At the turn of the twentieth century, Clayton was barely a speck on the map with a recorded population of only 199. And one historical account paints a rather dismal picture of that tiny village.
“Before the coming of the railroad, Clayton was a ramshackle town,” according to Rabun County historian Andrew Jackson Ritchie. “There were no paved streets. The few houses it had were scattered around with wide vacant lots between them…The town had no paved sidewalks, no public waterworks, no electric lights, and no telephone or telegraph.” In other words, Clayton was like most other crossroads towns in the Georgia mountains in the early 1900s.
But things started changing rapidly when the Tallulah Falls Railroad finally made its way to Clayton.
The railroad reached Tallulah Falls in 1882, transforming “the Niagara of the South” into a major tourist attraction. The rail line was extended to Clayton in 1904, which opened the way for tourism in the north Georgia mountains.
Within several years, Clayton’s Main Street was lined with hotels and boarding houses, while several others were located within a short buggy ride of the train depot, located where Keller Furniture now stands on East Savannah Street. Here are the stories of three notable establishments back in the day.
Bleckley House: From Courthouse to Hotel
Rabun County’s first courthouses were located on Public Square at the intersection of Main and Savannah Streets. In 1907 the county took bids for the construction of a new courthouse on the square, and the existing building was auctioned off to the Bleckley family. The courthouse was moved to South Main Street, directly across from what is now Reeves Hardware. J.F. Earl and J.E. Bleckley remodeled the building into the Bleckley House hotel and opened it in 1908.
Bleckley House was moved again five years later. The Clayton Tribune reported in 1913 that “a crew of hands has finished moving the old courthouse just across the railroad tracks to the top of the pretty little knoll east of the train depot.” On today’s map, Bleckley House would be found on East Savannah Street roughly across the street from Keller Furniture.
The same Tribune article added: “No prettier place for a summer boarding house can be found anywhere around than this little knoll upon which this building has been placed. We hope to see scores of summer tourists on this little hill promenading on broad verandas, swinging in lawn chairs and enjoying life in our beautiful little mountain town of Clayton.” Another Tribune article from June 5, 1930 reported that an eighteen-hole miniature golf course was under construction on the lawn of the Bleckley House. And an ad from 1931 boasted that the hotel “Has beautiful grounds and sits in the center of a five-acre tract away from noise and dust…We serve everything good to eat and plenty of it. Special rate to families.”
The Bleckley House operated as a summer hotel and year-round private residence until Highway 441/23 was built in the early 1960s. With the railroad having ceased operation in 1961, the hotel went into decline. After it closed, the “pretty little knoll” on which the hotel stood was graded down in 1964 and Savannah Street was extended east to the new highway. The Bleckley House was moved and now stands as an office building on Old Livery Street, looking much like the old courthouse it once was.
The Bynum House: Walt Disney Dined Here
Thaddeus L. Bynum, a Clayton attorney and member of the Georgia legislature, and his wife Irene opened their farmhouse to summer vacationers in 1913. Over the next 57 years, the farmhouse was expanded into a three-floor, 48-room hotel. Several cottages also were built around the main house, some named for regulars who visited each summer. By 1932, the Bynum House’s eight acres was home to Rabun County’s only swimming pool open to the public and north Georgia’s first golf course.
A hotel brochure described Bynum House, which was located on Highway 76 West, as sitting “on a promontory of Black Rock Mountain in West Clayton. The Bynum House overlooks the town. Magnificent views of the encircling mountains can be seen on every side…There is a paved sidewalk from The Bynum House one-half mile into the village.”
A rate card from the 1920s quotes a daily room for two at $10.50-$12.50 with a private bath. The rate for a room for two “near a bath” was a real bargain at $9.25-$10.25. Room rates included meals and recreational facilities.
The hotel’s brochure proudly stated that meals featured “home-cured country hams, fried chicken, country eggs, garden-fresh vegetables, choice meats and dairy products, including old-fashioned churned buttermilk from the Bynum House farm.” On some days, the kitchen would serve 200 to 300 guests and locals. Apparently, the place was so popular that it attracted Walt Disney and his crew, who dined at the Bynum House while filming The Great Locomotive Chase in 1955.
The Bynum House closed at the end of the 1970 season. In an interview, Roslyn Bynum Strickland said, “It was time to close. It would have had to have had a lot of work done to it.”
Blue Ridge Hotel: Lunch for 75 Cents
A log trading post on what is now North Main Street was built around 1860. It was sold to H. Raleigh Cannon in the early 1900s, who, with his son Cecil, turned the trading post into the Blue Ridge Hotel. The Cannon’s opened another Main Street landmark in 1909, a mercantile store that operated for decades as Cannon’s Department Store.
The Blue Ridge had 26 rooms and porches on both floors that ran the length of the building. It was known for its “good eats.” In a 1991 interview, Mildred Cannon Story recalled, “The conductor on the (Tallulah Falls) train would call my mother somewhere down the road to tell her how many people to prepare for lunch. An old black man called Uncle Charlie worked for us and he would put on his white starched coat and his white trousers and go down to the depot station. He would ring the dinner bell and call to the people and tell them he was taking them to the Blue Ridge Hotel. The price for a meal at that time was 75 cents for a midday meal.”
The Blue Ridge also was known as “Home of the Traveling Man,” since it was a favorite stopover for traveling salesmen, known as “drummers.” And because the Blue Ridge was just a few steps from the courthouse on Public Square, the hotel was crowded with judges, juries and lawyers during the biannual court weeks.
There was a huge fireplace in the hotel’s front parlor, so big that one tree would provide only two or three logs for it. When the fireplace was removed in 1926, it was reported that “Court officials who have been gathering around from time immemorial expressed disappointment at having to look around for a cuspidor or a convenient place to spit, now that the fireplace is gone.”
Badly in need of repair, the venerable Blue Ridge Hotel was torn down in 1949.
These three hotels along with many others are long since gone, but their stories remind us of a time when the Tallulah Falls Railroad opened up this area to thousands of tourists. By transforming Clayton, the railroad put the town on the map.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in March 2020..