This is a month of two anniversaries relating to North Georgia rivers. May 3, 1962 marks the passing of Helen Dortch Longstreet, initiator of one of the first conservation movements in our state. In 1911, 48-year old Helen opposed Georgia Power’s plan to dam the Tallulah River for electric power production. Her efforts failed and the resulting dam is still in operation today in the town of Tallulah Falls. But a walk on the nearby Helen Dortch Longstreet Trail System, so named in 1999, illustrates the fame of Georgia’s “Fighting Lady”.
The trail leads above and past 6 spectacular waterfalls that occupy Tallulah Gorge. Local bedrock is between 250 and 500 million years old. Sandstone that had occupied the area began to be squeezed when the old supercontinent Pangaea was forming. Giant compression forces acted on the rock in a complicated pattern. Under the heat and pressure from the process, sandstone turned into quartzite, a very hard rock. A long time later, the Tallulah River was carving away at softer bedrock, lengthening its valley in the upstream direction. Eventually it reached the location of today’s Tallulah Gorge. It encountered a mix of tough quartzite and fractured slabs of schist, another metamorphic rock. This put an end to smooth erosion and gentle down-wearing. Slabs and boulders broke off in the weakest spots. Big chunks splashed into the river, creating rapids and whirlpools.
On a hike along the Longstreet Trails one can see the falls L’Eau d’Or (“Golden Water”) and Tempesta. An easy descent down hundreds of stairs requires an arduous return trip back to the top of the 1,000 foot deep gorge. But the view is worth it, and the Park Service thoughtfully provides water fountains along the way. At the bottom, Hurricane Falls drops down 96 feet. Farther downstream, Oceana, Bridal Veil, and Lovers’ Leap offer more sights of the Tallulah River’s power.
Multiple signs warning against stepping off the pathway illustrate the dangers of the slippery rocks. Twenty years ago this month, 17-year old Rachel Mae Trois lost her life in the Chattooga River when she fell and got trapped underwater in a whirlpool. Her father and rescuers suffered unbearable agony when efforts to retrieve her body failed for many weeks. It’s a grim reminder to take the warnings seriously and enjoy Tallulah Gorge by keeping to the safe walkways.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.