DISCOVERING NORTHEAST GEORGIA – ECHOES OF THE PAST
Travelling through the small towns of Northeast Georgia there are many roadside markers that historically connect our communities. Recently when visiting Historic Traveler’s Rest located off of Highway 123 close to the South Carolina state line I saw a marker explaining the route of the old Unicoi Turnpike.
I wanted to know more about the Unicoi Turnpike and discovered that the word Unicoi means “white” in Cherokee, possibly meaning that this was a road built by white settlers in the area. The turnpike part of the name referred to the gates along sections of the road which were simply, very long poles serving as gates. The pole would be moved away when the traveler paid the toll to the landowner for using that section of the road.
Who were the people who used the Unicoi Turnpike? History tells us that in 1813 the Cherokee people signed a treaty to allow the Turnpike to cross the Cherokee Nation but long before the Turnpike was built the route had been used as a pathway before White settlers came to the area. After the Turnpike was built drovers would herd cattle and other livestock from Georgia on up into Tennessee. Traders used the roadway to transport animal furs and deerskins.
Wagons usually travelled around twenty miles a day and so there was a need for rest stops. Traveler’s Rest was one of these stops along the Turnpike and there will have been many others. Sometimes families would open their home to travelers for room and board.
Traveler’s Rest Historic Site off of Hwy 123 located east of Toccoa.
The turnpike was completed in 1819 and provided a wagon road northwest through Georgia from Traveler’s Rest passing close by Toccoa Falls, heading towards Clarkesville, crossing the Soque River at some point and passing through Sautee, Nacoochee valleys and Helen. There are a few sections of the original Turnpike visible near the Nora Mill just south of Helen. The turnpike followed the main road through Helen but there were no bridges and the Chattahoochee River had to be forded.
Historical Marker outside of Traveler’s Rest Historic Site off of Hwy 123 located east of Toccoa.
Crossing the mountains must have been a hardship for these early travelers. The Turnpike crossed the lowest point of the mountains ten miles north of Helen at Unicoi Gap at an elevation of 3000 ft. It is hard to imagine the arduous climb they had to endure with wagons and livestock, especially with days of rain and mud. Descending the other side of the mountain the wagons had no brakes and to avoid rapidly sliding down the mountain, they would attach large logs to the back of the wagons to slow them down as they eased down the steep and primitive roadway.
What I had not realized after living in Northeast Georgia for more than 30 years was that there are still sections of the Unicoi Turnpike still visible and looking much as they would have done hidden away in our National Forests. There was recently an excellent article in the Toccoa Record, “Retracing the Unicoi Turnpike” by Angie Ramage. This article does an excellent job of telling the story of the Unicoi Turnpike and there are great photos of well-preserved sections of the historic roadway.
A Georgia Historical Marker along the Unicoi Turnpike outside of Helen, GA.
For further reading on the Unicoi Turnpike, Matt Gedney has written a very interesting and informative book called, “Living on the Unicoi Road”.