The Tallulah Gorge Then and Now
Driving on Highway 441 where the Georgia Piedmont meets the rolling hills of the Southern Appalachians, it would be easy to drive right over one of the most legendary and historic areas of our state – the Tallulah Gorge.
The Tallulah Falls and Gorge, once described as the Niagara of the South, was considered the premier vacation destination for the 19th Century traveler. In its heyday, it was host to thousands of visitors from all over the the Southeast who went there to escape the summer heat and to take in its splendor.
The three mile long Tallulah Gorge features six powerful cascades as well as many smaller waterfalls, making it a source of awe and wonder for many centuries.The lore of the Cherokee, who lived in this area long before European explorers discovered it, is full of legends where the gorge itself figures prominently.
In the late 19th Century, the glories of Tallulah Falls and Gorge were becoming well known. With the completion of the rail line to Tallulah Falls in 1881, the tourist industry increased markedly. What had been an arduous and dangerous journey on foot, by horseback or by wagon was now done in comfort and relative speed from the safety of a railway car. Many guest houses started springing up to meet the rising demand. As a result, the small remote town grew almost overnight, from accommodating a few hundred to several thousand visitors. For the next twenty years, Tallulah Falls remained the terminus of the line, which by definition made it the end destination and the premier resort for the well-heeled southern traveler.
It was during this heyday that hotel proprietor W. D. Young brought in high wire walker J.A. St. John, known professionally as Professor Leon, as part of the opening celebration for his Grand View Hotel. Young advertised the walk as the highest and longest ever attempted, drawing around 6,000 people to witness the spectacle.
There were over a dozen excursion trains that day carrying spectators to see Leonʼs daring attempt to walk the gorge. Apparently the bettors were especially interested, making his odds even at best that he would fail.
When Leon stepped onto the tightrope at Inspiration Point that summer afternoon, every hotel along the rim was full of anxious onlookers. Leonʼs wife and five year old daughter were watching from the South Rim at Loverʼs Leap where he hoped to complete his death-defying walk.
When Leon was only about a quarter of the way across the gorge, one of the guy wires snapped, causing a cry of alarm from all who were there. The main rope swayed dramatically while Leon performed many desperate balance-regaining feats to keep from falling to his death. Once he had regained his footing, he dropped to one knee and sat on the rope waiting for his assistant to repair the broken line.
Once the repair had been made and lookouts had been stationed at each guy wire, Leon got back on his feet and finished the crossing. The story circulated that Leonʼs wife fainted once he stepped onto the South Rim safely.
There was speculation running through the crowd that a gambler who had bet against Leon had cut the line, which was never proved. Because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the cut guy wire, Young and Leonʼs physician implored him not to attempt the return trip, which had originally been the plan. Young paid him the full price of $250. Considering how closely Leon came to plummeting to his death in front of his family and horrified onlookers, no one begrudged a penny of his fee.
In the years following Leonʼs famous high wire feat, several factors combined to bring about the severe decline of the tourist industry in Tallulah Falls. With the completion of the rail line to Franklin, NC, many tourists stayed on the train and bypassed the gorge. In addition, the 1913 completion of the Georgia Railway and Power Companyʼs dam on the Tallulah River turned the once mighty thundering falls into a mere trickle in comparison. But it was the fire of 1921 that swept through the once bustling hotels that was the final nail in the coffin of this storied era.
Almost a century later, area promoters decided to recreate Leonʼs legendary high wire act. They recruited Carl Wallenda of the famous Flying Wallenda family in an attempt to draw global attention to the July 18,1970 event.
People came in the tens of thousand this time with nearly 35,000 people surrounding the rim to watch the historic event. Film crews from around the country came in droves as well as a crew from the BBC. Georgia Governor Lester Maddox attended the event along with many other dignitaries of the day.
Just as in the first attempt, it was the daredevilʼs wife who was the most anxious. Helen Wallenda, a high wire walker in her own right, knew how tiring the long dangerous walk would be. Wallenda assured her that if his feet began to hurt that he would do a headstand to rest them. And halfway through the walk, he did just that – twice.
The whole harrowing feat took less than 20 minutes and lived up to its billing: “The Great Wallenda Walk Across the Awesome Gorge.” When speaking of crossing the Gorge, Wallenda said that it “was the most dangerous thing Iʼve ever done and the most beautiful.” Since Wallendaʼs crossing in 1970, the Tallulah Gorge has rebounded. With the establishment of Tallulah Falls Lake and Gorge as a state park in 1993, it has regained a strong tourist base. The Georgia Power Company and Georgiaʼs Department of Natural Resources have vastly improved the trail system in the 3,000 plus acre park, including an amazing stair system which provides safe access to a suspension bridge crossing just above Hurricane Falls. From this spot the astounding beauty of the gorge is accessible once more. Also following its establishment as a state park, a culvert was added to the dam to once again provide a continual flow of water into the gorge. Several times a year Georgia Power has scheduled aesthetic water releases for whitewater boaters, bringing the cascading waters to a thunderous roar once again. So now the Tallulah Gorge can be appreciated by a whole new generation of hikers,explorers, thrill and wonder seekers.
For the third time in as many centuries, another attempt will be made to cross this mighty gorge. Like his great-grandfather forty five years ago, Nik Wallenda hopes to walk literally in his footsteps.
Professor Leon did it first in 1886 and Carl Wallenda crossed the gorge almost a century later. And now in the summer of 2015, it is Carlʼs great-grandson Nikʼs turn to walk the mighty Tallulah Gorge.
Somewhere above the crowds, one has to imagine that Carl Wallenda – and perhaps even Professor Leon – will be cheering him on.