Natural Bridge of Virginia
Many tourists to the Commonwealth of Virginia with sufficient time and interest to see anything beyond the big three of Colonial Williamsburg Restoration-Jamestown, Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello, eventually find themselves attracted to one of the nation’s most imposing natural landmarks, the Natural Bridge of Virginia. For over two centuries, this gigantic natural limestone arch spanning a canyon 200 to 300 feet deep and some 100 feet wide, high above the small spring-fed Cedar Creek (a tributary of the James River) in southwestern Virginia, has been referred to as "One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World."
The human history of the Natural Bridge traces back into the pre-European mythology of the Amer-Indian peoples in the Shenandoah Valley. During the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s, the natural splendors of the Rock Bridge, as it was known then, were as famous as Niagara Falls in both Europe and the United States. The Natural Bridge is so massive that it not only has served as a wildlife trail and corridor, an Amer-Indian trail known as the Great Path, and a horse and wagon road for settlers and the first farmers known as the Great Wagon Road, but for decades it carried the main north-south paved highway through the Shenandoah Valley, U.S. Route 11, the Lee Highway. U.S. 11 still traverses the bridge, yet deep in the canyon, 200 feet below, one can neither see nor hear the highway traffic. One hears only the water, the wind and the songs of the abundant bird life.
Even today, when travel and tourism are more often based on the philistine delights of shopping at the Potomac Mills outlet mall, which draws some 17 million people a year and is the Commonwealth’s number one visitor attraction, or testing the latest generation roller coasters at Busch Gardens or Kings Dominion, some 300,000 visitors a year still wend their way to this awe-inspiring work of nature. Given the natural and historical importance of Natural Bridge, it is highly significant that the protection and stewardship of this imposing site has always been entirely in the hands of caring and diligent private owners. Indeed, it is fitting that the Bridge’s first owner was Thomas Jefferson, not only the preeminent champion of individual liberty and private property rights, but also one of a handful of the most inquiring minds of the Eighteenth Century who possessed a boundless curiosity regarding natural history, science, geography and exploration. So impressed was Jefferson with the Natural Bridge that he called it "The most sublime of Nature’s works." To this day it continues in private ownership and while there are lodging and tourist amenities in conjunction with the site, the integrity and beauty of bridge and its natural setting remain unspoiled – a testimonial to private conservation.
The Natural Bridge is located at the top of Southside Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley of the state’s western Appalachian Mountains, what geologists call the Valley and Ridge Province. The parallel folds of mountains and valleys all run in a northeast-southwest direction. This valley and its rivers and streams have served as a natural migration route, first for wildlife, including probably small herds of eastern bison and elk, then for the Amer-Indians who lived and hunted in and moved through the area, and still later as the natural gateway for pioneers from the mid-Atlantic and Northeast across the Appalachians and into the western Carolinas and Kentucky and Tennessee.
The game trails, Indian paths, and horse and wagon-train roads were eventually paralleled by a north-south railroad line in the 1880s, and then as the auto came in, the dirt road was paved in the 1920s. For decades the main north-south corridor for travel and transportation through the Shenandoah Valley was U.S. 11 – which passes right over the top of the Natural Bridge. That alone should emphasize the significance of Natural Bridge; not only its importance as a natural travel corridor from one end of Virginia to the other, but equally its massive size and awe-inspiring bulk, supporting everything from migrating wildlife to a steady procession of modern eighteen-wheeler diesel rigs. However, with the advent of the modern Interstate Highway System, the broad, multilane, concrete ribbon of I-81, which passes two miles west of Natural Bridge, has come to replace the narrow two-lane black-topped U.S. 11 as the transportation artery. This has allowed Natural Bridge to slip back somewhat into the bucolic rolling topography dominated by open vistas of corn and wheat fields and green pastures sprinkled with the black Angus cattle of the valley’s abundant farms and surrounded in the hills and mountains by the verdant expanses of the Jefferson National Forest.
The site is about 200 miles southwest of Washington, D. C. – slightly over a three hour drive – and ten miles south of Lexington, the county seat of Rockbridge County – named after the Natural Bridge, or Rock Bridge as it was sometimes called in earlier days – and the home of Washington & Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.
Natural Bridge is located right at the Y intersection of U.S. 11 and VA 130. It is a mere two miles east of the busy I-81, but with the north-south traffic now bypassing it, it is more of a sleepy and relaxed destination. Yet its accessibility is facilitated by the Interstate and it is only 30 minutes north of the Roanoke Airport, 15 minutes south of I-64, and only 15 minutes west of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. Thus Natural Bridge sits near the northern gateway to a series of privately-owned properties stretching south through the mountains and collectively called the Southern Highlands Attractions, which include such notable sites as Luray Caverns, Grandfather Mountain, Chimney Rock Park, and the Biltmore Estate.
