TOXAWAY FALLS HAS PERHAPS the most storied history of any waterfall in North Carolina. The name Toxaway in its many spellings and variances has several Cherokee applications, among them a former settlement in South Carolina and a Cherokee chief. The original meaning of the name is uncertain. One often-repeated definition is “redbird.” Whatever its origin, today the name refers to a river, a mountain, a creek, a lake, and the waterfall.
The development of the Toxaway Falls area began after the turn of the twentieth century with the construction of the lake and a five-hundred-room luxury resort called Toxaway Inn. The region was billed as America’s Switzerland. The resort attracted a virtual who’s who of the country’s wealthy and elite. On the guest list were names like Rockefeller, Edison, Ford, Duke, Firestone, and Vanderbilt.
Lake Toxaway’s heyday ended in 1916. That July, two hurricanes hit western North Carolina, flooding the region and likely weakening the earthen Lake Toxaway dam. In August, a third hurricane dumped a reputed twenty-plus inches of rain within a twenty-four-hour period. It proved too much for the dam to handle. On August 13, 1916, the dam failed and more than five billion gallons of water poured over Toxaway Falls and through the gorge below.
The raging torrent of water scoured the riverbanks along the more than two-mile section of gorge from Toxaway Falls to Wintergreen Falls, leaving nothing but bedrock. The destruction caused by the flood is plainly evident today in the great expanse of rock at Toxaway Falls. Before the dam broke, trees grew along the edge of the river and you couldn’t see the waterfall unless you were right at it. Along the river below Wintergreen Falls remains evidence of the flood in the form of boulder levees, some of them thirty feet high and containing rocks the size of train cars.
With Lake Toxaway reduced to a 640-acre mud flat and the resort owners mired in litigation resulting from the dam failure, Toxaway Inn closed. It stood dormant until it was torn down in 1948. Pine trees quickly grew over the lakebed and remained standing until 1960 when the Lake Toxaway Company took over the property and rebuilt the lake as part of the Lake Toxaway Estates development.
Toxaway Falls experienced notoriety of another sort when the 1958 motion picture Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum, showed a car going over the falls during a chase scene. The waterfall is also featured in the 1948 movie Tap Roots, starring Susan Hayward.