Tulip poplars with girths of seven feet. Tens of thousands of clear-cut acres. A sawmill cutting 13 miles of boards every day.
These startling facts tell the story of what was once Rabun County’s largest industry: the environmental disaster known as industrial-scale logging.
Rabun Logging Started in 1890s
Logging on an industrial scale began in Pennsylvania’s Appalachians in the 1870s and marched southward mile by mile over the ensuing decades. Major logging companies started arriving in Rabun County in the 1890s. They purchased vast tracts of land for $1 to $2 per acre from poor mountain farmers easily duped into selling at rock bottom prices.
Gennett Brothers Lumber Company of Asheville, N.C. was the first operator to conduct large-scale operations in Rabun County. The company initially operated eight lumber camps in South Carolina and Georgia along the Chattooga River. The sale of 20,000 acre of its Chattooga acreage and sawmill enabled Gennett to acquire thousands of acres on the Tallulah River in western Rabun County as well as 12,000 acres on Rabun Bald in the northeast.
Clear-Cutting Tens of Thousands of Acres
Enormous swaths of Rabun County were clear-cut during the first decades of the twentieth century, leaving a rubble-strewn landscape where giant poplars, oaks and maples once towered more than 100 feet. The Tallulah Falls Railroad gave added impetus to uncontrolled logging by enabling companies to ship lumber to lucrative northern markets hungry for this natural resource. Trees that initially sold for 25 to 75 cents were selling for $10 a few years after the railroad was extended through Rabun County.
Lumber companies built their own narrow-gauge railways into mountain hollows, blasting out entire hillsides to gain access to remote forests. Splash dams were built across mountain streams to build up water to a level sufficient for carrying hundreds of cut trees. When these temporary dams were dynamited, enormous floods swept the trees down the mountain. In so doing, mountainsides were severely eroded and disfigured, while fish and wildlife populations were devastated.
A sawmill built by the Byrd-Matthews Company vividly illustrates the magnitude of what was happening. Located in Robertstown in nearby White County, this sawmill was the largest east of the Mississippi. At its peak in 1917, the mill cut 70,000 board-feet or 13 miles of timber every day.
Gennett Duped Into Selling Land for Lake Burton Dam
In 1917 Andrew Gennett was contacted by J.E. Harvey from Tallulah Falls, who wanted to buy a 1,000-acre tract along the Tallulah River near the town of Burton. Gennett sold the acreage for $40,000, which was believed to be a fair price for the timber on that tract.
However, Harvey did not buy the land for logging. He did not disclose that he was a land agent of Georgia Railway and Power Company, the predecessor of Georgia Power. The company already had built a dam on the Tallulah River at the rim of the gorge for generating hydroelectric power for Atlanta. Georgia Railway and Power planned additional dams and hydro stations upstream. The geology of the 1,000 acres Harvey acquired from Gennett was ideal for a dam on that segment of the river. The new dam was completed in 1919, submerging the town of Burton under what became known as Lake Burton.
When Gennett learned of the actual use of the land, he realized it was actually worth $150,000 or far in excess of the value of the timber. Having been duped by Georgia Railway, he considered this transaction “one of the most humiliating experiences” of his business career.
Sound Wormy and Henry Ford
However, it would be a mistake to feel sorry for Andrew Gennett.
Many of the oak trees logged on his Rabun acreage were filled with tunnel-boring insects that made the lumber unusable for boards and paneling. Though lightweight, this wood, called sound wormy, retained most of its strength. These were the qualities Henry Ford needed for the wooden wheels of his Model T and Model A autos. Ford became a major customer of Gennett’s sound wormy.
Another large operator, the Blue Ridge Company, had a contract with the Singer Sewing Machine Company to furnish poplar lumber at $80 per thousand board-feet. It had to be hauled 25 miles from the head of the Tallulah River to the railroad at Rabun Gap for shipment to Singer plants in New Jersey, Connecticut and South Carolina.
In the meantime, the Morse Brothers Lumber Company pushed a narrow gauge railroad northward from Helen up along the western side of the Tallulah River. The railroad reached Tate City in 1924, where industrial-scale logging devastated a pristine valley virtually untouched since the dawn of time.
Reforestation Under Weeks Act
In 1911, President William Howard Taft signed into law the Weeks Act, which authorized the United States Forest Service to purchase clear-cut land for controlling soil erosion, maintaining navigable waterways and reforestation.
The Forest Service started buying land in Rabun County in 1913 for $7.50 per acre, which generated another bonanza for the logging companies. Having originally paid only $1 to $2 per acre, the loggers were only too happy sell their now-worthless land at a huge profit.
Gennett was among the first to sell its clear-cut land in the county, which later became part of the Chattahoochee National Forest. The Forest Service then purchased land around Tate City from Morse Brothers in 1931 for the national forest. The federal government eventually owned roughly two-thirds of Rabun County’s land area.
Like many deforested counties, Rabun was concerned about having this much land removed from its property tax rolls. The Weeks Act addressed this situation by providing compensation to counties in lieu of property taxes. These payments have continued to the current day, with the U.S. Department of the Interior having paid Rabun County $337,030 in 2019.
Logging Declines By 1920s
Industrial-scale logging in Rabun County declined steadily in the 1920s, since so much of the county had been clear-cut. The Great Depression killed off the remaining major operators in the county by the early 1930s.
It is impossible to understate the devastation caused by unregulated logging. Magnificent old-growth forests were obliterated. Mountainsides were severely eroded. Streams were clogged with silt. Wildlife habitat was destroyed. It took decades for the county’s landscape to recover.
Given this litany of environmental disasters, it is ironic that the most visible legacy of industrial-scale logging in Rabun County is the Chattahoochee National Forest.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in May 2020.