William Ganaway Russell had the good fortune to buy a farm exactly halfway between Walhalla SC and Highlands NC.
In 1849 an industrious group of Charleston German businessman were looking for a suitable parcel on which they could create a new settlement in SC, and formed the German Colonization Society to do so. Their plan was simple: they would buy a large fertile expanse of land, subdivide it, and resell it to immigrants who they would recruit from Germany.
After much deliberation, the Society purchased from Colonel Joseph Gresham 17,000 acres in Pickens District near the base of the Appalachians (in the center of modern day Oconee county.) They named the town they laid out Walhalla –‘paradise’ in German– and within two years, the first settlers arrived and began to clear & farm the land. The Society took an active role to insure that the new Blue Ridge Railroad ran from Anderson, SC to the new town, thereby providing the last leg of a solid rail connection all the way to Charleston. They expected Walhalla to grow into a major railroad center as the train route eventually snaked west towards Cincinnati. That reality never materialized.
Meantime, by the end of the 19th century The Blue Ridge Railway was regularly taking vacationers escaping from South Carolina’s coastal heat as far as Walhalla. But Walhalla wasn’t their final destination. They were headed to Highlands NC, a summer resort founded in 1875 by Samuel T Kelsey and Clinton C. Hutchinson. The historic Highlands Inn, where generations have rocked afternoons away on the Main Street porch, was built there in 1880 (and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.) By 1931, Highlands’ year-round population of 500 swelled to as many as 3,000 in the summer. Also in the 1930s the town became a golfing mecca when Bobby Jones of Atlanta and some of his well-heeled golfing buddies founded the Highlands Country Club.
There was no railway service between Walhalla and Highlands. Nineteenth century travelers would have to ride horseback or via stagecoach on the Highlands Highway for two days to get to Highlands, 30 miles away. And waiting for them at the end of their first day’s ride, along the banks of the Chattooga River near the old Cherokee settlement of Tsatugi, sat the Russell farmstead and inn.
William Ganaway Russell (1835-1921) purchased the property in 1867 and built most of the buildings, including the main house. Family tradition says that Russell paid for the property with a fortune he made driving cattle to feed California gold miners.
The large house was gradually expanded to provide rooms for travelers. That frame two-story building, dating from the 1880s, expanded to include a projecting rear two-story ‘L’ added around 1890. A two-story front porch was also added later. The inn could accommodate as many as 80 people per night. In the early twentieth century numerous prominent Georgians and South Carolinians spent the night at the Russell’s, or shared meals there.
William Russell died in 1921 and his wife died in 1935, but the family continued to operate the establishment into the 1950s. In 1970, the federal government purchased the property. Although the main Russell house was burned by arson in 1988, enough of 28 outbuildings (barns, spring house, root cellar, etc.) remain to give a good idea of what a thriving working farm and stagecoach stop this once was.
Backroads of South Carolina, By Paul M. Franklin & Nancy Mikula, Voyageur Press, 2006