Thursday, July 8, 2010

Natural Bridge

11 miles SW of Lexington, Virginia, Natural Bridge is a celebrated natural wonder located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Rockbridge County (named for this feature). Natural Bridge is a limestone formation in which Cedar Creek, a small tributary of the James River, has carved out a gorge forming an arch 215 feet high with a span of 90 feet. It is the remains of the roof of a cave or tunnel through which the creek once flowed. Natural Bridge is both a Virginia Historical Landmark and a National Historical Landmark (designated in 1998).

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 European settlers in Virginia.

In 1927 a large stone was found with engraved initials “G.W.” and bearing a surveyor's cross, which historians accept as proof that George Washington surveyed the bridge around 1750.

In 1774 Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land including the Natural Bridge from King George III of England for 20 shillings ($160 in today’s money). He called it “the most sublime of nature's works.” Jefferson built a two-room log cabin, beginning its use as a retreat. While President in 1802, he conducted a personal survey of the property. In 1817 Jefferson leased 10 acres of his land at Natural Bridge to Patrick Henry, a "free man of colour" who cultivated the land "on the sole conditions of paying the taxes annually as they arise, and of preventing trespasses."

After Jefferson’s death Natural Bridge was sold in 1833 as part of his estate, and soon thereafter lodgings were erected for the increasing number of visitors. The bridge remains in private hands to this day.

Natural Bridge was one of the wonders of the new world that Europeans visited during the 18th and 19th centuries, second in popularity only to Niagara Falls. Vacationing guests from all over the world took day trips from Natural Bridge on horseback or horse drawn carriages to explore the countryside.

A famous painting by Frederick Church, c. 1852

Today, in order to view the bridge from below, tickets must purchased. The top of the bridge can be seen for free from U.S. Highway 11, which runs directly on top of it. However, fences on either side of the highway block the view of the canyon from the bridge.

Following the trail under the bridge, in addition to seeing it from its less-often-photographed side, visitors may walk to the end of the trail, beyond which may be seen the remnant of the waterfall that helped form the bridge.