Flames fluttered, and sparks flew.
As the burning embers blossomed into a mature blaze, Rabun County residents rushed to keep their dreams of educating their children from disintegrating into mere ash.
While memories seem murky as to what started the fire at the Lakemont School, many recall what happened next. Against the crackles of the conflagration, those fighting the fire heard a cacophony of familiar sounds — the rumble of the tracks, the whirl of the wheels — followed by an unexpected noise.
The brakes hissed as the engine squealed to a stop, and the train’s workers clamored out of the cars, rushing to help.
On that day in 1959, the Tallulah Falls Railroad proved what many in the region already knew and would remember for decades to come.
“It was more than a railroad,” said Emory Jones. “It was a member of the community, so much so that to this day, people refer to it as their ‘friend.’”
Remembering the Shortline
Two local filmmakers recently decided to dedicate their efforts to telling the tale of what is arguably the Southeast’s most beloved (albeit beleaguered) railroad in their documentary, “Memories of a Mountain Shortline – A History of the Tallulah Falls Railroad.”
David Greear of Helen and Emory Jones of Cleveland both found themselves captivated by the locomotion line that served the communities between Cornelia and Franklin in various stages and capacities from the late 1890s to the mid-1980s.
“The (railroad) had so much mystique and notoriety, and I’d grown up hearing stories about it, since my families been in this area for several generations,” Greear said. “I knew enough about it that my curiosity was sparked, but I certainly wasn’t an authority.”
So the two history buffs set out to find those experts that could explain the phenomenon of the railroad that was called “friend” by some and “total failure” by others.
The end result is a 57-minute Ken Burns-style documentary that features 18 Northeast Georgians who have loved and lived with the memory of the railroad that did so much to change the area.
“We’re really proud of the way we were able to tell the story of this 58-mile shortline railroad that just had so much love thrown on it by the people because of what it did to the area,” Jones said.
Mere words are inadequate to explain the impact the railroad had on the communities it passed through, says Carol Turner.
As a volunteer and former board member at the Rabun County Historical Society, Turner has dedicated years to uncovering the railroad’s impact, and she has it boiled down to three words: “It was everything.”
“Truly,” she said. “It was absolutely everything to this county.”
At the time, the town’s waterfalls made the area an attractive resort town… to those who could get there.
“Everyone sees (the falls) now and think, ‘Oh, it’s so easy to get there,’ but at the time, that wasn’t the case. This was the frontier,” Turner said.
Thus, the railroad allowed travelers a beautiful new world, and practically overnight, the small resort town transformed into a national attraction that some say rivaled Niagara Falls.
“As soon as the railroad arrived, Main Street was filled from north to south with hotels and boarding houses,” Turner said.
While the tourism industry eventually dwindled, the railroad found another means of redefining the area. In the early 1900s, Georgia Power chose the Tallulah River to be its new energy project. They constructed the damn at Tallulah Falls, thus creating the Tallulah Falls Lake that exists to this day. Additionally, the corporation built several more dams and hydroelectric plants that still operate today.
“It would have been impossible to build these without the railroad existing to bring the supplies,” Turner said. “Without the railroad, Georgia Power would have found some other river.”
And finally, the rail planted a lasting legacy for Rabun County, which has more national forest than any other Georgia County. The railroad fostered a large logging industry, and within a matter of years, the county had vast stretches devoid of their trees. When the Weeks Act of 1911 formed the United States Forest Service with the mission of restoring forests to areas that suffered from heavy logging, Rabun County fit the goal, and forest rangers got down to the business of restoring and preserving the area’s trees.
“All of these things – opening the area to tourists, constructing the dams, the logging and the forest service – happened in approximately a 25-year time span,” Turner said. “And these are huge things that made our county what it is today, and they happened because the railroad arrived.”
Slow and steady
Known for its numerous wooden trestles, the Tallulah Falls Railroad was a beautiful sight. And while the line is now credited with the overarching legacies Turner categorized, it also impacted individuals’ lives.
In a time when jobs were scarce, the railroad offered numerous employment opportunities. Families fed themselves on the money they earned by building the trestles and the tracks, by selling firewood to the railroad to keep the engines running, by serving the guests that came to the area, or by importing or exporting various goods carried by the trains.
“When we (were filming), folks kept stressing how this was a source of income for their families,” Jones said. “The thing that was most surprising to me about making this documentary was that when we were planning it, I thought we’d have problems finding enough people to talk about the railroad, but we had the opposite problem. We couldn’t get people to stop talking about it. Every time we thought we had wrapped up, people would say, ‘Hey, call so-and-so. They know about this or that.’ We almost couldn’t find a stopping point, because of how many people still felt connected to that train.”
Oftentimes, those on the train would toss candy and other treats to the children watching it pass.
“They’d throw that there Juicy Fruit chewing gum out to us,” long-time Rabun County resident Doris Welch says in the film. “Back then, chewing gum was hard to get. It was a treat to get chewing gum.”
And residents bestowed their own nickname, “Total Failure Railroad,” on the line that was notoriously late.
“It was very, very slow,” Rabun County resident Barbara Taylor Woodall told the camera. “My mother… jested one time that the train was so slow that this fellow gave up on waiting for it and decided to just lay down on the track and commit suicide… (but) he starved to death before it got there.”
Lights, camera, action
According to the filmmakers, the railway had its “last hurrah” when Hollywood came to town.
Walt Disney himself chose the railroad as the perfect place to film his historical drama, “The Great Locomotive Chase,” which starred Fess Parker and told the story of the Union soldiers who stole a Confederate train from the town that is now Kennesaw.
“Walt came here during the filming and wore a Confederate hat the whole time he was here,” Jones said. “They say that he just loved trains and that he considered buying the railroad. Think about how that could have changed things. Disney World could have been here instead of where it is.”
But Disney World did not come to Rabun County, and in the end, salvation did not come for the railroad that petered out of existence.
Now, little remains of the community’s influential friend.
“It was such a big part of people’s lives, and now there’s not much of a trace,” Greear said.
Keeping history alive
While the train may no longer run and the trestles may no longer stand, the filmmakers say they hope their documentary helps the railroad live a little bit longer in the county upon which it bestowed so much.
“This was important to this area of Georgia. It is important to this area of Georgia,” Greear said.
Even though it might not appear in the history books alongside more prominent periods of the past, Greear said it still deserves to be remembered.
“No, it’s not national history, but it is local history, and that’s just as important,” he said. “No, you can’t read about it in your school books, but it’s close to home, so you can do something even better. You can visualize it. You can drive down the road and see where this railroad was. It’s something you can almost touch or feel or at least get a sense of, and it’s right in your own backyard.”
Or, at the very least, in your own DVD player, as the film is now available for sale at www.yonahtreasures.com.
Story by Bekah Porter | Photography for Home Magazine