Creation of Natural Bridge
Much of the bedrock in this part of Virginia consists of thick deposits of carbonate, formed in an ancient warm shallow sea by carbonate secreting organisms nearly 500 million years ago in the Cambrian and Ordovician. These ancient carbonate deposits consist of limestone and dolomite, which, like all limestones, are easily dissolved by water. Thus, streams, rainfall, and groundwater have all dissolved, eroded and etched out canyons, underground streams, caves, caverns and sinkholes throughout the region. Such solution-created landscape is called karst topography, and the valleys, hills and mountains in this region are riddled with caves and caverns. Indeed, there are some 2,500 caverns throughout Virginia, many of which are large enough to have been turned into successful commercial ventures.
It was during the early-mid Mesozoic Era, around 200 million years ago, that the James River and its tributaries such as Cedar Creek were formed and began to flow east across the Blue Ridge Mountains and on to the Chesapeake. It was this geology and the power of running water over millions of years that slowly and inexorably carved out Cedar Creek canyon and the Natural Bridge. It is assumed that at one time the creek was some 200 feet higher up, before it began to etch, dissolve, seep and eventually flow down through the parallel strata of limestone, carving out an underground stream. As the surface water fell ever deeper into its new underground stream bed, a waterfall continued to cut back up stream creating a canyon. Eventually the roof of limestone above the downstream underground cavern collapsed, creating a long narrow canyon. However, an especially thick, resistant section of the overburden limestone remained intact, creating the massive arching bridge. Natural Bridge is essentially all that remains of an ancient collapsed cavern.
During the Eighteenth Century, the origins of the bridge were still little understood. Whether one accepted the biblical story of creation or not, almost all believed that the Earth was very young and thus even as enlightened a natural scientist as Thomas Jefferson believed that the Natural Bridge must have been created by some cataclysmic force of nature. But by the early Nineteenth Century, natural philosophers began to speculate that the bridge had been created by the slow steady process of natural events.
Nevertheless, the Natural Bridge was still outstanding in its uniqueness and its awe-inspiring size. As impressive as Niagara Falls was, there were waterfalls galore throughout Europe and everyone understood waterfalls and their creation. But the Natural Bridge was something unusual and its origins uncertain enough to truly make it a natural wonder. The massive grey limestone arch is breathtaking in its dimensions. It is somewhat irregular in shape, being both higher and wider on the southwest side of the canyon than the northeast, and lying on a diagonal axis across the gorge. And the arch itself is semi-elliptical. Thus its dimensions are not precise, but represent an average. Nevertheless, it towers some 215 feet above the creek (about 22 to 23 stories high), making it about 55 feet higher (or one third taller) than Niagara Falls. The span between the walls is 90 feet long. It averages about 100 feet wide. The bridge is 50 feet thick. And the solid stone arch contains some 450,000 cubic feet in volume and is estimated to weigh around 36,000 tons. A U.S.G.S. 1905 benchmark atop the bridge places the altitude at 1,150 feet.
Legends abound as to the experience of the Amer-Indians with the Natural Bridge. Supposedly it was first discovered by the Monacan Indians, a peaceful tribe who lived some thirty miles to the east of the site. The traditional legend, reported in a Natural Bridge of Virginia booklet, recounts that the Monacans:
were being pursued by the Shawnee and Powhattan tribes. Hungry, tired and desperate, the Monocans fled through forests that were strange and menacing. Then, they came upon a huge canyon. The canyon was more than two hundred feet deep, one hundred feet wide, and stretched as far as they could see to the east and to the west. There was no way to cross. All hope gone, the Monocans knelt and called upon the Great Spirit to save his children. When they arose and looked again a great stone bridge spanned the chasm!
The women and children of the tribe were sent across to test its strength. When the arch supported them, the rest of the tribe crossed to the other side in safety. Buoyed by their experience, the Monocans held the bridge against their enemies and conquered many times their own number. The Monocans considered this a gift and called this revered bridge "The Bridge of God."
The present chief of the Monacans notes that their oral traditions affirm that the bridge is a sacred site where they went to worship and thank the Creator for saving them. He believes the event occurred prior to European settlement, which means the warring tribe may have been the Iroquois as the Powhatan and Monacan did not become enemies until the colonial period. Natural Bridge was an important site for the Indians and they referred to it as the "Great Path."
The European Discovery
It is not known who was the first European colonist to look upon the Natural Bridge. It is likely that many adventurers and explorers set eyes upon it before it was "officially" discovered. After all, the first permanent English settlement in the New World was in 1607 at Jamestown, on an island just inside the mouth of the James River. Fur trappers, explorers, and surveyors would likely have followed the river some 340 miles upstream to its source. At some point someone following the James into the great Shenandoah Valley would have entered the small feeder tributary, Cedar Creek, and finally stopped to stare in wonder at the Natural Bridge.
