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Wire walker over Tallulah excited crowd

POSTED: March 25, 2012 12:30 a.m.

Summer of 1970 was hot in more ways than one in Georgia.

North Georgia was in one of the worst droughts ever with no rain falling for a month. The state as a whole was enveloped in a heated governor's race as Democrats Jimmy Carter and Carl Sanders, along with Republicans Jimmy Bentley and Hal Suit, were trying to succeed Gov. Lester Maddox.

Yet most of the attention temporarily was on Tallulah Gorge on the border of Habersham and Rabun counties, where famed tightrope walker Karl Wallenda was scheduled to tiptoe across on a 2-inch cable July 18.

Tallulah Falls Productions Inc., sponsor of the event, had begun clearing areas for the beginning and end of the walk, building platforms at both ends. Reservations were pouring in to lodging places throughout the area.

A fire burned in Tallulah Gorge just 10 days before the walk, and still another one, believed deliberately set, had to be extinguished deep in the ravine just three days later. Still preparations were on pace, and excitement increased as workers began to stretch the cable across the gorge.

The walk would begin on the Rabun County side from a platform dubbed "North Star," and end on the Habersham County side at the "Home Plate" platform.

Wallenda himself heightened the suspense as he arrived at the Georgia Welcome Center near Lavonia, greeting admirers, signing autographs and talking with newspeople. He declared the Tallulah Gorge walk the second greatest in the history of man, behind only the Apollo 11 walk on the moon by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong almost a year to date earlier.

Mrs. Wallenda also came to North Georgia early and toured the various attractions. Her husband came to practice before the big day.

This walk would be a challenge because it would be longer, almost 1,000 feet, and higher, about 700 feet, than his previous attempt, a distance of 600 feet about 60 feet above ground.

Mrs. Wallenda watched and bade him good luck as her husband began his walk. But she preferred not to watch the entire event, instead being taken to the finishing side to welcome him.

Chewing on a piece of candy as he walked, Wallenda didn't wobble much, but he did have to turn his 45-pound balancing pole about midway through. He thrilled the cheering thousands watching by doing two headstands, one about a third of the way across, the other about three-fourths of the way.

Atlanta television personalities Ruth Kent and Ray Moore were emcees of the event, and dignitaries filled a platform so full that they had to abandon it as it cracked. Included among them were Gov. Maddox, former Gov. Sanders and local town officials.

Wallenda's red and gold costume was soaked with sweat as he collapsed on the platform at the end of his journey, which took about 20 minutes. He was placed on a stretcher, but after being attended to and resting a few minutes, stood and acknowledged the crowd. He said he looked down only once.

Sponsors might have been disappointed with the crowd, which was estimated between 10,000 and 15,000. They had expected 40,000 to 50,000 might witness the walk. But those who attended weren't disappointed at the sight of a 65-year-old man walking on a wire across one of Georgia's major attractions.

Four years later, Wallenda broke a "skywalk" record of 1,800 feet at King's Island. Then in 1978, at age 73, he attempted a high-wire walk between the two towers of a hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He fell to his death with television cameras rolling. Some blamed windy conditions, but the family believed the cables were flawed.

His great-great-grandson, Nik Wallenda, later successfully completed that walk. Nik Wallenda plans to walk a wire stretched across a portion of the Grand Canyon, and he has permission to skywalk Niagara Falls later this year in a feat that hasn't been attempted in more than a century.

When electric street cars came to Gainesville in the early 1900s, they solved some problems but caused some others. A newspaper reported that Frank Moore of Dahlonega was injured when his frightened horses ran away from a street car. City officials also noted a problem with young boys jumping off and on the street cars while they were moving.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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