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
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:1
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. The first housing for visitors was a two-room cabin constructed by Thomas Jefferson. The Forest Inn, built in 1833, provided more accommodations. A later "roadhouse hotel" was replaced in 1890 after construction of the impressive Natural Bridge Hotel.
Fire destroyed that hotel in 1963. Two years later, a brick replacement was completed. It still serves as the primary hotel for the site.2
the Natural Bridge Hotel, built in 1890, burned in 1963
Source: Boston Public Library, Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection, Natural Bridge Hotel, Natural Bridge, Virginia
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.3
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.4
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 local 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.
Natural Bridge was scheduled for auction in 2013, but then sold directly to the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund
Source: Woltz & Associates, Real Estate Auction: Historic National Landmark-The Natural Bridge of Virginia
The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund was created by Tom Clark, head of a health care firm in Roanoke. It was the vehicle used to acquire Natural Bridge. If things went according to plan, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund would transfer Natural Bridge to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which would then create a new state park.
Because the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund had no major fundraising capacity or assets, it had to borrow the money to purchase Natural Bridge. The Virginia Resources Authority, a state agency, loaned $9.1 million to the nonprofit to finance the purchase. The original plan was to raise funds, repay that loan, and transfer the property by the end of 2015.
Formally creating the state park would finally end over two centuries of private ownership, starting with Thomas Jefferson's purchase of what he called "the most sublime of Nature's works" for 20 shillings (about $160 today) in 1774. He had first seen it in 1767, and may have visited again in 1781.
Jefferson tried to sell the land in 1809 when we was financially stressed. In 1814, he leased it for use as a "shot tower," where molten lead was dropped from a great height to form spherical balls for use in guns. By 1815, he was determined to retain the property. He traveled across the mountains to see the Natural Bridge again in 1815, 1817, and 1821. His heirs finally sold it to settle his estate in 1833.5
The private owner, Angelo Puglisi, was a DC-area real estate developer. He 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 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 bank mortgage through construction of new housing units, or installation of rides and games more suitable for a county fair/Disneyland. Puglisi made clear that he "didn't want it to be a carnival. He didn't want to see a zip line off the bridge..."6
The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund was another non-government owner. When it 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.7
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 the sales center selling tickets to visit 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 after the transfer, while the geologically-special bridge would become state property.8
the Natural Bridge Hotel remains privately owned, separate from the state park operations
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 anticipated. The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund 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 new owner 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 in 2015 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 could then choose to sell buildings and land not incorporated within a state park protecting the geological feature. 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 Natural Bridge itself. The remaining 1,342 acres could be developed as a resort community, or whatever else Rockbridge County might choose to authorize under local zoning.9
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 of foreclosing on the loan, the state agency gave the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund enough time to assemble new donors and pay the outstanding debt. The overdue payment was made in February 2016. The remaining debt was also restructured, cutting annual payments in half 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.10
A 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.
profits from the gift shop at Natural Bridge will help fund final transfer of the land to the Commonwealth of Virginia
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.11
since 2016, Natural Bridge has operated as a state park rather than as a private tourist attraction
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.12
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.13
The finances unraveled again in 2020. By then, revenues from park operations had reduced the $9.1 million loan to $6.5 million. However, the low payment due in the previous years, about $325,000/year, was scheduled to climb to $579,000 in 2020. Though visitation had remained high despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the annual revenue would not be sufficient to meet the obligation due in November 2020.
The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund was supposed to make up the difference, drawing down a $500,000 reserve fund required by the debt restructuring deal. However, that reserve fund had no assets. The Virginia Resources Authority feared it would face the first default from a borrower in its 30-year history.
The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund rescued the site from auction, but did not have a large group of donors. One possible solution was a transfer of Natural Bridge to a national conservation organization like The Nature Conservancy. A larger organization might be able to pay off the debt and donate the property, as previously planned. The alternative was for the state to foreclose on the loan, essentially having the state government purchase Natural Bridge for around $6 million.14
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)
In 2020, the state park used revenues it had collected during the year to make the $579,000 annual payment on the loan. That postponed the worst case scenario, where the Virginia Resources Authority had to declare the loan to be in default and advertise Natural Bridge for sale. The 2020 payment created time for transfer of ownership of the site from the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund to another non-government organization, so there would be no risk of one state agency foreclosing on another because of requirements in the original loan.15
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
Source: AliciaLynn, Natural Bridge State Park
conversion to a state park did not alter Natural Bridge's claims that George Washington surveyed the site
sketching from the top of Natural Bridge
Source: Picturesque America (p.89)