The Vagabond – History of the Noccalula Falls Christmas lighting


Attempts in the past for making the mountain a special place have come and gone. Back around 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 of these dreams was to have an alpine village at Noccalula Falls and for the area to be all lit up.

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

On one November evening in 1994 at The Vagabond’s residence on Lookout Mountain (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 installing Christmas lights.

From that time on, the group started meeting regularly at Jacks at Noccalula Falls, and eventually the group voted to become known as the Noccalula Improvement Association. By spring the following year, we decided to push the idea of lighting Noccalula Falls Park for Christmas. In October, Richard Copeland and The Vagabond led the organization in implementing this idea.

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 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 lights. In reality, the association never dreamed how large this was going to get in just two months.

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

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

But tragedy struck a week before the planned lighting ceremony and on the day of final placement of the lights. Jaycee member Rory (Ro Ro) Cothran was working on the northwest side of the gorge across from the Noccalula statue. He was repelling down the side of the gorge and had just finished stringing lights off the side.

As Rory climbed back up to the top, he slipped and fell. The harness he was wearing broke. He died shortly after, and 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 the Christmas lighting, a star is place to shine on the cliff exactly where he 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 with 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 and these were lighted for Rory. 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 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. 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.

Keith Pitts, speaker for the Noccalula Improvement Association, 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 as predicted, grew into the Pioneer Village itself. The display grew each year until it jumped to over 2 million lights by the year 2006.

Perhaps the next highlight for the association 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 came from Estes Park, Colorado, and purchased from the 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 located at the entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park. 

In 1992, a tragic fire destroyed most of the complex. Afterward, the 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 when he went to build an office for someone in Atlanta, Ga. In November of 2008, the Christmas lights were 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 surrounding area, including the entire southern Lookout Mountain. The goal was to preserve the past and make visual improvements for all 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. 

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 the Parks and Recreation Department have done outstanding work on it. Hopefully the City of Gadsden will continue to push these ideas that The Vagabond first came up with.

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