Thursday, April 27, 2017
Natural Bridge, Lexington, Virginia
VIRGINIA'S NATURAL BRIDGE
Natural Bridge, near Lexington, Virginia
When I attended a Chautauqua Road Scholar program at the Natural Bridge Hotel in a rather isolated area about 20 miles from Lexington, Va., Jeffery Ruggles, program administrator for the Virginia Commonwealth University, was the outstanding lecturer who prepared us to explore the bridge.
The Natural Bridge is a landmark that in the 1700s was, along with Niagara-Falls, a major attraction to visitors from Europe. It later made some of the lists of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Ruggles showed us pictures of other natural bridges from around the world, some of them as striking as this one, but he said this one had had the advantage of location, timing and good public relations.
Thomas Jefferson, early in his career as a traveling lawyer, visited the area and was very impressed with the site. With his connections in government he was able to get a grant of land that included the bridge in 1774. He made eight visits to the area and on some occasions was in the saddle for six days when making the trip.
In 1750 at the age of 18 George Washington is said to have surveyed the area and the initials GW carved on the wall are claimed to be his. (Later I learned this was carved by someone else.)
A French army officer drew pictures of the arch that were widely distributed in France. It became so popular that it showed up as wallpaper designs. One example we were shown had the local Indian Tribe in front of the arch.
Jefferson kept a cabin in the area for visitors to stay in on their visits with a logbook for them to sign in on. It is reported that many famous Americans, including his friends who were or had been president, signed in along with many famous international visitors, but the log has been lost.
Lead dropped through a sieve from the top into the water below created perfectly round bullets. After Jefferson’s death the bridge was sold in 1846, at which time a hotel for visitors was built. Hot Springs in the area also attracted visitors and the Natural Bridge was on its way as a major international attraction.
An iron cage was put on ropes and visitors could pay to be lowered down the center as a violinist played.
After the Civil War visitors came by train and for 50 years this was the main way of getting here. Than after 1926 cars became the main form of travel. For years it was privately owned, then bought by a non-profit that turned it over to the State of Virginia so it could become a State Park 2016.
Our group enjoyed the bridge two ways, one by day and one by night. We entered through a visitor's center and walked down 137 steps to Cedar Creek that passes under it and looked up at 20 stories of carved rock. A highway passes over the 90 foot long arch.
Exploring the area was a charming experience. Once we passed under it we were offered not only a beautiful nature trail with a falls at the end, but a reconstructed Monacan Indian Village from 300 years ago.
The interpreters were dressed in period Indian customs and performing daily tasks such as hide tanning, mat weaving and making pots and baskets. The re-enactors were eager to share information about what they were doing.
Later we came down to the light-and-sound show that had been established in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge had turned the first lights on. A large audience sat on benches listening to the audio, a combination of classic music and readings from Genesis about creation. I noted the colored lights lacked a bit of the excitement of modern lasers.
However, the Natural Bridge is still a major attraction which I enjoyed exploring--and it is easier to travel to than many sites I have struggled to reach. Many of our group also visited the Natural Bridge Caverns in the area.