1852 painting by Frederic Edwin Church vs. 2008 scene
Source: Museum Syndicate
Natural Bridge is a geological rarity, and one of Virginia's earliest tourist attractions. Rockbridge County, created in 1778, was named after the natural bridge.
Thomas Jefferson purchased the bridge and 157 acres around it in 1774. That sale occurred about 40 years after Natural Bridge was first documented by an explorer other than a Native American.1
Natural Bridge, as portrayed in the 1870's
Source: Picturesque America (p.42)
Jefferson later tried to sell "one of the sublimest curiosities in nature" for development as a tourist resort. However, the property stayed in his family until 1835, ten years after his death.2
Natural Bridge stayed in private ownership after that 1774 purchase. There were numerous proposals since at least the 1940's for the state or Federal government to purchase Natural Bridge and to preserve it in a park, ensuring public access through public ownership.
In 2013, a real estate deal was structured so the bridge was sold to a new owner, but would be transferred ultimately into public ownership and become the 37th unit of the Virginia State Park system. The state park was established in 2016, but the land remained private. Before the transfer to public ownership, the debt for purchase of the property had to be paid.3
Natural Bridge is the remnant of an ancient cave roof, and Natural Bridge Caverns nearby offers public tours of an underground cave
In 1787, Thomas Jefferson described the bridge in his Notes on the State of Virginia:4
The private company that owned Natural Bridge until 2014 developed the site as a commercial tourist attraction, along with Natural Bridge Caverns. To draw 160,000 visitors annually to pay the admission fee and purchase souvenirs at the gift shop, including 65,000 who stayed at the Natural Bridge hotel, the company added additional attractions - Professor Cline's Haunted Monster Museum, a wax museum, Dinosaur Kingdom, and a replica of a Monacan village staffed by Native Americans from that nearby tribe.
The interpretation at the site mixed myth with history, and a light and music show called the Drama of Creation was provided at night. Nearby attractions, including a styrofoam replica of Stonehenge nearby called Foamhenge, sought to take advantage of the ability of Natural Bridge to attract tourists.5
Marketing by the private owner included repeating stories designed to magnify the significance of the site, "gilding the lily" in a manner that would not be acceptable for professional interpretation at a state or national park. Though there is no historical documentation to support the claim, the company website advertised:6
the website for Natural Bridge long claimed that George Washington had surveyed the site
Source: Natural Bridge of Virginia
Caveat emptor - the real estate broker trying to sell Natural Bridge in 2013 repeated the George Washington story
Source: Woltz & Associates, Inc.
The initials are visible from the trail across Cedar Creek, 23 feet above ground level. Most likely, they were carved into the stone long after George Washington died, perhaps in 1927 when a stone was found with the initials "G.W." plus a surveyor's cross.7
As one of Washington's biographers has noted:8
Other myths about the site involve ghost sightings, Monacan Indians discovering a magical "Bridge of the Gods" providing a path across Cedar Creek when fleeing from Shawnee warriors, an arbor vitae tree supposedly 1,500 years old when it died in 1980. In another invocation of George Washington, he is reported to have thrown a dollar over the bridge. That would require tossing a coin 190 feet high, and of course throwing away good money.
The bridge has been a popular tourist attraction since Jefferson's purchase. The nomination of the site to the National Register noted:9
Monacan village exhibit at Natural Bridge
The size and geological rarity of the bridge makes the site significant, independent of the cultural history and myths about the tourist attraction. There is only one other natural bridge in Virginia, a much-smaller arch located in Lee County.
Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County is a remnant of a cave roof that collapsed. It was not formed by an earthquake that split the land surface, though earthquakes may have cracked portions of the cave roof and triggered rockfalls.
The role of water in forming an underground channel of water and a cave at Natural Bridge, and its common relationship to the formation of Natural Tunnel in Scott County, was recognized even during Jefferson's lifetime.10
The safe answer to the question "how old is Natural Bridge" is that it was formed a long time ago. The rock itself was deposited around 450 million years ago, when the edge of the continental plate was under the Sauk Sea. During the Ordovician period, a thick accumulation of limestone developed on the ocean bottom as marine plankton and larger creatures with calcium-rich shells died.