Research on the early history of the bridge carried out by the corporate owners in the 1930s suggest that one of the earliest to see it was a John Peter Sallings, who arrived in the area around 1730. His diaries mention the bridge in 1742, the earliest documentation of Natural Bridge, and he may have seen the bridge as early as 1734. Chester A. Reeds in his 1927 book Natural Bridge and Its Environs wrote that the first recorded mention of the bridge was by Andrew Burnaby in 1759 who noted that it was "a natural arch or bridge joining two high mountains, with a considerable river underneath." However, Burnaby merely recorded it as a natural curiosity and did not visit it on his travels for fear of raiding Cherokees.
It is widely believed, although not documented, that George Washington was an early visitor to Natural Bridge and that he was the first to survey it. It is known that he had been retained to survey much of Lord Fairfax’s five million acre royal grant in western Virginia in the spring of 1748. Tradition has it that Washington surveyed Natural Bridge in 1750. The initials "G.W." are cut into the southeast wall of the bridge about twenty-three feet above Cedar Creek. The initials have been outlined in a white rectangle and a sign on the footpath across the creek points out the spot. In 1927, a large rock inscribed with his initials and a surveyor’s cross was discovered under the bridge. Tradition holds that Washington measured the height of the bridge by lowering a plumb bob from the top to the surveyor’s cross. There are also descriptions and photographs of a now vanished marker in a nearby field that was supposedly one of Washington’s.
At the entrance gate to the trail down to Cedar Creek and the Natural Bridge there is a commemorative plaque placed by the Natural Bridge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution that "commemorates the fact that the Natural Bridge patent was surveyed by George Washington about 1750 A.D. and was granted to Thomas Jefferson July 5, 1774 A.D." Nevertheless, as there is no mention of surveying Natural Bridge in Washington’s notebooks and diaries, skeptics remain.
Mr. Jefferson and the Natural Bridge
Of particular interest to proponents of private property rights and the pursuit of happiness is the early and long association of Thomas Jefferson with Natural Bridge. Jefferson loved the western Piedmont with its salubrious climate and ever-changing seasons and its scenery, including the Smokey-Blue mountain ridges to the west. Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, was some 80 miles to the northeast of Natural Bridge. And from Poplar Forest, his second home near Lynchburg on the James River, it was only about 40 miles to the Bridge.
As Jefferson roamed the country he kept copious and detailed notes in his memorandum book, which later served as the basis for his Notes on the State of Virginia. From his memorandum notes it appears that Jefferson first saw the Natural Bridge in August, 1767. One can only imagine the impact the sight had on the Sage of Monticello, given his insatiable curiosity as to the natural world and science. Needless to say, it so captured his imagination that he set out to become the first private owner of the Natural Bridge. Prior to Independence the land "belonged", of course, to the Crown – King George III.
Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge from George III in 1774. In a grant from King George III dated July 5, 1774, and signed by Virginia Governor Dunmore, Thomas Jefferson became the first patentee of the Natural Bridge of Virginia. The grant read: "Know you that for divers good causes and considerations, but more Especially for and in Consideration of the sum of Twenty Shillings of good and lawful money…We Do give, Grant and confirm unto Thomas Jefferson, one certain Tract or parcel of land, containing 157 acres, lying and being in the County of Botetourt, including the Natural Bridge on Cedar Creek, a branch of James River."
Jefferson almost certainly visited the bridge many times, given his fixation with it, his curiosity as to its origins, and his desire to preserve it as a natural wonder for all to see. In 1802 he actually surveyed the site, measured the height of the bridge (205 feet on the north side and 270 feet on the south), and made a map of the bridge and the surrounding area. In 1778 Rockbridge County was created and named after the Natural Bridge which was located near its southern boundary.
In 1803 Jefferson had a two-room log cabin constructed near the site where the current hotel is, with one room kept available for visitors. He kept a log book in the cabin to record the visitors and their sentiments. During his Presidency and while at Monticello, Jefferson himself directed many prestigious visiting statesmen, explorers and naturalists from the U.S. and Europe to continue on across the Blue Ridge to visit Natural Bridge. Among those who signed the log were John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Thomas Hart Benton.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson devoted a page to its description.
The Natural bridge, the most sublime of Nature’s works,…must not be pretermitted. It is on the ascent of a hill, which seems to have been cloven through its length by some great convulsion.…Though the sides of this bridge are provided in some parts with a parapet of fixed rocks, yet few men have resolution to walk to them and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height for about a minute, gave me a violent head ach [sic] ….descending then to the valley below, the sensation becomes delightful in the extreme. It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven, the rapture of the Spectator is really indiscribable [sic]!
