Natural Bridge (Virginia)
The bridge, with a person below to indicate the size. Taken in 2005.
|Nearest city||Natural Bridge, Virginia|
|NRHP Reference #||97001401|
|Added to NRHP||November 18, 1997|
|Designated NHL||August 6, 1998|
Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia, is a geological formation in which Cedar Creek (a small tributary of the James River) has carved out a gorge in the mountainous limestone terrain, forming a natural arch 215 ft (65.532 m) high with a span of 90 ft (27.432 m). It consists of horizontal limestone strata, and is the remains of the roof of a cave or tunnel through which the creek once flowed. Natural Bridge has been designated a Virginia Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
Rocks in the area are limestones and dolomites from the Ordovician Period, which implies deposition about 470 million years ago. The carbonates of the Natural Bridge occur within the Chepultepec Formation, making the buttress of the bridge, and the Beekmantown Formation, deposited conformably over the Chepultepec and comprising the span and the upper part of the bridge. Strata at Natural Bridge are close to horizontal, in contrast with dipping and folded beds as close as 300 ft away along Highway 11, which points to the fact that structurally the rocks making the Natural Bridge are the bottom part of a syncline.
The process of formation of the bridge is less certain, but the ideas proposed by different individuals have in common the importance of three elements: the southeast dipping of the strata, the capability of water to slowly dissolve carbonates and the existence of numerous fractures. Spencer  has provided a summary of the most respected interpretations and produced the presently most widely accepted hypothesis. According to him, the Natural Bridge would be the remnant of an underground river tunnel that diverted water to the south. Initially, the underground river started capturing water from the Poague Run about two miles to the north, contributing to enlarge the incipient Cedar Creek drainage basin. Over time, through weathering and erosion, the underground river collapsed and disappeared almost completely, the Natural Bridge being the only surviving relic of the roof of the ancient underground river. The creek’s larger flow contributed to form the present day gorge, significantly increasing the distance from the bottom of the water flow to the roof of the underground channel. Today, the “Lost River”, about half a mile upstream from the Natural Bridge, is a vivid example supporting the hypothesis of the underground river. Water from the side of the gorge flows into the Cedar Creek, similarly as the ancestral Cedar Creek underground river allegedly flew into the Cascade Creek, presently entering the Cedar Creek approximately 500 ft below the Natural Bridge.
The Natural Bridge was a sacred site of the Native American Monacan tribe, who believed it to be the site of a major victory over pursuing Powhatans centuries before the arrival of whites in Virginia.
In March of 1742, a frontiersman named John Howard — along with his son and others — was commissioned by Governor Gooch to explore the southwest of Virginia as far as the Mississippi River. The party followed Cedar Creek through the Natural Bridge, then floated in buffalo-skin boats down the New, Coal, Kanawha, and Ohio Rivers to the Mississippi.
Some believe that George Washington also came to the site in 1750 as a young surveyor on behalf of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. To support claims that Washington surveyed the area, some tour guides claim the initials "G.W." on the wall of the bridge, 23 ft. up, were carved by the future president. Legend also has it that George Washington threw a rock from the bottom of Cedar Creek over the bridge. In 1927, a large stone was found, also engraved "G.W." and bearing a surveyor's cross, which historians accepted as proof that he indeed surveyed the bridge.
Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres (635,000 m²) of land including the Natural Bridge from King George III of England for 20 shillings in 1774. He called it "the most Sublime of nature's works". Jefferson built a two-room log cabin, with one room reserved for guests, beginning its use as a retreat. While President, in 1802, he personally surveyed the area. Many famous guests stayed here, including John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, and Martin Van Buren.
Natural Bridge was one of the tourist attractions of the new world that Europeans visited during the 18th and 19th centuries. Vacationing guests from all over the world took day trips from Natural Bridge on horseback or horse-drawn carriages to explore the countryside. In 1833, a new owner erected the Forest Inn to accommodate the increasing number of people.
The bridge had considerable notoriety during the 19th century. Herman Melville alluded to the bridge in describing Moby-Dick: "But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia's Natural Bridge..." William Cullen Bryant, another American literary figure, said that Natural Bridge and Niagara Falls were the two most remarkable features of North America. During the 1880s Natural Bridge was a resort owned by Colonel Henry Parsons, who also owned the nearby Rockbridge Inn.
In 1927 a nocturnal lighting display of the arch and gorge was designed by Samuel Hibben and Phinehas V. Stephens, illuminating engineers with the Westinghouse Company. The display was formally switched on by President Calvin Coolidge in a 1927 inaugural ceremony. The original display has since been replaced with a sound and light show depicting the seven days of the Creation as described in Genesis.
On 12 May 2014, Governor Terry McAuliffe officially accepted the deed to Natural Bridge, transferring its ownership to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Plans are currently in place to have the site designated as a state park within the coming years.
Today, visitors must purchase tickets to view the bridge from below. U.S. Route 11 (Lee Highway) runs on top of the Bridge, but protective fences make it difficult to see anything besides the roadway.
The trail under the bridge also provides access to other attractions such as a recreation of Monacan Indian housing, Lace Falls, the "Lost River" where water was transported through pipes to the kettles used to extract nitrate, and the Saltpeter Cave where gunpowder and ammunition were made for the War of 1812.
Natural Bridge is also the name of the town in which the bridge is located.
- List of National Historic Landmarks in Virginia
- National Register of Historic Places listings in Rockbridge County, Virginia
- Staff (2008-04-15). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
- "Natural Bridge". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-27.
- [ Spencer, Edgard W. ,1968, Geology of the Natural Bridge, Sugarloaf Mountain, Buchanan, and Arnold Valley quadrangles, Virginia: Report of Investigations 13, Viginia Division of Mineral Resources, Charlottesville, VA, 55 p. and 4 plates. https://www.dmme.virginia.gov/commercedocs/RI_13.pdf.
- Spencer, Edgard W. ,1964, Natural Bridge and vicinity. Virginia Minerals, v. 10, no. 2, p. 1−6.
- Carrie Hunter Willis and Etta Belle Walker, 1937, Legends of the Skyline Drive and the Great Valley of Virginia, p. 84-86.
- Brown, Jr., Stuart E. (1965), Virginia Baron: The Story of Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax, Berryville, Virginia: Chesapeake Book Company, pp 98-99.
- Carrie Hunter Willis and Etta Belle Walker, 1937, Legends of the Skyline Drive and the Great Valley of Virginia, p. 86.
- Carrie Hunter Willis and Etta Belle Walker, 1937, Legends of the Skyline Drive and the Great Valley of Virginia, p. 87.
- Dianne and Joseph Pierce (July 1994). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Rockbridge Inn" (PDF). Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
- Hibben, Samuel G. and Stephens, Phinehas V. The illumination of the Natural Bridge of Virginia, Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society, vol. 22, 1927, 1158-1164.
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