In later collisions of tectonic plates, the limestone was buried by other sediments and shoved around. Magnesium in the groundwater joined with the calcium to convert the limestone into dolomite, with a chemical composition of CaMg(CO3)2.
Geologists map the bedrock of Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County as part of the Beekmantown Formation. It forms a remnant arch, overlying the Chepultepec Formation through which Cedar Creek flows.11
Natural Bridge is an arch of the Beekmantown Formation, roughly 450 million years old
Source: Virginia Division of Mineral Resources, Geology of the Natural Bridge, Sugarloaf Mountain, Buchanan and Arnold Valley quadrangles, Virginia (by E. W. Spencer, 1968)
The bridge itself is much younger, and may have developed only in the last 500,000-1,000,000 years. As rainwater seeped underground, it absorbed carbon dioxide and became slightly acidic. The CO(sub>2 was added as the water traveled through the organic litter on the surface and the A horizon of the soil, which are filled with decomposing humus and animal life exhaling carbon dioxide. The water became slightly acidic as it trickled down through the topsoil into the dolomite.
The slightly-acidic water dissolved some of the calcium carbonate crystals. The groundwater carried away the calcium and carbonate ions in solution, replacing a crystal of solid rock with an empty space. As water dissolved many crystals over time, pores developed in the rock. Portions became similar to a sponge.
Where there were cracks in the bedrock, even more water could move underground to create channels connecting the pores. After many centuries, enough rock was removed for a cave to form underground. The "hole in the ground" expanded until it stretched west of Cedar Creek and intersected Pogue Run, near modern I-81. The roof of the underground channel that diverted the headwaters of Pogue Run was near the surface. Sinkholes probably formed above the channel, and ultimately "windows" developed where portions of the underground cave were exposed directly to the surface.
Surface water that used to flow down Pogue Run was diverted, and instead flowed through the underground limestone channel to Cedar Creek. This act of "stream piracy" changed the watershed divide on the surface. The length of Pogue Run was truncated, and its former headwaters became part of Cedar Creek.
pirated portion of Cedar Creek (in blue), and current headwaters of Pogue Run (in yellow)
(former underground channel was located between I-81 and current Natural Bridge)
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Natural Bridge 7.5x7.5 topo map (2011)
Gradually, the dissolving power of the extra water flowing through the underground channel of Cedar Creek etched away at the cave's roof. The layer of rock at the top became thinner and thinner until portions collapsed. More of the cave was exposed to the sky, until only a small portion remains today. Modern Natural Bridge is an arch of dolomite rock that has not collapsed yet.12
As rocks fell from the cave roof and exposed the underground cave channel to the sky, Cedar Creek carried away the limestone debris. The process of collapse may have been gradual, but there could have been dramatic moments. At a similar natural bridge in China, Tianmen Shan:13
Today Natural Bridge is stable, but it is still collapsing. Inevitably, over geologic time, the remaining portion of the ancient cave roof will collapse into the creek.
On October 23, 1999, a 6'x1' slab of dolomite spalled off the bottom of the arch, along with a shower of smaller rocks. One of the smaller rocks hit a tourist from Georgia reading a plaque beneath the bridge and killed her.
To prevent a repeat, loose rock was scraped away from the bridge. Holes were drilled from the top to the bottom, steel cables connected to metal plates installed on the bottom of the rock arch, and the cables were pulled tight. The plates on the bottom of Natural Bridge were camouflaged with paint to maintain the natural appearance.
Bolting together the rock layers was intended to reduce the chance of another rock peeling loose and dropping onto the trail below the bridge. The cabling also mitigated the effect of vibrations from traffic on Route 11.
Native American trails crossed Cedar Creek on the arch for thousands of years, and there has been a road across Natural Bridge since 1753. Route 11 was constructed across it in the 1930's, and in 2017 the state estimated 2,000 vehicles/day traveled on top of Natural Bridge. Only 5% were trucks, and since 2000 there has been a 20-ton weight limit on them. However, that limit is waived when traffic must be diverted from I-81 due to an accident.