Jefferson wrote that, "I view it in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced, or masked from public view." One of his goals in purchasing it was to ensure that such a natural wonder was available to the public. He wrote, "Natural Bridge will yet be a famous place, that will draw the attention of the world." By purchasing the bridge at his own expense, building a cabin for visitors, and promoting it widely, he certainly did an exemplary job of protecting it and making it available to the public.
Jefferson found some very practical uses for the bridge as well. During the Revolutionary War, Natural Bridge was used as a shot tower. Molten lead was poured off the top of the bridge, and as the droplets fell, gravity pulled them into spherical shape, so that when they entered the creek’s cold water they solidified into bullets. And during the War of 1812, Jefferson and a partner mined soil from a small cave at the base of the cliff a few hundred yards upstream from the bridge, which was purified into saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, to make gun powder and explosives. The saltpeter mine again served as a source of military explosives during the Civil War.
Following Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, ownership of Natural Bridge passed down to his heirs Martha Randolph and Thomas Jefferson Randolph, where it remained in the family until they sold it to Joel Lackland in 1835 for $1,500.
Widening Fame: Tourism and the Arts
Probably the first Europeans to visit Natural Bridge were officers, engineers and members of the French Academy attached to General Compte de Rochambeau who was commanding French forces in the Revolutionary War. They measured and surveyed the bridge and took notes and descriptions back to Paris which were then used as the basis of artist’s renditions and woodcuts and prints which were widely circulated in Europe extolling the fame of this wondrous phenomenon. One of Rochambeau’s party wrote a book, The Travels of Marquis de Chastellus in North America in 1780-1782, which was published in France in 1786 and England in 1787. Its three drawings of the bridge are thought to be the earliest published portrayals.
Over the past two hundred years the Natural Bridge has served as a source of artistic inspiration. Practitioners of nearly every artistic medium have visited the bridge and at one time served as an artistic subject for nearly every school of art. It became very popular with French, British, Italian and Russian artists in the early-1800s as representative of the untamed American wilderness, and later served as a portrayal of America’s grandeur and natural superiority by American artists chafing under criticism of America’s cultural inferiority.
The noted American folk artist Edward Hicks used Natural Bridge as the background for his popular 1830’s painting the Peaceable Kingdom. In the mid-1800s such practitioners of the Hudson River School as Frederic Edwin Church and David Johnson highlighted its wilderness grandeur. And a Currier & Ives print in the late-1800s helped popularize the site. In the late-1800s, prints in popular magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, often portraying recreational uses of the bridge, further heightened its popularity at the time that its accessibility was increasing because of the construction of the railroad. In 1982 the artistic and literary portrayals of the bridge were gathered in an exhibit at Washington and Lee University and then published in Pamela H. Simpson’s book, So Beautiful an Arch: Images of the Natural Bridge 1787-1890.
Perhaps one of the most telling examples of the common knowledge of and awesome reputation of the Natural Bridge was its portrayal in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick. Melville wrote, "And then, through, the serene tranquilities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by extreme rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wretched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight." For Melville to use this image without reference certainly assumed both a literate public and a broad familiarity with the bridge as a natural wonder.
Natural Bridge Today
No matter how much one has read about and heard about a destination, there is always a certain degree of foreboding along with the anticipation. Will it live up to expectations? Will it turn out to be a commercialized tourist trap? Driving south from Washington on an early spring day, the byways through the ridges are stunning. Swathed in many shades of pale greens, bright yellow wild mustard and the stunning lavender-pink of redbud – the anticipation grows.
Driving south on U.S. 11 from Exit 180 on I-81, one passes a few buildings of the Natural Bridge of Virginia and then up a slight hill through some trees. Before you’re aware of it, you’ve crossed over the Natural Bridge of Virginia. Turning around and slowly driving back, one sees a small, unobtrusive billboard tucked into the dense oaks, maples, beech and red cedars lining the road. "Welcome To Natural Bridge. Experience The Wonder of it All. Hotel Next Left. Bridge & Gift Shop Next Right." And you are there.
The small Y intersection at the entrance forms essentially a natural amphitheater, with low hills on both legs and a triangular parking lot in the middle. The intersection is so small that there are no stop lights or even stop signs; only route signage and yield signs. Along Rt.11 a long, low three-story red brick and cream wood colonial style hotel blends into the tiered hillside. This is the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center. Flanking this along Rt.130 is the Stonewall Inn complex, one three-story and two two-story units built against the side of the hill. Atop the hill are a series of rustic single-story hillside cottages, shielded by towering evergreen red cedars and deciduous trees and shrubbery, together with tennis courts and a Baptist church. There is also a USDA Forest Service information center for the Jefferson National Forest and a Wilderness Canoe Company rental center.
The main parking lot occupies the triangle between the highway legs and two buildings sit at the back of the lot near the top of the canyon. There is a two story Bridge Entrance & Gift Shop and also a two-story Wax Museum featuring presentations of Virginia’s history. Both of these buildings are low enough that they sit down below the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains behind them.
All the buildings in the Natural Bridge center follow the same colonial architectural scheme and color scheme with red brick, cream wood and grey roofs. There are red brick walls and natural wood fences. And signage in the complex, whether wooden or cloth banners, also fits in with green backgrounds with rufous trim and white and yellow lettering.
The grounds are landscaped with lawns, shrubbery and flowering trees including native redbud and dogwood. Little detracts from the viewsheds. There is only one tall sign, a ten foot by five foot green, cream and white old-fashioned metal sign atop a twenty foot green metal pole that says "Natural Bridge." The entire complex is remarkably unobtrusive and blends tastefully into the topography. In fact, other than the Natural Bridge pole sign the only other identification inside the triangle is a small metal plaque-like sign placed by the Virginia Conservation Commission in 1940 which identifies the site as: "Natural Bridge of Virginia. Legend says that the Monocan Indians called it ‘The Bridge of God’ and worshipped it. Thomas Jefferson was the first American owner, patenting it with 157 acres on July 5, 1774, ‘for twenty shillings of good and lawful money.’ Millions of years old, Natural Bridge is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world." Hardly a traffic stopper.
One would scarcely realize that this sleepy little colonial style complex is now a major corporate conference center and family vacation spot. The Natural Bridge Inn has 180 accommodations, from luxurious suites to modest rooms. There are ten conference rooms ranging from 25-person seminar rooms to banquet rooms for 400 to a theater-style meeting room for 500. The Inn also has the Colonial Dining Room which features southern regional cuisine. The Bridge Entrance & Gift Shop has a snack bar and an indoor mini-golf course for children and rainy days. In addition to the tennis courts, there is a heated indoor swimming pool.
Another part of the natural geological attraction of the site is the Natural Bridge Caverns carved into the limestone hill behind the cabins. It is noted for being the deepest commercial caverns on the east coast, dropping 347 feet below the surface. It also contains a notable flowstone dome, reflecting lakes, streams and waterfalls, and a wide array of calcite deposit formations including stalagmites, stalactites, dripstone and soda straws.
In addition to the natural attractions, there are a number of special events throughout the year. While the Natural Bridge itself has been preserved in its natural splendor, so that by day it appears probably nearly as it was first discovered, with the addition of a pathway and natural rock retaining wall, an unobtrusive lighting system was installed 70 years ago to provide an evening light and sound show.
In 1927 the noted lighting engineer, Phinehas Stephens, designed and installed an array of colored lights to play over the bridge and the immediate canyon walls. On May 22, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge first pressed the button to start the evening illumination show, the "Drama of Creation." Every evening beginning at sunset a 45-minute narrated sound and light show is presented on the theme of the creation. As lights play across the sheer rock faces, the music of Verdi, Rossini, Wagner, Listz and Debussey carries through the still night air, perhaps briefly accompanied by the call of an owl.
Each year since 1947, Easter Sunday Sunrise Service is held at the Easter Grounds, a wide area under the trees with a pulpit and choir seats build into the hillside about a quarter mile up Cedar Creek beyond the Natural Bridge. (On Easter Sunday 1998, the Chaplain of the United States Senate conducted the service.) A couple times a year, there is a Civil War "living history" weekend, featuring the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry, the oldest and most famous of such reenactment groups, and the Natural Bridge also holds a week-long autumn Pioneer Arts and Trade Fair featuring craftsmen dressed in period costume demonstrating craftwork from the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Nature at Natural Bridge
Most of the early explorers and visitors to Natural Bridge were on missions of discovery, exploration, survey and mapping. Later generations came to portray, paint and photograph the wonder. But scattered over its history were also visiting naturalists, ornithologists and botanists who not only noted the large mammals such as bison, elk, wolves, cougars, bears and wild cats, but also paid plentiful attention to the avifauna and flora.
An especially charming and instructive story about the bridge appears in the works of John James Audubon, the noted artist and naturalist, who devoted much of his life to crisscrossing the American wilderness with little more than his shotgun, sketchpads, and painting gear to record the birdlife of America. In his description of what was then called the Say’s Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe, and sometimes the Pewee Flycatcher, and now known as the Eastern Phoebe, he mentions a wager he made over a trip to the Natural Bridge, which he won because of his knowledge of birds:
This species is so particularly fond of attaching its nest to rocky caves, that, were it called the Rock Flycatcher, it would be appropriately named. Indeed I have seldom passed near such a place, particularly during the breeding season, without seeing the Pewee, or hearing its notes. I recollect that, while traveling in Virginia with a friend, he desired that I would go somewhat out of our intended route, to visit the renowned Rock Bridge of that State. My companion, who had passed over this natural bridge before, proposed a wager that he could lead me across it before I should be aware of its existence. It was early in April, and from the descriptions of this place which I had read, I felt confident that the Pewee Flycatcher must be about it. I accepted the proposal of my friend and trotted on, intent on proving to myself that, by constantly attending to one subject, a person must sooner or later become acquainted with it.
I listened to the notes of the different birds, which at intervals came to my ear, and at last had the satisfaction to distinguish those of the Pewee. I stopped my horse, to judge of the distance at which the bird might be, and a moment after told my friend that the bridge was short of a hundred yards from us, although it was impossible for us to see the spot itself. The surprise of my companion was great.
"How do you know this?" he asked; "for," he continued, "you are correct."
"Simply," answered I, "because I hear the notes of the Pewee, and know that a cave, or a deep rocky creek, is at hand."
We moved on; the Pewees rose from under the bridge in numbers; I pointed to the spot and won the wager."
As the editors of the book citing Audubon note, "The mud nests of Phoebes still exist at Natural Bridge, more than 150 years after Audubon predicted they would."
On the author’s April visit to Natural Bridge, the Eastern Phoebes appeared to have not yet arrived with the spring. Yet nature was already present in vernal splendor. One enters the site through the gift shop building, down a flight of stairs lined with old and historic photographs and paintings of the bridge, and then down a steep descent along the hillside and into the Cedar Creek Canyon. The hillside was ablaze with the startling pinkish-lilac of thickets of redbud trees, with a scattering of dogwoods. Paralleling the path, the rushing water of tiny spring-fed Cascade Creek tumbles down the hill over a series of falls and rapids – a thin ribbon of white water dropping two hundred feet to join Cedar Creek. The brook side of the path has a low natural stone and mortar wall, there are wood handrails along the trail, and stone and wooden benches. Spring wildflowers bloom beside the path and many are identified by small plaques. There are also naturalized daffodils blooming along the path.
The most interesting part of the trail – and most telling of the care of its owners over the last 250 years, is that the trail also passes through a stand of ancient arborvitae trees, the fabled "tree of life." It’s an evergreen in the pine family, with unusual flattened, scale-like "needles" that are usually seen as a low ground cover or ornamental hedges. But here one passes through a stand of towering trees with strikingly deep, bowed and crooked branches, with benches and an information sign. This stand of giants includes a 56-inch diameter, 1,600 year old arborvitae – the oldest and largest known in the world. The species puts on growth rings very slowly, adding about an inch every 30 years or so. This little microclimate on the cool shaded limestone banks of Cedar Creek Canyon has sheltered this glen for nearly two millennia. The earliest Indians in the Shenandoah may have visited the spot to gather bark for traditional medicinal uses.
At the bottom of the hill in a wide area sits the Summer House Cafe, which blends naturally into the scenery. It’s a place for refreshments, shelter, or simply to sit and relax and contemplate the beauty of the site, which includes a perfect reflecting pool for the sky and clouds high over head and the trees growing up the cliffs. A pair of Canada Geese have taken up residence at the pool. From there a paved concrete walkway heads upstream hugging the East canyon wall. After a short distance, the Natural Bridge suddenly looms over the scene, two hundred feet above the observer. The pathway passes underneath Natural Bridge, crossing Cedar Creek, and then on the North side of the bridge continues up the West wall of the canyon. The entire Cedar Creek Trail is approximately one mile long. Along the footpath there is a mortared grey stone wall, slightly higher along the cliff and hill sides.
A short distance upstream beyond the bridge the concrete walkway is replaced by finely crushed, gritty sand-like, grey stone – further adding to the natural setting. The Cedar Creek Trail continues up through the forested Easter Grounds, set with split-log benches and wooden picnic tables. Even the pulpit is constructed of native grey stone. The trail continues to the Saltpeter Cave where a high wood and stone pillar bridge crosses Cedar Creek to the cave. It continues on to a wooden gazebo in a stand of old growth hemlock at the site of Lost River, where a small rivulet flows out of a small opening at the base of the cliff, crosses the footpath and drops into Cedar Creek. The trail ends in a circular cul de sac where a combination circular stone wall and bench allows for enjoyment of the view upstream of Lace Waterfalls, where Cedar Creek drops some fifty feet over a series of falls and cascades of white water, then passes the site rippling over steeply tilted narrow limestone strata.
All long the Cedar Creek Trail, various trees have identification plates and many of the different wildflowers and flowering shrubs are also identified. There are various species of violets and trillium, May apples, phlox, Virginia bluebells, columbine, trailing arbutus, flame azalea, mountain laurel and rhododendron. So resplendent and abundant is the spring wildflower show that guided wildflower tours are provided every Monday through Friday morning from March through May.
Even early in April at the edge of the mountains where spring was just arriving, the earliest migrant birds and resident species gave a hint at the value of the site. High in the small cracks and crevices on the curving top sides of the bridge there was a continuous swirl of Rough-winged Swallows – one of the earliest insectivores of spring. They were exploring these niches in the rock face for suitable nest sites, and their high twittering calls could just be made out. In larger crevices and holes in the cliff, the Rock Dove, an introduced species from Europe which has become ubiquitous as the dirty city "pigeon", had reverted to its wild, cliff-dwelling habits of the Old World. It was not only aesthetically pleasing to see the species living and feeding in a wild state, but also offered a bonus to scrupulous bird watchers who are not supposed to count species that are living in a semi-domesticated or feral state.
But the prize of the bridge was a pair of Common Ravens, a much sought after bird in Virginia which occurs only in the mountains and is not especially common. It usually nests in inaccessible hidden places high on steep mountain cliffs or ledges. But here was a pair nesting in plain view, little more than 150 feet up the west side of the cliff near the entrance to the bridge. On a small ledge, braced by a small shrub, they had constructed a bulky stick nest and were in the process of flying across the canyon to the top of the bridge to tear off peeling strips of red cedar bark to line their nest. One could sit on the benches lined up along the trail for the evening light show and closely watch this usually hard to observe species. Additionally, and surprisingly, it was possible to watch the ravens hunting and successfully capturing and eating the Rough-winged Swallows. The ravens would suddenly fly across the length of the span and somehow brace themselves with spread wings and tail against the rough, curving face of the bridge’s arch, then reach into the shallow cracks with their massive beaks to pull out a struggling swallow. Surely there are few places else in the nation where one can observe such behavior.
It is interesting to note that one of the most noted 20th Century American nature writers, Edwin Way Teale, winner of the John Burroughs Medal in 1943 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1968, visited the Natural Bridge of Virginia. Among other things he observed the Rough-winged Swallows, but was not pleased with the experience. He was most noted for his series of four books describing his travels with each of the four seasons and documenting the changes that a naturalist observes. His first book was his 1951 North with the Spring, in which he slowly drove some 17,000 miles north along the length of the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Canada, proceeding slowly northward with the spring flowers and birds.
In Chapter 27, "May at Monticello," he describes a happy and contented visit to Mr. Jefferson’s home.
And Monticello, birds were all around us….On that May morning one hundred twenty springs had passed since Jefferson died on his mountaintop overlooking the valley where he was born. One hundred sixty years had gone by since he published his Notes on Virginia. Yet the natural history of Monticello remained virtually unchanged. Bluebirds sang on the fence posts. Phoebes flitted in and out of the open doors of the old stables. A robin had built its nest at the top of one of the white columns on the west portico. And brown thrashers ran across the grass beneath an ancient linden tree that once provided shade for the third President of the United States….The birds of Monticello provide one of the outstanding memories of a naturalist’s visit.
Unfortunately, Teale did not remain so sanguine when he traveled on to other parts of Mr. Jefferson’s domain:
A hundred miles by road to the south and west, down the Blue Ridge Mountains, we came to Virginia’s famed Natural Bridge, once owned by Thomas Jefferson. George Washington first surveyed it in 1750. Jefferson first called the attention of the world to it in his Notes on Virginia. In 1774, just two years before the American Revolution, he acquired it from King George III, of England.
The sum he paid, ironically, was almost exactly the amount we were charged for admission. Commercial interests have fenced in this natural wonder – which ages of running water and not commercial interests produced – and have turned the spot – intimately associated with great men of the nation’s founding – into a moneymaking enterprise. Like Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the geysers of the Yellowstone, all such scenic marvels of the land are part of the country’s heritage. The natural wonders of the nation should belong to the nation. They should be part of the park system, open for the enjoyment of all and not closed for the enrichment of a few.
Depressed by this commercialization of natural beauty, we wandered along the paths, past the oldest and largest arborvitae tree in the world – a 1,600-year-old patriarch with a trunk 56 inches in diameter – and under the great stone arch, higher than Niagara Falls, where rough-winged swallows shuttled back and forth and Louisiana water thrushes ran among the rocks, hunting for food in the shallow stream. Nellie compared the short call note of the water thrush to the striking together of two pebbles and we fell to listing in our minds the birds we knew whose voices suggested sounds in their surroundings – from the liquid, gurgling notes of the redwing in the swamp to the call like tinkling icicles made by the tree sparrow that comes down from the Far North in winter. Thus beguiled, by and by we began to feel better.
