia Power. The north-central portion of the County is the watershed of the Little Tennessee River which flows northward from Mountain City onward to eventually join the Mississippi River. The Eastern Continental Divide runs through Rabun County, providing mild weather throughout the warmer months of the year, leading to the county’s slogan “Where Spring Spends the Summer”. This same Divide accounts for the “Smokies” on mountains as well as our standing as the rainiest County East of the Mississippi. An astounding average for rainfall is about 70 inches and the wettest annual rainfall 103.51 inches was set in 1979. No wonder just about anything put in the ground grows!

It was estimated that something on the order of 50,000 guests stayed in the County in 1929, today Tallulah Gorge State Park is ranked in the top ten parks nationally, and alone is visited by over 260,000 annually. Tallulah continues to draw those interested in this unique eco system. Recently our guests included entomologists from the British Museum collecting in the area and visitors to the Gorge were treated to discover the first nesting group of Peregrine Falcons in the Gorge for the last 80 years! We continue our rich history of serving travelers, along this same historic route, flocking to the area to get away from coastal heat in the summer months. As a primary corridor from urban areas, you might be surprised that a getaway can be so close by. What used to take days of travel is but a few hours from Atlanta, Greenville SC or Asheville NC. The County also draws seasonal visitors from all over Florida. Today’s globalism has drawn many nationalities, as visitors from China, England, France and Germany roam through the area, solidifying our international destination credentials.

Today, we have the features and benefits for a wide range of activities. Many visit our numerous State Parks and a National Forest, and explore hiking, waterfalls, fishing, boating, kayaking and white water rafting. There are still times of the year during the periods of aesthetic water release where you can experience some of Tallulah Gorge as it may have appeared to early travelers. It isn’t just about nature anymore.
Whitewater Rafting
There is really something for everyone as our area hosts events during the year including motor sports clubs, Wanna Go Fast racing on our Heaven’s Landing runway, national bicycle races, the annual Warrior Dash, festivals and BBQ competitions. Motorcycles are made for our roads and scenery as an estimated 250,000 riders make the run through the area.
Kayak
If you enjoy history, you are sure to find what they are looking for. Be sure to visit our fine Rabun County Historical Society museum in Clayton, where you can pick up historic walking and driving tour information. Rabun County designated the “Farm to Table Capitol” of Georgia, boasts the highest density of Best Chef America award winners in the nation, and each of our farm to table restaurants feature the abundant range of fruits and vegetables grown locally. Our wineries, (Stonewall Creek, Tiger Mountain Vineyards and, 12 Spies Vineyard)
Harvest at Tiger Mountain Vineyard
and the unique taste of Appalachian culture at such destinations as Foxfire, offer another reason for travelers to explore. For those who enjoy shopping, many fine stores are in the area for local items, clothing, home furnishings or art galleries. If you want to de-stress, Amara Center is the perfect Spa to relax and be pampered for massages or facials. Many come to visit for the antiques or even to attend antique auctions at Golden Memories Auctions, one of the largest in the region.
Golden Memories Auctions


Each of our visitors, enjoy the North East Georgia experience today just as much as they have for so many years. While many come to camp, or to spend time at their own lake home or cabin, we also feature many of the regions finest Inns. There is really no better way to experience the area than by staying for a night or more at the survivors from the golden era of travel. We all welcome you with fine amenities, farm to table meals and even wine “happier hours”. A visit to our neck of the woods is just the answer for people seeking the same authentic experience in North East Georgia that we have been providing literally for centuries and since the advent of tourism.