• Tim Murphy

Virginia's Natural Bridge


Towering high above the cascades of Cedar Creek, Virginia, stands one of America's most revered geologic formations--The Natural Bridge! This archway is all that remains of an ancient underground river channel that flowed in the region hundreds of millions of years ago. The natural majesty and grandeur of the bridge has earned it considerable acclaim, from the days of the American Indian to modern times. It leaves a remarkable impression on all those who witness its splendor and its magnificence cannot be overstated.

The Natural Bridge was first discovered by members of the Monacan Indian tribe nearly 10,000 years ago. According to legend, the Monacans were under attack from a rival tribe and driven back to the gorge at Cedar Creek. With no obvious way to cross the abyss, the tribespeople desperately searched for an alternate route of escape. Suddenly, they came across a narrow, rocky archway spanning the ends of the creek. The elders, women, and children were ushered over to safety while the warriors stayed on the bridge to fight the enemy. The Monacans were able to hold the bridge and fend off the attack. From then on, the natural archway was named “Mohomony,” or “Bridge of God.”

It wasn’t until the mid-18th Century that European colonists discovered the Natural Bridge for themselves. In 1750, Lord Fairfax commissioned Colonel Peter Jackson (Thomas Jefferson’s father) and his assistant, George Washington (yes, THE George Washington), to survey an Indian trail in order to construct a road linking Winchester to Buchanan. Local lore claims that Washington scaled 23 feet up the bridge and carved his initials in the wall! The letters “G.W.” were found on one of the rock faces in 1927, however there’s little evidence directly linking the inscription to Washington’s hand…but it’s still a possibility!

Seventeen years later, on August 23, 1767, Thomas Jefferson witnessed this natural formation for the first time. He was stricken by its splendor, calling it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” In 1774, Jefferson bought a 160-acre parcel of land containing the bridge from King George III for twenty schillings, or just $160 today!

Beginning in the late 1700s, the caverns underneath the Natural Bridge were mined for nitrate—an ingredient in gunpowder. Potassium nitrate (or saltpeter) was the material of choice and miners blasted holes into the sidewalls of the creek to get down to the precious minerals (you can still see evidence of the mining operations today!). When the War of 1812 broke out, the bridge was utilized as a “shot tower” to produce musket balls. During the munitions manufacturing process, drops of molten lead were released from the tops of shot towers into cold water below, resulting in round(-ish) pieces of shot.

In 1816, Jefferson leased the property to freedman Patrick Henry, who became the first caretaker of the bridge. After Jefferson’s death in 1826, the land changed hands multiple times, but Henry’s family continued to look after the natural formation. They also helped operate Jefferson’s Cottage (c. 1804) and the Natural Bridge Hotel (c. 1830). Unfortunately, Jefferson’s Cottage burned down in 1845, taking with it the bridge’s visitors log and all the names who stayed the site. Despite the destruction of the ledger, the personal accounts of famous historic icons—such as Presidents James Monroe, Martin van Buren, and Andrew Jackson, French King Louis-Philippe I, Senator Henry Clay, Chief Justice John Marshall, and many others—provide evidence of their visitation. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, even mentions the bridge in his literary classic!

By the time of the Civil War, the bridge had reached national acclaim. Union and Confederate soldiers alike would visit the formation while on march. The fame of the bridge would lead to great improvements in its amenities in the late 1800s. First, access to the site became incredibly easier thanks to the development of railroads and stagecoaches. Second, the Natural Bridge Hotel (then called the Forest Inn) experienced new expansion projects to accommodate the thousands of visitors the bridge attracted per year. However, the original hotel burned down in 1892. It was reconstructed in 1917 and visited by the likes of President Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, and General George C. Marshall! The hotel was, once again, severely damaged by fire in 1963 and reconstructed with brick the following year. Today, the Natural Bridge attracts over 200,000 visitors from across the globe and offers a wide array of activities to enjoy, such as a Wax Museum, caverns, a reconstructed Monacan village, and the Cedar Creek footpath.

The entrance fee to for the park is $8 (which, by the way, is completely worth it). I began my journey from park headquarters down the Cedar Creek Trail, an easy 1.8 mile out-and-back footpath. On the stairway down to the trail, I passed by the location of a 1600-year old Arbor Vitae tree. Even though the tree died in 1980, it was believed to be the oldest in the world! Once I reached the base of the steps I could see the Natural Bridge. It stands an imposing 215 feet over Cedar Creek, spans 90 feet across, and is 100 feet wide. The sight was absolutely breath-taking!

After walking under the bridge and admiring the natural formation for some time, I continued down the path to the Monacan Village. The site is open between April and November, so there were no reenactors present, but it was still neat to check out. Across the creek is an entrance to one of the saltpeter caves. Less than two-tenths of a mile down the path is what’s known as the “Lost River.” In 1812, miners blasted a hole into the rock wall and exposed an underground flowing stream. To this day, its point of origin is unknown. At the end of the path is Lace Waterfall, a 50-foot cascade located at the edge of Jefferson’s original property line. From there, it was a 0.9-mile walk back to start.

My experience at the Natural Bridge was incredible! Not only does it feature a rare geological formation and waterfall, it’s also been lauded throughout American history as one of the nation’s most treasured natural wonders. The cultural and historical significance, coupled with its spectacular views, makes the Natural Bridge a premier destination to visit! Trail Rating: 10/10

#Destinations #TrailTrials

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