This is one of the very few critical viewpoints of the Natural Bridge of Virginia. First off, it is interesting that Teale did not seem perturbed that Mr. Jefferson had purchased the Natural Bridge to begin with as his own private property. Nor did he seem to mind that Monticello was privately owned and was so when he visited it, and found it so reminiscent of Jefferson’s days, and the birds and plants still the same. Teale complained about paying admission to enter Natural Bridge but not Monticello. Perhaps he drew a distinction between the private, nonprofit ownership of Monticello and the private, for-profit ownership and management of Natural Bridge.
It would appear that Teale had little familiarity with Jefferson’s philosophy and belief in the inalienable rights of life, liberty and property. This belief was not only so deeply held by Jefferson that he risked death to fight for it, but also by the other "great men of the nation’s founding" whom Teale thought were dishonored by private ownership and the pursuit of profit. That is what these men were all about. They had thrown off the shackles of statism and government ownership of land. They knew that individuals could not be free unless they had the right to own private property, because all rights derived from it. Indeed Founding Fathers as philosophically disparate as Jefferson and Hamilton both sought the devolution of all the public domain or government lands.
Furthermore, Jefferson himself demonstrated the genius of the American people and their overriding belief in freedom, private property and private action. When he saw the Natural Bridge and its awe-inspiring magnificence, he took steps to preserve it and protect it. He purchased it and placed it under his personal care and stewardship. He didn’t call for the government to protect it – that was what he was fighting. He took personal responsibility precisely because he wanted to ensure that it would be available to the public, and that it would not be harmed, abused or locked away.
Thomas Jefferson appears to have understood, or at least anticipated, the lack of responsibility that comes with collective ownership — —that what is owned by all is owned by none because no one takes the responsibility for caring stewardship. The continuous failure of many U.S. governmental agencies to care for their properties is an on-going testimonial to this fact of human nature. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress which conducts audits and investigations of government programs and activities, has produced a number of studies documenting the sorry state of the nation’s National Parks — general neglect, deferred maintenance, polluted streams, trampled wildflowers, invasion and damage by nonnative species, air-pollution harmed trees from too many cars in the parks, and over-crowding from too many people in the parks.
Jefferson demonstrated the proper form of stewardship and protection for any resource, whether a natural wonder or an anthropogenic wonder: private ownership. Not only did Jefferson’s fifty years of private ownership protect and preserve Natural Bridge, but so did the additional decade of his family’s ownership and the 164 years of dedicated private stewardship that has continued to preserve the pristine character of "One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World" to the present day. Furthermore, not only has the Natural Bridge been preserved for the enjoyment of all the people at private expense, but all of the maintenance, improvements and advertising have also been born by the owners and by those visiting Natural Bridge. And further, because Natural Bridge was in private ownership it also paid substantial amounts in property taxes and other taxes to the county, state and nation, unlike government properties that are frequently a burden on county and local governments.
The history of Natural Bridge’s successful private preservation over 250 years is indeed a testimonial to private property and private ownership. Mr. Jefferson was onto something in his Declaration of Independence.
This case study was written by Center for Private Conservation senior scholar Robert J. Smith and is based mainly upon an on-site visit on 10 April 1988 and a personal interview with David H. Parker, Jr., for Natural Bridge of Virginia. The author also had a number of earlier phone interviews with Parker and a number of subsequent follow up interviews. I also had a phone interview with Sammy Moore of the Rockbridge County Chamber of Commerce regarding the importance of the site to county tourism and the preservation of the site. Moore assured me, "The place is still real clean; it sure is." And it is pristine, with the only additions for access, comfort and information. I also interviewed Kirsten Niemann, Research Manager of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, who provided me with data on visitor days and visitor destinations in the state.
Additional information was obtained from publications, brochures and leaflets provided by Natural Bridge, as well as unpublished historical material on the bridge. Invaluable source material is collected in a recent book: The Height of Our Mountains: Nature Writing from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, edited by Michael P. Branch and David J. Philippon and published by The Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore and London) in 1998, and From Blue Ridge to Barrier Islands: An Audubon Naturalist Reader, edited by J. Kent Minichiello and Anthony W. White and published by The Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore and London) in 1997 – both the dust jacket and the frontispiece bear a portrayal of the Natural Bridge. An understanding of the complex geological history of the area can be gained from Roadside Geology of Virginia, by Keith Frye and published by Montana Press Publishing Company (Missoula) in 1986.
The Center for Private Conservation is supported by the William H. Donner Foundation.