Tallulah Falls and a 1,000 Foot Deep Canyon
Tallulah Gorge State Park is a spectacular joint venture of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Georgia Power to preserve one of the deepest canyons in the eastern United States.It is located in the city limits of Tallulah Falls, Georgia.
The Tallulah Gorge is a canyon that reaches depths of nearly 1,000 feet and features seven key waterfalls. It is two miles long and is rich in both natural and cultural history. The gorge is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia and is one of the oldest geological formations in North America. It has been forming for thousands of years.
Prehistoric Native Americans discovered the canyon and hunted along its rim and in its deep bottom. The Cherokee were living here when the first European explorers arrived in the region. The Hernando de Soto expedition first documented the presence of the Cherokee in the mountains of North Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee in 1540.
Although many people believe that the name “Tallulah” originated with the Cherokee, this is far from certain. The name is similar to a Cherokee word that means “The Terrible,” but the Native Americans themselves called Tallulah Falls Ugun’yi. A Cherokee tradition holds that the waterfalls in the gorge were the home of Thunder, a great horned snake that sent bolts of lightning from his mouth instead of a tongue.
According to the story, a young Cherokee warrior fell in love with one of Thunder’s sisters, who was a beautiful young woman even though her brother was a snake. He went with her into the falls to meet her family but expressed fear when he found that she lived in a cave among snakes and other creatures. A critical moment came Thunder invited him to attend a council and the young warrior requested a horse to ride and his potential bride returned with a great Uktena or snake:
…The hunter was terribly frightened, and said “That is a snake; I can’t ride that.” The brother grew impatient and the hunter was almost dead with fear, and said, “What kind of horrible place is this? I can never stay here to live with snakes and creeping things.” The brother got very angry and called him a coward, and then it was as if lightening flashed from his eyes and struck the young man, and a terrible crash of thunder stretched him senseless. He made his way out and finally reached his own settlement, but found then that he had been gone so very long that all the people had thought him dead, although to him it seemed only the day after the dance. His friends questioned him closely, and, forgetting the warning, he told the story; but in seven days he died, for no one can come back from the underworld and tell it and live. [James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, 345-347]
So far as is known, the name “Tallulah” was first applied to the canyon and its falls by early settlers at some point before the Civil War. Even today, some claim that strange things exist in the bottom of Tallulah Gorge.
The story of the Ghost of Tallulah Falls, for example, first appeared in print in 1891 when a Toccoa newspaper published a story on the supposed haunting of the gorge by a long dead Cherokee warrior who would frown and shoot at intruders who invaded his sanctuary. The article was repeated in other newspapers and an eyewitness described his own encounter with the ghost in a letter to the Chicago Herald:
…(S)uddenly I saw a man rise to his feet with a very serious look, presenting his deadly rifle at me. As I turned I shouted, ‘take care of
yourself, Joe!’ I struck a bee line for the hotel. The sharp report of a pistol followed my good legs. I cried, I felt the ball hit; I felt the blood
run down my back; but had no time to tarry. I met Mr. Young in the yard, and after a hearty laugh he told me it was the ghost of the
Indian that Bailey had killed, and that I was not the first one that flown from there. [Chicago Herald, 1876]
The man, discovered, of course, that the bullet wound had disappeared. Stories of the ghostly figure in the gorge continue to this day.
As word of the magnificence of the canyon and falls spread, people flooded to see the remarkable place. The artist George Cooke came and completed his painting “Tallulah Falls” in 1841. By the time of the Civil War, Tallulah Gorge was a major tourist attraction.
A railroad connected Atlanta to the town of Tallulah Falls in 1882, opening the floodgates of tourism. Before long the town boasted nearly 20 hotels and boarding houses. Trains rolled in as often as five times on Sundays, bringing tens of thousands of people to see the gorge and falls.
Just as the tourism boom reached its height, however, Tallulah Falls became the focus of one of the most dramatic preservation fights of the early 20th century. On one side was Georgia Power, which wanted to dam the Tallulah River to produce electricity. On the other side were lovers of the natural setting. They were led by the remarkable Helen Dortch Longstreet, widow of Confederate general James Longstreet.
Mrs. Longstreet proved herself to be a fighter every bit as tough as her late husband, but in the end her cause was lost as well. The power company won an important court ruling and the dam was built. The flow of water over the falls turned into a trickle, tourism slowed and the grand Victorian resort faded.
The story of Tallulah Gorge and Tallulah Falls. however, was far from over. Governor Zell Miller joined with officials of Georgia Power
Company in 1992 to announce a remarkable joint partnership. The result was Tallulah Gorge State Park. The power company agreed to begin releasing water into the gorge and Tallulah Falls roared once again!
The park has become one of the most popular in Georgia. A magnificent interpretive center welcomes visitors with displays on the geology, ecology and history of the gorge. There are picnic areas, campgrounds, overlooks, trails, stairs leading down into the gorge and even a suspension bridge that crosses 80 feet above the bottom.
The trail system is appropriately named after Helen Dortch Longstreet. For many, however, the park itself stands as a lasting memorial to the Confederate widow who fought to save one of the true natural wonders of the South.
Tallulah Gorge State Park is open daily from 8 a.m. until dark. There is a $5 parking fee. The park entrance is on U.S. 441 in Tallulah Falls, Georgia.
Please note that access to the canyon bottom is by permit only. Permits are free and can be obtained at the interpretive center, but ONLY 100 permits are issued per day. The park is extremely popular and the quota of permits is often filled first thing in the morning.
Because the park is operated as a joint venture, some facilities are managed by Georgia Power while others are managed by the state park employees. The cooperative effort as worked spectacularly well to create one of the most beautiful public areas in the South.
To see more of Tallulah Gorge State Park, check out this great video from Explore Georgia: