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Tourists came by rail to see gorgeous gorge

POSTED: June 24, 2012 1:00 a.m.

The legend of Nacoochee, whose name is attached to that lovely valley just south of Helen in White County, is well known.

Several versions have her and her lover Sautee or Cushtaree (take your pick) dying in a fight or in a leap off Yonah Mountain.

It seems a common story among Indian princesses. Maybe one is true and wove its way into other legends.

Lesser known and similar to the Nacoochee story is the one about Tallulah, for whom that famous gorge in Rabun and Habersham counties is known.

One version of that story is that some white explorers had a fight with some Indians in that vicinity, the Indians coming out on top this time. The chief was Grey Eagle, who decided to nurse some of the wounded white explorers back to health and send them back to Savannah, from where they had come, to warn other potential adventurers to stay away from Indian lands to the north.

Among the caregivers was Grey Eagle’s daughter, Tallulah. Naturally, she fell in love with the white men’s leader. They wanted to run away together to Savannah; instead, the white leader decided to ask Grey Eagle for permission to marry Tallulah.

Bad strategy. The chief was so surprised and enraged that he sentenced his daughter’s lover to die. Thus, Grey Eagle would have the white man thrown over a cliff in the gorge, forcing his daughter to watch the execution. Tallulah didn’t want to part company with her lover and leapt to her death behind him.

So that’s how Tallulah Gorge and Tallulah Falls got their names. However, the Indians called the gorge Uganyi, and the white folks supposedly named it Tallulah, apparently in memory of the Indian princess who threw herself into the gorge after her lover.

Who knows? Maybe there was an epidemic of Indian princesses leaping from the high ground after their lovers.

Another lovely Indian, Trahlyta, is the stuff of legends, but died less dramatically. She maintained her beauty by drinking from a fountain of youth. Her spurned lover, Wahsega, kidnapped her and spirited her away from the youth-giving waters. Her health and beauty therefore failed, and she died after asking to be buried near her home and fountain of youth.

Cherokee Indian legend has it that she’s buried under that pile of rocks at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Ga. 60 north of Dahlonega. And tradition is that passers-by chunk a rock on the pile. The site, called Stonepile Gap, is near Porter Springs, a former health resort that grew up along the anti-aging waters that Trahlyta had sipped.

Nik Wallenda’s hyped-up walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls recently was the first such attempt. When his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, walked a wire across Tallulah Gorge in 1970, it was the second such walk.

The first was by Professor Bachman in 1883. That walk was part of a promotion by a Tallulah Falls hotel when the tourist industry first began to blossom in that area.

Tourism flourished because the Northeastern Railroad brought people from Athens to Tallulah Falls. New hotels were built, and others expanded. Capt. W.D. Young was among the entrepreneurs.

Skeptics pooh-poohed the idea of a hotel, saying he didn’t have the money to build one. Raising his hands, he responded, “Yes, but I have these hands to back me.” One hundred rooms later, he not only had a hotel, but built a bridge over the Tallulah River and two roads.

When the train from Athens to Tallulah Falls reached Turnerville, it would be dark, and the conductor would walk ahead of the train with a lantern the last four miles to watch for landslides or track and trestle problems.

Lute Johnson was a well-known guide in Tallulah Gorge in the 1880s. Dr. Samuel Hape, first mayor and for whom the town of Hapeville is named, was an explorer type who got lost in Tallulah Gorge in 1883. Johnson and others searched for 23 hours to find him.

Dr. Hape had to spend the night in the gorge, and kept warm with a fire from splinters off his walking cane. When found, he had to be fished from the chasm with a 300-foot rope. Two rescuers were injured during the search.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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