The effect of 2,000 vehicles crossing the bridge each day is not clear. The natural structure is so large that engineers have assumed it could handle the weight of vehicles and whatever shaking they might stimulate.
The Virginia Department of Transportation does not consider the natural stone arch to be a "bridge" that requires regular inspections for safety. The state agency also assumes that even if there are voids in the bridge, it could be structurally sound. There are other roads in Virginia's karst country that cross unrecognized sinkholes. Since they retain a portion of their cave roof, those natural bridges are still underground, not exposed to view, and not identified as needing regular inspections.
In 2017, the Virginia Department of Transportation did agree to use ground penetrating radar to identify if there were any voids in that portion of the bridge underneath Route 11. The chief engineer later recommended finding a way to close the bridge to traffic, but based that proposal on the designation of the site as a state park rather than on any data indicating a safety issue.
The initial conclusion was "the bridge itself is not a danger to the motoring public. It’s not likely the bridge is going to collapse." Though reassuring, the primary concern remained that vehicle-induced vibrations could cause future rockfalls. Tourists visiting the bridge are now given the opportunity to wear a hard hat, as a precaution.14
Natural Bridge formed because a portion of the cave's roof has not collapsed into Cedar Creek - yet
Source: British Museum, The Natural Bridge, Virginia (by W. Roberts, 1808)
Natural bridges and arches can form through various processes. Natural Tunnel in Scott County is an underground channel created by dissolution of limestone. Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County was created by an almost-complete roof collapse when the underground cave/tunnel reached too close to the surface.
The other natural bridge in Virginia is located in Lee County near Jonesville. Like the more-famous bridge in Rockbridge County, it was formed by the almost-complete collapse of a cave roof.
State Route 622 uses the arch as a bridge to cross Batie Creek, which flows through karst topography. The stream emerges at the base of a 25-foot high cliff of the Martin Creek limestone, at the south edge of The Cedars, and flows to the nearby Powell River. There are two sinkholes between the cliff and State Route 622, showing where the cave roof has already collapsed.
the natural bridge in Lee County crosses Batie Creek
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), 7.5-minute topographical map for Hubbard Springs, VA-KY (2016)
A third sinkhole still has a portion of the cave roof intact, and that natural bridge in Lee County is 49 feet wide. Though the arch is 11 feet high, underneath it Batie Creek fills about half of that height. Batie Creek does not have the power, or has not had the time, to wash away the rock that has fallen from the arch. The upstream end of the stream passing below the arch is clogged with boulders.15
the natural bridge in Lee County is crossed by State Route 662 west of Jonesville
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Arches and bridges can be distinguished by various definitions, including:16
Delicate Arch, a sandstone fin eroded by water and ice, and a sea arch formed by wave erosion
Source: National Park Service, Arches National Park; Bureau of Land Management, California Coastal National Monument
Today, Natural Bridge is primarily a regional tourist destination; travelers on I-81 or I-64 can take a short detour to see the bridge as a side visit. Previously, it was one of the top, nationally-significant attractions in North America, and appears on some lists of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World - before the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other natural wonders were widely known.
Back in the Revolutionary War, French military officials traveled across Virginia to visit Natural Bridge. In the 1870's, William Cullen Bryant noted in Picturesque America that Natural Bridge was an essential stop during a tour of North America by European travelers:22
one of the first known sketches of Natural Bridge, drawn by a French military engineer soon after Thomas Jefferson purchased the property
Source: Library of Congress, Geometrical Plan of the Natural Bridge, from Travels in North-America, in the years 1780, 1781, and 1782/ by the Marquis de Chastellux
The areas of national significance were incorporated into the system of sites administered by the National Park Service, while Natural Bridge remained a privately-owned tourist attraction.
In 2007, the rock arch at Natural Bridge, various associated developments (including a hotel, gift shop, and wax museum attraction), a commercial tour cave (Natural Bridge Caverns), and 1600 acres of surrounding land were advertised for sale. No one offered to meet the $39 million asking price, and the property was taken off the market.
