Attractions Near Helen, Georgia

Alpine Helen Ga

Situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and only two hours north of Atlanta, lies Helen, Georgia, a re-creation German Town.  For many years, people have asked why Helen is the way it is, and here is the story of how a logging town became a bustling recreation German town.

Prior to 1800, the area surrounding what is now Helen was the center of Cherokee Indian culture.  Villages were scattered throughout Nacoochee, Sautee and Helen valleys.  In 1813, the Cherokee approved construction of the Unicoi Turnpike, a wagon road through their Nation from the Savannah River headwaters to northeast Tennessee.  This trail, now Highways 17 and 75, ran through the valleys and Helen toward Hiawassee.  The turnpike brought new settlers to the area.  As the settlers moved in, subsequent treaties forced the Cherokee to points in the western part of Georgia, farther from their native lands in Sautee, Nacoochee, and Helen.

In 1828 gold was discovered on Dukes Creek in Nacoochee Valley just 2 miles south of Helen.  Later that same year, gold was discovered to the west of Dukes Creek including Dahlonega.  Thousands of miners came into the valleys and mined in the foothills.  At this point, despite a US Supreme Court decision supporting them, the Cherokee were permanently removed from the area and forced to move to reservations in the Midwest.  The resulting forced march to Oklahoma is now known as the “Trail of Tears”.

The Great Gold Rush belt was bound by Dahlonega on the west and Nacoochee-Helen Valley on the east.  The historic England Gold Mine and Hamby Mountain area in Helen were mined extensively.  The discovery of gold in California in 1849 and the increased difficulty in extracting the remaining ore from the hills, forced mining operations to cease by the end of the century.  Most of the settlers that had flocked to the area moved on.

In 1911, timber officials came into the Valley and saw huge virgin timber.  Early in 1912, the Byrd-Matthews Lumber Company built a great sawmill in the flat land just to the south of what is now downtown Helen.  Simultaneously, the Gainesville and Northwestern Railroad came up the Chattahoochee River to Helen.  In 1913, the Valley was named “Helen” after Helen McComb, the daughter of a Byrd-Matthews manager and niece of John E. Mitchell, a major real estate developer in the area.

The Morse Brothers Company took over the sawmill in 1917 and continued operations until 1931.  After the sawmill closed, most settlers again left for opportunities in other places.  A handful of families stayed on, having fallen in love with the gentle beauty of the rolling hills and lush valleys.

Through the ‘30s, ‘40s and 1950s, the town struggled.  Helen Ga achieved moderate success as a manufacturing town in the mid 1950s into the 1970s with Jimmy Wilkins’s Wilco and later on, Orbit Manufacturing.

For the most part, Helen Ga seemed to be a place one had to travel through to get to where you were going…the mountains.  Attractions like Lake Burton, Chattahoochee National Forest and later, Unicoi State Park seemed to be the destinations for everyone coming through Helen.

In 1968, local businessmen including Jimmy Wilkins and consummate promoter Pete Hodkinson met to discuss what could be done to improve their town.  They approached a nearby artist friend John Kollock and asked him for ideas.  Based on his recollection of his military days when he was stationed in Bavaria, Germany.  Mr. Kollock sketched the buildings, adding gingerbread trim and Bavarian details and colors, giving an Alpine look to the entire town.

In January 1969, business owners and local carpenters began turning Kollock’s ideas into reality.  Cobblestone alleyways were added.  Faces of buildings were painted with murals of Bavaria.  Alpine looking towers were added to the roofs.

Pete had described his vision for Helen as an “anti-Gatlingburg” tourist destination with individually unique shops, galleries, and stores.  There were plans for a golf course through the middle of town, a rail trolley from Helen to Unicoi State Park, and an open air performance theatre.  By 1972, Helen’s makeover was declared a success.  Thousands of people were stopping and visiting Helen instead of just passing through.

While some of the original vision for Helen has never been realized, Helen’s popularity as a tourist destination is undeniable.  Today, millions of visitors come to Helen every year.  Restaurants, gift shops, and hundreds of motel rooms accommodate visitors from all over the country and the world.

Today, Alpine Helen is full of unique shops, restaurants, and area attractions that are fun for the whole family, or a quiet weekend away.  Helen is located just northeast of Atlanta, off of Interstate 985/365 and southwest of Greenville, South Carolina, off of Interstate 85.  With over 200 shops and restaurants and over 1000 rooms, Helen provides a variety of places to stay and see, all within an easy drive from Atlanta. 

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