According to legend, many years (perhaps centuries) before European discovery of the Americas, a small band of Monacan Indians was racing through a deep, dark, mountainous forest of giant trees trying to evade a much larger band of warriors from a neighboring enemy tribe. They were retreating west and to the north of a mighty river that is known today as the James in west-central Virginia, motivated by the knowledge that capture by their pursuers would result in the death of their braves and elders and the forced adoption or rape of their women and children. Desperately, they scrambled over boulders and downed trees scattered along their path unsure of when their enemies would overtake them.
Eventually, their flight was halted by a deep, precipitous gorge that sliced across their path. The chasm was too steep to descend and far too wide to leap across. There was no visible way to circumvent the great ravine. The women huddled in fear around their children, as they trembled and wept in anticipation of the terrifying threat they knew was rapidly closing in on them. There seemed no way to escape their ultimate fate, and it appeared that all was lost.
Exhausted from the relentless chase, they knelt together at the rim of the gorge and prayed to the Great Spirit to spare them from the horrors of their impending doom. As they opened their eyes, they were stunned to behold a narrow bridge of land spanning the gorge before them. With joy in the knowledge that the Great Spirit had granted them salvation, the band scrambled across the bridge and prepared themselves for the impending arrival of their enemies. The women and children sought safety in the nearby woods while the braves staged themselves at the far side of the land bridge to defend it. When their enemies finally arrived at the bridge, they were unable to form an effective offensive line to cross it. After a ferocious battle, the small band of Monacan braves were able to defeat the larger opposing force and forced it to retreat.
It is uncertain if the legend I just recounted originated with the Monacan Indians or the European settlers, who eventually conquered them and took possession of their ancestral lands. What I can say is that, legend or not, the narrow natural bride of land that spans the Cedar Creek gorge is one of the most impressive natural features of the Great Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges. That is why we decided to visit again, yesterday.
For a period of time after its discovery, Natural Bridge was considered along with Niagara Falls to be one of the most desired and grandest natural features to visit in America. At 215 feet above the creek and 90 feet in length, Natural Bridge has been respected as a truly sacred place by all who have owned it, but none more sensitively than Thomas Jefferson, who purchased it from King George III of England in 1774 and owned it for much of his adult life. Imagine how unlikely his lengthy stewardship of Natural Bridge would have been if he had waited only two more years to petition the King to buy it. The value of land is not simply determined by location, location, location—as most realtors will say. It is also greatly affected by timing.
Long after Jefferson’s ownership of Natural Bridge, the celebrated natural feature was developed for tourism by an entrepreneur who devised and built a cage that could be raised and lowered by a winch from the adjoining Pulpit Rock column so visitors could admire the grandeur of the arch as they descended slowly and securely to Cedar Creek at its base. The hoist system operated during the Civil War, when passing soldiers from both the North and South would detour from their movements up and down the valley to see the spectacle.
Many visitors throughout the centuries have been inspired to inscribe their initials in the rock walls of the arch. Another Natural Bridge legend recounts that George Washington was part of a team that surveyed the bridge in 1750. State Park interpreters point to an inscription with the letters “GW” about 25 feet up the rock face on the west side of the creek that Washington himself chiseled into the rock. We were also told a story that George Washington, who had a strong throwing arm, allegedly threw either a coin or a rock onto the top of the bridge from the creek below. Unfortunately, the Natural Bridge Hotel has no registry record to show that he slept there, despite the fact that Washington is alleged to have slept in most historic homes throughout the region. Thank heavens there are no cherry trees at Natural Bridge—or is it possible that there were some before 1750?
According to the State Park docent who led our tour, how Natural Bridge came into being has not been determined definitively. However, if you carefully study the opposing cliff walls on both sides of the creek and the spanning arch, you will see that, as the walls get higher, they curve gradually inward towards the creek. This strongly suggests that the narrow bridge we see today was much wider in the past and, over geologic periods of time, may have once formed a tunnel or cave that Cedar Creek passed through on its path to the James River. Since the gorge is composed of limestone rock, it erodes over time as groundwater seeps through it. As we were standing below the bridge admiring its beauty, water was dripping through it onto the path around us. Eventually, groundwater seepage, as well as seasonal freeze and thaw over time, will erode the limestone base of the bridge and it will collapse into the creek—in much the same way as the rest of the ancient rock tunnel or cavern that preceded it. The Commonwealth of Virginia obviously agrees with this assessment, because they are now working to relocate U.S. Route 11 (the Wilderness Highway), which was built along the top of the bridge nearly 100 years ago. They are concerned that traffic impacts over time may impact or accelerate the natural degradation of the limestone arch.
There are many other rivers in our region that either begin in caves or even pass through them. In Hardy County, WV, Lost River disappears into a mountain and emerges on the other side as the Cacapon River before it empties into the Potomac. The Sinks of Gandy, another WV natural landmark in our area that I introduced in my June 20, 2018 post on this website, was carved by Gandy Creek, which passes through it on its descent from the summit of Cunningham Knob, is another prime example. It is only natural to conclude that the great stone bridge is the remains of a similar cavernous tunnel.
Regardless of how it formed or what human events really occurred there, Virginia’s Natural Bridge is truly an amazing sight to behold. It is a majestic and inspiring reminder of how diverse and unique the ancient Appalachian Mountain environment truly is. However, as I have explained in this post, the feature is as important to the cultural heritage of our area as it is a geologic wonder. Natural Bridge State Park is located about 2.5 hours south of Peeper Pond Farm along Interstate 81 and U.S. Route 11—at least until Virginia decides where it will relocate U.S. Route 11. We also hope that all of our loyal readers had a very happy (and delicious) Thanksgiving.