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How you got over the mountains in early days

POSTED: July 8, 2012 1:00 a.m.

We think nothing of a trip to the mountains these days. From Gainesville, one can be in the heights of the hills in less than an hour’s drive north.

It wasn’t that easy in the days when North Georgia was just being appreciated for its natural beauty by people other than Indians. In the 1880s, of course, the few roads through the mountains weren’t paved, and there were no automobiles to shift into lower gears for climbing the altitude.

For example, the road over Unicoi Gap between Nacoochee Valley and Hiawassee was rugged, rutted and narrow. Wagons and some horses and buggies could negotiate it with care, but it took hours to cross.

The Northeastern Railroad from Athens to Clarkesville enabled many who’d never penetrated the mountains to see them for the first time. Newspapers sent writers into the hills to report their findings.

One unnamed writer from an Athens paper glowingly described his wanderings through the mountains and his trip over what he called “Unicoy Gap” at the time.

The state had laid stone on parts of the road. A private citizen operated the toll, opening a gate at the bottom of the mountain for travelers passing through. Actually, the writer explained, the “gate” was no more than a sapling pole strung between two other poles.

The travelers’ only contact with life was a lonely cabin on the White County side, where its owner “ekes out an existence with a mixture of mountain dew and agriculture.” Going down the mountain toward the south, the buggy the writer was riding in had to ford the Chattahoochee River a few times as the road took a different route at that time, and there were no bridges.

“On one hand towered a precipitous mountain; on the other a deep gorge, through which flowed the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. The road is a naturally wild one, and in some places quite dangerous, in case your horse veered to the right or left, for in many parts there are deep gorges protected only by a frail banister formed of poles nailed to trees. In some places you must descend a precipitous bluff, which obstacles are overcome by winding your passage like a worm fence.”

Noting that the sun was obscured by mountain peaks and thick foliage, the travelers were relieved to get to the bottom of the mountain and proceed to Nacoochee Valley. “ ... When at last to drive out upon the vale, a sensation is experienced of a man who has escaped from a vault into the pure air of heaven.”

The Athens writer eventually made his way to Clarkesville, a town he described as a resort that had died, but was making a comeback because of the railroad. He gave the people of Athens credit for Clarkesville’s renaissance after the Civil War.

“When the progressive citizens of Athens contracted for the extension of the Northeastern Railroad,” he said, “and the shrill whistle of the locomotive broke the death-like stillness ... Clarkesville awoke with a start, and encouraged by her past importance and fame, at once took her place among the live and progressive towns of the railroad age. To the enterprise of Athens does Clarkesville owe its present importance and prosperity.”

The writer couldn’t get enough of the Habersham County seat. “There is not a finer climate than that of Clarkesville,” he wrote. “The atmosphere that you breathe is balmy and invigorating, forcing an active circulation of the blood, and infesting new activity into all the senses.”

He praised the abundant and clear water. “Here you can drink the pure freestone water that frosts the goblet that is passed to your lips.”

The writer foresaw a fabulous future for Clarkesville with new industries prospecting and livery stables providing transportation for train passengers wanting to explore nearby attractions. Wagonloads of goods already were coming over the mountains from Tennessee and North Carolina. He predicted rampant growth for Habersham County, but especially for Clarkesville.

The U.S. Post Office Department often named their offices different from the common name of communities. For instance, the post office at Candler in southern Hall County became known as “Hopewell,” and Pendergrass in Jackson County “Emory.” They said Pendergrass was too long for its sign.

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

 


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