In 2013, after recovery from the 2008 economic recession, the properties were put on the market again - with the option of purchasing different parcels separately, rather than all components in one deal as proposed in 2007. County tax records showed in 2013 that the Natural Bridge geological feature was included with the hotel and gift shop in one 100-acre parcel, but a small parcel with just the Natural Bridge could be surveyed and sold separately.23
when listed for sale in 2013, the Natural Bridge was included in one 100-acre tax parcel together with the hotel and gift shop
Source: Rockbridge County, VA Geographic Information System and GoogleMaps
At the request of the US Representative for the 6th District, Rep. Robert Goodlatte, in 2013 the National Park Service initiated a reconnaissance survey to assess if the site would qualify as a Federal park. Though Natural Bridge is historic and a rare geological oddity, it may not qualify as having national significance - even Niagara Falls is a state park and not part of the National Park Service system.24
The last time Natural Bridge was owned by a government organization, it was the colonial government led by Lord Dunmore in Williamsburg, before the American Revolution. In 2007 and again in 2013, the private owner tried to get a Federal agency (National Park Service or US Forest Service) or a state agency (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation) to purchase the bridge and create a public park.
Trying to sell the property during the most significant economic recession since the 1930's, at a time when Congress was gridlocked over budget and debt issues, was hard. Carving out a parcel with just the bridge, excluding the vacant land and commercial properties (except perhaps the gift shop, which could be repurposed as a visitor center...) was considered in order to reduce the cost for a government agency to acquire the site. A conservation easement, limiting alterations to the bridge and its setting, was another option for ensure permanent preservation of Natural Bridge.
In December 2013, the planned auction of the site was cancelled by the private owner. In 2014 a regional nonprofit group, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, purchased all of the property for just $8.6 million plus an additional $7 million in state tax credits for placing a conservation easement on the property. The site was appraised at $21 million, so the sale was a bargain.
The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund was created by Tom Clark, head of a health care firm in Roanoke, to acquire and then to transfer Natural Bridge to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which would then create a new state park. The Virginia Resources Authority, a state agency, loaned $9.1 million to the nonprofit to finance the purchase. The plan was to repay that loan and transfer the property by the end of 2015. Formally creating the state park will end 240 years of private ownership, starting with Thomas Jefferson's purchase of what he called "the most sublime of Nature's works" for 20 shillings (about $100) in 1774.25
The private owner, Angelo Puglisi, was a DC-area real estate developer who had purchased Natural Bridge in 1988 for $6.5 million. Puglisi was hooked on the deal by the connection of the land to Thomas Jefferson, and did not buy it or manage it to maximize revenue. He had never visited the site before a friend encouraged him to buy it.
Puglisi had sought to ensure Natural Bridge would be managed by a public agency. If he had required a full-price sale at auction, the $20+ million purchase price might have forced the new owner to pay down a big mortgage through construction of new housing units, or installation of rides and games more suitable for a county fair/Disneyland. Puglisi didn't want it to be a carnival. He didn't want to see a zip line off the bridge...26
When the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund acquired the property, the hotel buildings were outdated, the gift shop was stocked with low-priced tacky items imported from China, and the "Drama of Creation" light show (inaugurated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1927) had not been updated to incorporate basic geological data about the bridge's formation. In 2013 Natural Bridge was attracting only 200,000 visitors/year, just half the visitation of Luray Caverns.27
The bargain sale price and the state loan allowed the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund to reorient the gift shop away from items manufactured in China and to stock the shelves instead with more-authentic, Virginia-crafted products. The new owner also changed management at Natural Bridge. The former staff found new jobs operating the gift shop, restaurant, and other concessions at Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Natural Bridge is located far from urban centers, and it is a destination vacation site - or a spontaneous side trip for travelers on I-81
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In May, 2014, a ceremony involving the governor and other state officials highlighted the plan to transfer Natural Bridge to the state once the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund repaid the state's loan. The deal was structured so the gift shop, hotel, and Natural Bridge Caverns (a cave with commercial tours) would remain in private ownership, while the geologically-special bridge would become state property.28
The financial arrangements collapsed in 2015. The costs of normal repairs, delayed maintenance, and required upgrades of outdated electrical/water/sewage utilities consumed more of the income from operations than the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund had anticipated. The new private owner claimed it spent $5 million on facility improvements.
