Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tallulah Gorge: Resort or Resource?

Over the past two summers Russell Library intern Kaylynn Washnock assisted in curating the new exhibit, “Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the Modern South” opening September 18th in the Russell Library’s Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit investigates how the state transformed itself from a way station along the route to Florida into a tourist destination during the twentieth century. It addition to highlighting six popular destinations in Georgia the exhibit considers questions of access, preservation, and economics – who could go, how they got there, and what motivated them to visit different attractions. The exhibit also explores the professionalization of the tourism industry and the roles of modern amenities in shaping the modern tourist experience. This post is one in a series where Kaylynn offers a preview of the exhibition.   

Early color lithograph of Tallulah Falls, ca. early 1800s.
Courtesy of Ed Jackson.

A site with remarkable vistas, ample opportunities for recreation, and access to healthful cool air and water made Tallulah Falls irresistible to tourists. As early as 1819, the Niles’ Weekly Register praised Tallulah as an “extraordinary exhibition of nature.” It claimed that although the Rapids of Tallulah were “almost unknown to any person beyond its neighborhood—it however merits to be known and admired, as one of the greatest curiosities in the U. States.” The travel writer concluded “the cataract of Niagara and its great whirlpool and banks, is the only superior natural curiosity to the Rapids of Tallulah.”

Hiking party at Tallulah Falls, ca. 1900-1910.
Dudley Mays Hughes Collection, Russell Library.

By 1877, the “See America First” campaign and more localized efforts of New South boosters to keep wealthy Georgians vacationing nearby attracted nearly 1,800 annual visitors. The completion of the railroad’s expansion nearby in 1882 and construction of several hotels during the 1890s had newspapers foretelling that Tallulah Falls was “destined to be the resort of the South.” In 1909 the Georgia Power Company began acquiring land tracts around Tallulah, recognizing the potential energy that could be generated by damming the river. Despite the efforts of the Tallulah Falls Conservation Association (TFCA), led by Helen Dortch Longstreet, to prevent the dam, construction of the South’s largest hydroelectric development impeded tourism and a fire destroyed the town in 1921.

Governor Zell Miller speaking at dedication of Tallulah Gorge
State Park, 1992. Zell B. Miller Papers, Russell Library.

New types of attractions soon emerged though, as second homes and campgrounds replaced the once booming hotels and boarding houses. Today tourists hike to scenic vistas or enjoy fishing, boating, and swimming in the lake. Despite the dam, trails around the gorge offer stunning views of Hurricane Falls, Oceana Falls, Caledonia Cascade, L’Eau d’Or Falls, the top of Tempesta Falls, and Hawthorne Cascade and Pool. On October 28, 1992, Governor Zell Miller  announced the creation of Tallulah Gorge State Park including the dam, lake, gorge, and 3,000 acres of surrounding wilderness as a joint venture between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Power Company.

View of Tallulah from my hike in July 2015.
Want to find out more about Georgia tourism? Visit Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the New South on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries from September 18, 2015 through July 30, 2016. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788

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