The Day 50 Years Ago When Karl Wallenda Walked a Tightrope Across Tallulah Gorge
(But He Wasn’t the First)
By Richard Cinquina
How do you revive interest in a resort town featuring spectacular waterfalls plunging through a 750-foot-deep gorge?
Why, obviously, you would hire a 65-year-old daredevil to walk across the gorge on a tightrope.
That is exactly what happened in Tallulah Falls 50 years ago on July 18, 1970.
Karl Wallenda, founder of the famous Flying Wallendas, was hired to reignite Tallulah Falls tourism by “tightroping” his way across Tallulah Gorge.
Reverend James Turpin, pastor of Tallulah Falls United Methodist Church, gave the invocation for Wallenda before his walk. “We prayed him across, we just prayed him across,” Turpin later recalled later. Praying with him were 30,000 spectators, who paid $5 each for the privilege. Children were admitted for $2. The entry fee was waived for Georgia Governor Lester Maddox.
The huge crowd watched as Wallenda gingerly stepped along a 5/8-inch-thick steel cable, strung more than 1,000 feet across the Gorge. He interrupted his walk with two handstands. After 18 minutes, he hopped off the cable on the other side, where his wife handed him a congratulatory martini despite the fact that Rabun County officially was dry.
One of the towers embedded in a concrete platform that held the wire is still visible along the trail on the north side of Tallulah Gorge. And the suit Wallenda wore for his crossing is on display at the Tallulah Gorge Interpretive Center.
Karl Wallenda continued amazing people around the world with his daredevil stunts for eight more years. On March 22, 1978 at the age of 73, he plunged to his death while attempting to walk a cable strung between two towers of the 10-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Karl’s great-grandson, aerialist Nik Wallenda, announced in 2015 that he would recreate the Tallulah Gorge stunt on its 45th anniversary. Only he would do it with a high-tech twist.
The BBC had recorded the 1970 crossing, and Nik planned to superimpose Karl’s image against his own during the commemorative walk across the Gorge. “To be able to walk literally in his footsteps is what my life’s about, ” he told the Associated Press.
But Nik canceled the event, saying that the technology “isn’t there yet. It’s under development, and we’re waiting for that.”
Apparently, Nik is still waiting.
Despite the attention showered on Karl Wallenda, the honor for the first tightrope crossing of Tallulah Gorge goes to J.A. St. John, known as Professor Leon.
The Professor was quite the entertainer in his day. The stuntman had come to Atlanta in 1886, where, among other feats, he walked across a tightrope strung between buildings on Peachtree Street.
At that time, Tallulah Falls was coming into its own as a major tourist destination thanks to the Tallulah Falls Railroad, which reached the town in 1882. To generate even greater tourist interest, a hotel owner challenged Professor Leon to tightrope over the Gorge in the summer of 1886. The Professor accepted the challenge.
It was reported that a crowd of approximately 6,000 came to town to watch the event.
As Professor Leon approached the manila rope at a point called Devil’s Pulpit, his wife reportedly threw her arms around him and begged him not to go. He promised this would be his last stunt; he solemnly bowed to the crowd; and he boldly took his first step across the Gorge.
The crossing did not proceed exactly as planned. One of the guywires supporting the rope broke, forcing Professor Leon to straddle the rope with his legs until the problem was corrected. It was speculated that the guywire had been cut by a gambler, who bet the Professor would not complete his crossing.
Although the guywire was repaired, the rope continued to shake with every step he took. Halfway across the gorge, Professor Leon seemed to tire to the point of exhaustion. “Like a drunken man, he staggered on,” wrote one reporter. “Veins in his face were swollen like whiplashes.”
After 30 minutes, Professor Leon neared the finish. Eager hands reached out to pull him to safety. He fell flat to the ground exhausted and asked for a doctor.
He initially had planned to walk the rope back to the other side. Because of his condition, he was advised not to take the chance much to the relief of his wife.
The gambler betting on the Professor’s demise probably would have preferred another try.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Clayton Tribune on July 16, 2020.