History of Noccalula’s Christmas Lighting


In 2007, the City of Gadsden took over the Noccalula Falls Christmas lighting. The work for the last few years has been very impressive and city employees under Parks and Recreation Director Kerry Payne have done outstanding work.

Attempts in the past for making the mountain a special place have come and gone. Back in the 1980s, local historian Joe Barnes met with many interested parties at the old Clayton’s Cafe on Noccalula Road to encourage improvements. A lot of dreams were shared, one which was a lighted alpine village on Noccalula Falls. 

A few years later, an organization called Mountain Pride was formed and held several meetings, but little resulted from it.

One November evening in 1994 at the Vagabond’s residence (which overlooks the City of Gadsden), more than 20 folks showed up for a spaghetti supper. The purpose was to get them interested in the idea of doing great things for the mountain, such as Christmas lights.

From that time on, the group met regularly at Jacks at Noccalula Falls and voted to become known as the Noccalula Improvement Association. 

By spring of the following year, we decided to push the idea of lighting Noccalula Falls Park for Christmas. 

In October of ‘94, Richard Copeland and the Vagabond led the organization in implementing this project.

In the beginning, there were only plans for a few lights to be placed on the walking bridge and the railings that skirted the top of the gorge.

Word got out about this project, however, and more and more folks wanted to help out or donate money. Even city councilman Ben Reed became involved. What turned out to be plans for 1,000 lights quickly changed to more than 60,000. In reality, the association never dreamed how large the project was going to get over a period of just two months.

That first year, the light show was located out front between Noccalula Road and the old ticket gate, next to where one goes down into the gorge. That first year admission was free. This project became known as Christmas on the Rocks.

Martha Manley, a member of the Noccalula Improvement Association who once managed the Corn Crib Corner tourist stop, once stated that “Dreams can come true …we all shared this dream, came together and made things happen.”

A week before the lighting ceremony and on the day of final placement of the lights, however, tragedy struck. Jaycee member, Rory (RoRo) Cothran was working on the northwest side of the gorge across from the Noccalula statue. He repelling down off the side of the gorge and had just finished stringing lights off the side. As he climbed back up, Rory slipped and fell. The harness he was wearing broke. Rory died shortly afterwards. For several days it appeared the first Christmas lighting would not be turned on. Rory’s work at the Falls was the final touch for the Christmas lighting. Sad as it was, Rory had worked so hard on it and family members wanted to see the lights turned on.

A monument has since been placed at the site to memorialize Rory, and each year at every Christmas lighting a star is placed to shine on the cliff exactly where Rory fell.

A week later to the hour of Rory’s death, the lighting ceremony began. Thousands and thousands of folks came. All parking spaces were filled and people were jammed together. There was tension among everyone, especially the association members. Jim Thompson hooked up the lights to a central relay, but there were concerns that it might not work.

The Jaycees handed out candles for everyone, which were lighted for RoRo. After a few presentations, it came time to turn the lights on. Rory’s favorite song, “The Dance” by Garth Brooks, started playing. There was not a dry eye to be seen, and all cried for the longest time.

(For those folks that don’t know, the song is written with a double meaning, both as a love song about the end of a relationship, and the story of someone dying because of something they believe in, or a moment of glory).

To the relief of many, the lights all came on and it was absolutely beautiful, sparkling all over and bringing a form of excitement to an area that had been dark and dreary in the wintertime.

Noccalula Improvement Association member Keith Pitts predicted that Christmas on the Rocks would grow into the Pioneer Village the following year. That next year, in 1996, the amounts of lights jumped from 60,000 lights to more than 250,000, and, just as predicted, into the Pioneer Village itself. Each year the light show grew until by 2006, it jumped to over two million lights.

Perhaps the association’s next highlight was in February of 1999, when a C.P. Huntington excursion train (a “twin” for the one already at the Falls) and 4,000 feet of tracks were purchased. This additional train was needed for use during times of large crowds. As recalled, the train was bought for less than $100,000. Brand new, it would have cost over $1 million dollars.

The train was located in Estes Park, Colo., and purchased from H.W. Stewart Corporation through its president, William Carle. He and his family had operated the train for several years at their amusement park known as National Park Village, which was located at the entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park. 

In 1992, a tragic fire destroyed most of the complex. Afterward, the National Park Service negotiated the use of the property for a new visitor center. This action required selling off the train.

The train was loaded on a flatbed truck owned by Osborn Trucking Company of Gadsden, who made provisions for delivery from Colorado to Gadsden. Once in Gadsden, the Taylor Crane Company provided crane service to unload the train.

The Vagabond’s last year with the association was in 2001. In November of 2008, the Christmas lights display was named as one of the top 20 tourism events in the Southeast.

When the Noccalula Improvement Association was created, it was not just about improving the Falls by itself, but also the area surrounding it, including the entire Southern Lookout Mountain. It was to try to preserve the past and make visual improvements and was something that all people were to enjoy and appreciate. It was an attempt to educate, preserve and protect the area’s heritage and cultural pride, as well as the natural environment and other unique qualities of life.

Hopefully the City of Gadsden will continue to push this idea that the Vagabond first came up with.

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