Monday, December 12, 2011

Day Trip: Longswamp Valley

Georgia, like many other places, has seven natural wonders. Or rather, someone compiled a list of “Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders,” the seven most compelling natural formations in the state. Georgia is big for an eastern state, so unfortunately, the wonders are widespread and few are close to Atlanta. Stone Mountain is the exception, but everyone in this city has been there a thousand times.

However, I noticed that the list has changed over the past century. When the first list was compiled by librarian Ella May Thornton in 1926, it included two items that were replaced. One was Jekyll Island’s forest (and anyone that knows me well knows I go apeshit for Jekyll) and the other was “The marble vein in Longswamp Valley in Pickens County.”

At the time, Jekyll Island was an exclusive retreat for the world’s richest white folk, only accessible by ferry and special invitation. This major publicity as a playground for Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies probably earned it its place on the list. Today, it’s been developed with bulldozed dunes, beachfront hotels, and golf courses, and the maritime forests are still attractive and mosquito-filled, but it has been booted from the modern list.

But enough about Jekyll. I’ve been there more than twenty times. I was more intrigued by this marble vein in Pickens county—a mere two counties north of my house. This meant that an Atlanta resident could take a day trip to see it. I just had to figure out where Longswamp Valley was.

Sometimes Google is no help. A search for “longswamp valley” consistently returned the 1926 natural wonders list and nothing else. I suspect that this article will now be in the top ten results because of this. Maps didn’t clarify anything. I resolved to drive through the area and find a non-violent local for further guidance.

I figured my best bet would be to head toward the community of Marble Hill, a relatively short drive down a two-lane highway at the end of interstate 575. After all, if there’s a marble hill, there’s likely a marble valley nearby, right?

So I took I-575 north to its end point, where it begins its life as a regular ol' highway and turned right at the first light, heading eastbound toward Tate. This town has a history of marble excavation, so I presumed that someone in the area would know what I was looking for.

Georgia Marble Company, ca. 1930s
Pickens County’s history is based entirely around the marble industry. Laying pretty far east of the rail line that birthed Kennesaw, Marietta, and even Atlanta itself, very few had ventured into its endless woods in the early 19th century except for the Native Americans that had lived there for ages. For more than a thousand years, these natives were aware of the curiously pure rock that jutted out of the earth in a stretch nearly five to seven miles long, and word eventually got around to pioneering entrepreneur Henry Fitzsimmons who intended to work the marble in the 1830s. His early efforts were crude and unfruitful but paved the way for the establishment of the railway into Tate and the successors to the marble industry fortune, including Col. Sam Tate who became the president of the Georgia Marble Company in 1905.

Marble coming from Pickens’ quarries was quite popular, being used to build the Lincoln Memorial, New York Stock Exchange, and countless other prestigious public and private spaces. By the 1930s, marble demand began to slow down, but the Georgia Marble Company continued to hold the market on high quality marble production.

As I began my trek off the beaten path and into the rural heartland of the Appalachian foothills, dotted by collapsing long-abandoned houses, rusting automobiles, and dogs chasing my car down the street, I pondered the list in my mind. Why did Providence Canyon—a 150 foot deep chasm in southwest Georgia created by erosion due to irresponsible farming techniques in the 1800s—replace Jekyll’s forests as a wonder? Why did Radium Springs, also in southwest Georgia, bump this amazing marble vein from the list?

Entering Tate, I crossed train tracks partially overgrown with weeds and stopped at an ancient train depot. It looked like something that might host a Postal Service hook for mail delivery in the 1800s. Consistent with almost every other structure for miles, it needed a new roof and its wood siding was beginning to rot. Preservation efforts were clearly considered, due to a sign posted next to the road:



The Tate House
Like nearly everything else in marble country, even its preservation had been forgotten. I pressed on in search of the former wonder, and began looking out for my next landmark: The Tate House, a pink marble mansion open for weddings and bar mitzvahs. As the road began to drop in altitude for the first time in miles, I spied it through the trees on the right and pulled onto a short but paved road leading to a rear parking lot. The road forked to the left toward a marble processing plant and passed to the right behind seven small wooden cabins. Sitting in my car in an empty parking lot, I stared at the convention center attached to the back of the mansion, admiring the smooth marble walls. Had it not been 7:30 AM on a Sunday, they might have been open for tours. I got back on the road heading east.

Literally a few hundred yards back on the road, I crossed a bridge labelled “Longswamp Creek” and the road began to immediately ascend. The creek was at the bottom of a small valley! I had found it without having to consult a scary local! My mind snapped back to the marble processing plant I had just seen, and I pulled a stupid and dangerous three-point turn on a double blind curve to rush back to it. These words were emblazoned in huge, bold letters on the front of the building:


I had found it! The plant’s gates were closed, but a sign on the razor wire fence declared that visitors could report to the main office, which I could have done if it wasn’t 7:35 AM on a Sunday. My marble vein lay just beyond that slicy barrier, and I wasn’t going to see it.

When I got home, I consulted Google Earth to see a massive white streak in the belly of the valley. As I zoomed in, I began to be horrified. The front of the plant that I could see was only the beginning of an incomprehensibly large marble mining operation that stretched nearly an entire mile. Every conceivable speck of what could possibly be considered part of the wondrous marble vein had been worked and split up into chunks. This wonder could no longer appear on the list because it hardly continued to exist—at least not in the form it had in the 1920s.

I’d still like to visit it, but I’d bet that 85 years of increasingly efficient excavation techniques have killed the magic a little bit. But for anyone else searching for the great marble vein of Longswamp Valley, here’s how you get there from Atlanta:

  • Take I-75 north from downtown Atlanta, past I-285
  • Veer to the right onto I-575 North and follow it until it ends, becoming Highway 5/515
  • Turn right at the first traffic light onto Old Waleska Road, Highway 108/53
  • Cross the train tracks in Tate and look for the historic train depot
  • Continue east about 1.25 miles until the road begins to go downhill
  • Turn right onto Georgia Marble Road (also the access road to the Tate house)

200 Georgia Marble Ln.
Tate, GA 30177


  1. I'm going to go there next weekend.

  2. AnonymousMay 03, 2012

    Love it! I always wondered where this place was that was on the old seven wonders list.

  3. Been by here many times, and never would have imagined it would have once made the Natural Wonders list. It now looks like any other Vulcan style excavation now.