It is unfortunate Rudy Ellis and Dess Oliver died before seeing the Tallulah Falls Railroad documentary video they were a significant part of.
Ellis, an author and railroad historian, and Oliver, former industrial arts teacher at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School interested in preserving Tallulah Falls Railroad history, died several weeks after they were interviewed for “Memories of a Mountain Shortline — A History of the Tallulah Falls Railroad.” It is produced by White Countians Emory Jones and David Greear and will be introduced at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Rearden Theater, Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. Showing of the documentary will be free, and copies of the DVD will be on sale afterward.
The “TF,” as it was called, has an interesting and volatile history and, as the documentary depicts, had an important impact on Northeast Georgia. That despite its series of unfortunate incidents, including accidents and bankruptcies. Among its nicknames was “Total Failure.”
Those who remember the railroad recall the dangerously high wooden trestles that snaked through the mountains from Cornelia to Franklin, N.C. There were 58 of them, some as high as 92 feet and as long as 600 feet. One had as many as four decks.
One of the most spectacular train wrecks was in February 1927 when the trestle over Hazel Creek north of Demorest collapsed. Engineer Doke Miller had the train headed back to Cornelia from Franklin. His engine, mail and baggage cars and one passenger car plunged into the creek. One man died, and another died of complications from injuries later. Few people were on the train, though 12 were injured. Engineer Miller and fireman Tom Shaders miraculously escaped.
Until the trestle was repaired, the engine and wrecked cars recovered, two trains were used with passengers walking a plank across the creek to meet the train on the other side.
Despite its troubles, the railroad opened the eyes of thousands to the beauty of the Georgia mountains, especially Tallulah Gorge and its magnificent falls. They had been coming to Tallulah Gorge by stagecoach or horse and wagon since the 1800s, but the train brought them by the hundreds.
At one time, the community of Tallulah Falls prospered with 17 hotels and a number of stores. Pictures in the documentary show crowds of people boarding and getting off the train at a depot.
The 1914-era depot, which replaced the original one that burned, is renovated and serves as a museum/gift shop. Likewise, in Cornelia, the restored depot houses railroad memorabilia, and a restored Tallulah Falls Railroad caboose sits outside. Another museum is at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, whose origins can be credited to the railroad.
The TF was featured in two movies, “The Great Locomotive Chase” starring Fess Parker in 1955, and “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain,” starring Rory Calhoun and Susan Hayward in 1950. It had only a bit part in the latter, but many of the chase scenes in Walt Disney’s “The Great Locomotive Chase” were filmed along the TF tracks for six weeks. The railroad continued to haul freight at night.
Tallulah Falls Railroad was organized in 1898 after Blue Ridge and Atlantic Railroad foreclosed the previous year. Tracks were extended to Clayton in 1904, into North Carolina in 1906 and to Franklin in 1907.
A Railroad Guide in 1906 listed W.S. Erwin of Cornelia as general manager. Trains would leave Cornelia at 6:30 a.m. daily, except Sundays, and 11:45 a.m. daily to Turnerville, Tallulah Falls and Prentiss, N.C. They would leave Prentiss at 11:48 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. to return to Cornelia 6:02 and 7:18 p.m. The TF was fairly successful hauling passengers to the mountains, but did considerable freight business, too, carrying timber, lumber products and minerals.
However, passengers began to dwindle as automobiles proliferated, better highways were paved, and that service discontinued in 1946. In addition, in spite of considerable opposition, Georgia Power dammed Tallulah Falls for a hydroelectric project, making them less attractive to tourists.
The freight business continued, but it wasn’t enough to keep the trains running. Ironically, the train delivered paving materials during road construction, helping to lead to its demise. In March 1961, with the railroad $5 million in debt, it was sold for scrap, although a small section of the TF continued to run for several years between Cornelia and Demorest.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.