Who was this man…
…and what was he doing in Cullowhee?
Back in 1836, a major railroad line extending from Charleston, South Carolina to Cincinnati, Ohio passed right through Cashiers and Cullowhee, North Carolina.
At least it did in a plan proposed by John C. Calhoun.
The powerful politician, who resigned as Vice President of the United States to take a seat in the Senate, advocated a rail line to connect the docks and warehouses of Charleston with the farms and markets of the Ohio Valley.
One of the technical problems with such a railroad was the crossing of the formidable Blue Ridge. After examining the mountains of Western North Carolina in 1836, Calhoun believed that he had found an ideal route, and he discussed his proposal in a September 22, 1836 letter to the Pendleton Messenger newspaper.
Essentially, the rail line would have followed an old Indian trading path from Charleston toward the mountains. From the vicinity of Pickens, SC it would have proceeded along the edge of the Keowee River to the Whitewater River, and thence along the current route of NC 107 as it heads north through Cashiers and across the continental divide. From there it was to continue along the Tuckasegee River to its confluence with the Little Tennessee, and from there, northwest toward the Ohio Valley.
On his search for a gap through the Blue Ridge, Calhoun was accompanied by Colonel James “Gadsden Purchase” Gadsden, William Sloan, and James McKinney. They spent more than a week exploring the mountain region, travelling the entire length of the Tuckasegee River on their trip.
Starting their journey from South Carolina, the men reached the Whitewater River as they ascended the southeastern face of the Blue Ridge. Calhoun described Whitewater Falls and noted that the river had the potential to provide power (using a system of waterwheels and cables) to assist locomotives climbing the relatively steep grade:
At this point the White Water, one of the branches of Keowee, which rises on the summit of the mountain, (a stream about the size of the Eighteen Mile), after cutting down and turning the Chatuga mountain, leaps from the top of the Alleghany in two perpendicular falls near to each other, about 45 or 50 feet, and then continues its rapid descent to the valley below. The length of the section is bout 29 miles; and, from the best information we can obtain, the elevation to be overcome will not exceed 30 feet to the mile. The line of ascent may be conveniently lengthened or shortened to any considerable extent, to suit the grading, so as to diminish the rise probably below what I have estimated; or if it should be thought advisable to reduce it to the lowest rate, it may be effected with little expense or delay, and without a stationary engine, by using the power which the waters of the White Water afford, which is more than sufficient to elevate the heaviest train.
Calhoun described a route across the Cashiers Plateau of about 16 miles in length:
It passes through two valleys of nearly equal length and extent, divided by a low narrow ridge of about 150 feet high. The two valleys are nearly on the same level. The one on the east of the ridge is called Cashier's, and that on the west Yellow valley, from the brownish yellow which the decayed fern gives to it….
The White Water collects its waters in the eastern, and the Tuckasiege in the western valley. The sources of both are on the top of the low ridge that separates them, and but a few feet apart. The two valleys form the gap, which we named the Carolina gap to distinguish it from the Rabun or Georgia gap, which is 35 or 40 miles to the south west of it.
Calhoun suggested that a tunnel was the best way to cross the continental divide north of Cashiers:
The low ridge, or the crest of the Alleghany, as it may be called, that separates the valleys, may be easily passed at a low angle, by gradually ascending on the slopes on the south west side of Cashier's to its summit, and descending in like manner on the opposite side, or the south western slope of the Yellow valley; but it would be both shorter and cheaper in the long run, to pierce the ridge with a tunnel, which would not exceed 200 yards, and which would give a beautiful run, nearly level, for 16 miles on the summit of the Alleghany, from fall to fall.
Portrait of Calhoun as Vice President
Beginning the descent into the Cullowhee Valley, Calhoun stopped to admire the Great Falls (or High Falls) of the Tuckasegee:
The sight is beautiful. The volume of water is greater than that of the White Water. The falls consist of four perpendicular leaps in the space of about a mile. Tbe first was estimated at 50 feet, and the last at 70 or 80. — The slope of the mountain on the west side of the stream was very favorable for grading, as far down as our examination extended, and we were informed that it continued equally favorable all the way down.
The elevation of the fall may be overcome by a rise from below, certainly not greater than that to the top of the Alleghany, which I stated at 30 feet to the mile; or it may be turned, as we are informed, by passing up Shoal creek, which enters the Tuckasiege on the east side, below the falls a stream of considerable size, and which, according to our information, rises in the Alleghany near the eastern sources of the Tuckasiege, at a point where there would be no difficulty to pass from the one to the other, and, passing around the ridge that limits the Yellow valley on the east, descends with a rapid current, but without a leap, to where it joins the Tuckasiege. But, if a grading of still more gradual rise than could be effected by either of the routes should be thought advisable, here, as well as on the eastern slope of the Alleghany, there is the same cheap power to raise or let down gently the heaviest tram.
Calhoun saw little to interfere with construction of the line from Cullowhee to the Little Tennessee River:
The next and last section extends from the termination of the last to the mouth of Tuckasiege.— It is difficult to imagine a pass through a mountain region finer than this section. The river is remarkably straight, and free from all sudden turns. The road would pass along its east side two-thirds or more of the way, on level ground, requiring but little expense in grading. A large portion of the residue, where the hills come in, would be on favorable slopes free from rocks. In the whole length, there were not two hundred yards of rocky cliff to encounter; and, through the whole length, no walling in the river. We did not extend our examination farther, as the survey of captain Bache, under the orders of the war department, gives ample information in relation to the Tuckasiege to the head of steamboat navigation on that river. It is sufficient to say that there is no serious difficulty below.
For those who might have wondered why such a desirable route for the Charleston to Cincinnati Line had never been suggested, Calhoun had these words:
It may be asked how it can be explained that a route, which, on the examination I have given it, appears to possess so many advantages, has attracted, heretofore, so little attention. The only reason that I can assign is, that the gap leads to a portion of North Carolina little known, and which has but lately been acquired from the Indians, and between the two established routes by Asheville and Rabun, through one or the other of which most persons going to the west pass. But it was not so obscure as not to be known by the neighborhood, and to attract the attention of those whose duty it was to explore the mountains, in order to find the best pass over it. General Hayne, whose devotion to the great undertaking is so well known, undertook to examine the gap, but unfortunately his guide was not sufficiently well acquainted with the section of the mountains, to which so many ridges converge, and which on that account is so intricate, as to conduct him through the proper route.
Two decades later, the proposal to run the railroad through the gap at Cashiers had been forgotten. Instead, work had commenced on the Blue Ridge Railroad taking a more westward course through Rabun Gap. The Stumphouse Tunnel, north of Walhalla, SC was started, but never finished. Huge stone towers, intended to support a railroad trestle, still stand along Dicks Creek near the Chattooga River in Rabun County, GA. Financial problems, and the Civil War, doomed the project.
And the great corridor of commerce – the railroad that almost passed through Cashiers and Cullowhee – was never completed.
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