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Johnny Vardeman: Professor Leon had testy walk across Tallulah Gorge in 1886
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Many remember Karl Wallenda’s tightrope walk across Tallulah Gorge in 1970. It was spectacular and drew thousands of onlookers.

J.A. St. John, known as Professor Leon, however, might have been the first to high-wire the gorge in 1886. Some sources say a Professor Bachman walked the Gorge in 1883.

Leon was quite the entertainer in his day. He had come to Atlanta that summer of 1886 performing several feats, including a walk between buildings above Peachtree Street.

He also did a number of walks across a lake at Grant Park. His wife was part of the act at Grant Park. As a promotion for Singer Sewing Machine Co., Professor Leon and his wife rose above the lake for a sewing exhibition. She wasn’t on a tightrope but a platform 90 feet above the lake, demonstrating the sewing machine while he walked a rope above her.

Tallulah Falls was just coming into its own as a tourist attraction in those days. A railroad line finally had reached there in 1882, and more hotels and businesses sprang up. One of the hotel owners had seen Leon perform in Atlanta and invited him to walk the Gorge.

Professor Leon would be paid $1,000. The rope across the Gorge and accompanying guywires and other equipment would run about $500, so he would make at least $500 profit. However, he probably made more than that as donations were taken from passengers packed onto several excursion trains from as far south as Athens. Many from Atlanta also made the trip, as well as nearby communities. About 6,000 people supposedly watched the show.

As Professor Leon, “wearing the regular costume of his calling,” approached the rope, his wife threw her arms around him and begged him not to go. He promised this would be his last stunt (although it wasn’t), then bowed to the crowd before taking his first step across “the Grand Chasm” from a point near what was called “Devil’s Pulpit.”

Whether it was planned or truly accidental, the walk wasn’t without incident. One of the guywires supporting the rope broke at one point, causing Professor Leon to sit until the problem could be corrected. Extra people were summoned to support the wires keeping the rope as taut as possible. There was some speculation that the guywire had been cut, perhaps by a gambler betting against Leon completing the walk.

The rope shook with every step he took. Those watching with “spy glasses,” or telescopes, said they could see perspiration popping out on his brow.

Observers said halfway over the gorge, Professor Leon seemed to tire to the point of exhaustion. He paused and sat for some time to regain his strength.

“Like a drunken man, he staggered on,” wrote one reporter. “Veins in his face were swollen like whiplashes.”

As Professor Leon neared the finish, eager hands reached out to pull him to safety. Those near him said he couldn’t have gone 10 paces farther without falling. A deafening cheer came from the crowd as he reached the other side. He fell flat to the ground, exhausted and asked for a doctor. The walk had taken half an hour.

Professor Leon had planned to walk the rope back to the other side. But because of his condition, he was advised not to, much to the relief of his wife.

It had been a spectacular show. Miraculously, while the crowds perched on every available space to witness the event, nobody fell into the gorge. In fact, no accidents were reported at all.

While Tallulah Falls already was one of Georgia’s prime tourist attractions, some calling it “the Niagara Falls of the South,” Professor Leon’s act brought the area even more attention. The little town prospered for years to come, and even today as a state park, Tallulah Gorge remains a big draw for the state’s tourism industry.

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When Karl Wallenda walked Tallulah Gorge in 1970, he did two headstands on the high wire. Wallenda died at age 73 in 1978, falling during a tightrope walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

His great-grandson, Nik Wallenda, who has walked across Niagara Falls among numerous other daredevil feats, was scheduled to repeat Karl Wallenda’s walk across Tallulah Gorge on its 45th anniversary, but it has been postponed.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.