The Tallulah Falls lives on, thanks to Disney

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, March 12, 2021

Disney's 1956 movie The Great Locomotive Chase told the famous Civil War story of Andrews' Raid, in which clandestine Union forces sabotaged the Western & Atlantic's line north toward Chattanooga. 
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent part of my evenings getting to know a long-lost uncle, or at least someone who felt like one. 

Author Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Walt Disney — Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Knopf, 2006) — has been an eye opener for this one-time member of the Mickey Mouse Club. I already knew Disney wasn’t always the lovable adult figure who came to talk to us Boomer kids on Sunday nights on TV. Gabler’s book richly details Disney’s obsessive pursuit of his vision, a drive that had everything to do with his early death at age 65. Yet I’ve come away still a Disney fan.

Some of that has to do with Uncle Walt’s love of trains, exemplified by the likely apocryphal story of how he created Mickey Mouse on a napkin in a Santa Fe dining car, or how he showcased actual steam trains at both Disneyland and Disney World, or how he elevated the career of railfan extraordinaire Ward Kimball, one of the Disney studio’s greatest animators.

And then there was his great railroad movie, The Great Locomotive Chase. Filmed in 1955 and released in 1956, it told the familiar story of the Andrews Raid of April 1862, when a band of Union spies and soldiers commandeered the Western & Atlantic 4-4-0 General in Big Shanty, Ga., and headed north toward Chattanooga, ostensibly to wreck as much Confederate railroad as possible. The raid was largely a failure, and its outsized legend a great example of the power of publicity. 

Disney filmed the movie on the Tallulah Falls Railroad, a north Georgia short line that stood in nicely for the 1860s W&A. In a late-1940s view, TFR 2-8-0 No. 78 crosses the railroad's Scotts Creek trestle. R. D. Sharpless; F. E. Ardrey Jr. collection; courtesy of Rabun County Historical Society
Yet the “Chase” still captivates, partly because of the movie. Typical of Disney productions of the era, the script and the music were corny, designed to make James Andrews (actor Fess Parker) and his men, as well as W&A conductor William Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter), seem heroic. But the basic facts of the film are accurate, especially the last desperate moments as the raiders attempted to stay ahead of Fuller, who was chasing them in the reverse-running 4-4-0 Texas.  

Best of all, the production was a totally believable visual triumph, thanks to location shooting on north Georgia’s 57-mile-long Tallulah Falls Railroad (TFR), which for 90 years wound its way through the north Georgia mountains from Cornelia into Franklin, N.C. Blessed with gorgeous scenery and cursed with a total of 42 trestles, the TFR began operations in 1871, was purchased as a subsidiary by Southern Railway in 1908, and quietly went out of business in 1961.

I’ve driven the original W&A chase route beside CSX’s Atlanta–Chattanooga main line several times, and watching the movie last week I was struck at how faithful the purported Tallulah Falls location seemed to be. Other than all those trestles, it appeared to look a lot like the W&A of 1862, with various sites on the short line standing in effectively for Big Shanty, Kingston, and Allatoona, all of which figured in the Andrews Raid. 

It helped that the TFR was a mere 50 miles east of the Western & Atlantic, traversing a nearly identical geography. It was that rugged landscape that drove the building of the TFR in the first place, constructed as it was to serve an early resort economy surrounding the spectacular Tallulah Falls Gorge. While the railroad hauled forest products and livestock, tourism was the big draw. But the construction of dams after 1910 dampened the appeal of the resorts and the TFR began the low, slow slide of the wounded short line.

Edwards gasoline-powered motor car 201 crosses Queen trestle, one of 32 on the Tallulah Falls. R. D. Sharpless; F. E. Ardrey Jr. collection; courtesy of Rabun County Historical Society 
The Tallulah Falls did not go entirely unnoticed, though, especially in the postwar years as it briefly hung on to steam. Its pair of Baldwin 2-8-0s initially attracted photographers drawn both by the motive power and all those trestles. The road dieselized in 1948 with a pair of GE 70-tonners and continued to limp along.

That is, until the fall of 1955, when, all of a sudden, an army of Disney actors and production staff descended on Clayton, Ga., and environs. Suddenly the old TFR was a steam road again, thanks to a pair of 4-4-0s in starring roles: the William Mason, rented from the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore to play the General, and ex-Virginia & Truckee Inyo coming from Hollywood to portray the Texas. The museum’s replica of B&O 4-2-0 Lafayette played the part of W&A’s Yonah

The Disney crew included Walt himself for a while. The boss loved trains and just had to make an appearance on the set, at one point taking the throttle of the William Mason. The story goes that Disney became so enamored of the charming old Tallulah Falls that he thought about buying the railroad from the Southern — until he found out how much debt it was carrying. Gabler’s biography makes no mention of this, incidentally. 

The Tallulah Falls dieselized in 1948 with a pair of GE 70-tonners, quintessential motive power for a backwoods, light-rail short line. Classic Trains collection
Despite its moment on the big screen, the Tallulah Falls Railroad gave up the ghost on March 25, 1961, and was summarily scrapped. Few traces of it remain, although Tallulah Falls managed to hang onto its handsome TFR depot, a stolid structure with a broad veranda and a red-tile roof. It functions today as a local gift shop and museum. 

Meanwhile, the Rabun County Historical Society occupies a substantial building in nearby Clayton and maintains a number of notable exhibits and archives, including some related to the railroad. 

But maybe the best way to experience the old Tallulah Falls line is to watch the movie. It's easily available on DVD and I rented it on Amazon Prime for a mere $3.99. It was good to once again immerse myself in that Disney magic.

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