In addition, pledged gifts were not fulfilled and income from tourist operations was lower-than-expected. The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund lacked experience in running a tourist site and hotel, and 2015 visitation declined in part because the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund had stopped advertising via roadside billboards to attract potential customers driving on nearby I-81 and Route 11. State officials calculated that they could increase visitation from the slightly more than 100,000 in 2015 to 500,000 people in 5 years, and up to 1 million visitors within 10 years.
In October, 2015, the private owner repaid the Virginia Resources Authority only half of the annual payment required by the state loan. That failure triggered a late fee and an increase in the loan interest rate, from a subsidized 0.25 percent to a market rate of 7.25 percent.
The Virginia Resources Authority had the option to foreclose on the loan. It would have ended up owning the high-maintenance hotel, gift shop, and utility systems as well as Natural Bridge itself, plus 1,500 surrounding acres.
To recover the $9.1 million cost of the loan, the Virginia Resources Authority had the potential to sell buildings and land not incorporated within a state park. Conservation easements, created when the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund acquired the property, permanently limit development on just 188 acres near the bridge and at the geological feature itself. The remaining 1,342 acres could be developed as a resort community or whatever else Rockbridge County chose to authorize under local zoning.29
parcels owned by the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund in 2015 (bordered in red) were zoned A-2 (Ag General), AT (Ag Transitional) and B-1 (Business General)
Source: Rockbridge County, Geographic Information Systems
the individual parcel including the geological feature (blue arrow) is also zoned in three categories - A-2 (Ag General), AT (Ag Transitional) and B-1 (Business General)
Source: Rockbridge County, Geographic Information Systems
Instead, the state agency gave the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund enough time to assemble new donors and pay the outstanding debt, which was done in February 2016. The debt was also restructured, cutting annual payments in half (to $450,000/year) while doubling the length of the loan period from 10 to 20 years.
The General Assembly passed legislation in its 2016 session that authorized the Virginia Department of Recreation and Conservation to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, place two rangers at the site, and establish Natural Bridge as a State Park prior to repayment of the loan.30
The final deal converted the site into Natural Bridge State Park on September 24, 2016, with park rangers paid by the state. The revenue collected from admission fees and gift shop sales was directed to pay the debt owed by the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, which remained owner of the property. If revenue fell short of the annual debt payments, the non-profit organization was obliged to make up the difference.
The state projected visitation would increase 24% in 2017 and another 12% in 2018, based upon better advertising and a reduction of admission fees from $15.86 to $6.80. Even with more visitors, the dramatic reduction in the admission fee was expected to reduce income at least initially, so the Memorandum of Understanding was structured to lower the annual debt service in the first three years. When the state assumed control on September 24, 2016, the admission fee was set at $8 for adults and $6 for children younger than 14 years old.31
Keeping the property in private ownership until the debt was repaid helped the state finesse concerns about continuing the Drama of Creation. The state authorized the continuation of the religious-themed event, a sound-and-light show based on Genesis, in the evening after the end of state park operations.32
Classifying Natural Bridge as a state park and reducing the entrance fee by half stimulated more visits. After a year of state operations, visitation increased over 40% and sales at the visitor center increased by over 130%. However, total revenue declined from $2.3 million to $2 million because the entrance fee had been reduced. The revenue was sufficient to pay the annual debt of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund to the Virginia Resources Authority, but only because the annual payment had been lowered when the period of the mortgage was extended from 10 to 20 years.33
Natural Bridge became a state park in 2016, but the land was still privately owned as it had been since the original purchase by Thomas Jefferson for 20 shillings in 1774
Source: Virginia Department on Conservation and Recreation, Natural Bridge State Park
Rockbridge County zoned the developed area at Natural Bridge as B-1 for business (not conservation)
Source: Rockbridge County Zoning Map
in five of his "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings, Edward Hicks symbolized savage nature with wild beasts and a bold geological setting based on Natural Bridge
Source: The Athenaeum, Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch (1825-1826) by Edward Hicks
(painting located at Reynolda House, Museum of Art in North Carolina)