What is the Natural Bridge?
- A world-famous natural feature
- An important part of Monacan Indian history
- A former property of Thomas Jefferson
Some 120 miles west of Monticello, in the midst of Virginia’s celebrated Blue Ridge Mountains, lies a secluded valley that contains a natural wonder known to Virginians as Natural Bridge. Thomas Jefferson described this spectacular rock arch in Notes on the State of Virginia—the only book he ever wrote—as “the most sublime of Nature’s works.”
Indeed, Natural Bridge has been a spiritual inspiration to the people in the area for thousands of years. The Monacan Indians who had domain over much of what is now western Virginia prior to English settlement revered Natural Bridge as a sacred place where they won an epic victory against a rival tribe. Monacans of the 20th century reportedly referred to the site as “the Bridge of God” and “the Great Path.” (1)
Thomas Jefferson himself purchased Natural Bridge and some 147 acres of surrounding property from the British Crown several years before the American Revolution. He held it in his personal estate for the rest of his life. The site evoked in him and his guests a sense of awe and wonder. About 20 miles from his more formal Poplar Forest property, Natural Bridge became a wilderness retreat for Jefferson and his family, including his granddaughters. He is also reported to have directed a wide variety of distinguished visitors to it from Washington and beyond, including Henry Clay, Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, Martin Van Buren, and a delegation of French army officers under the command of General Rochambeau (2). The visitors marveled at how such a wondrous rock formation, more than 200 feet in height, could possibly have been created. Geologists now tell us that the relentless action of Cedar Creek, the stream that runs beneath the magnificent arch, carved it out of a mountain over millions of years.
In the mid-19th century, Natural Bridge, by then an attraction equivalent to Niagara Falls, attracted the attention and imagination of some of America’s greatest artists and most venturesome tourists. Frederic Church painted Natural Bridge in 1852, adding to its public reputation as one of the “nation’s most recognizable icons of the wonders of nature.”(3) Church and other artists and photographers, such as Albert Bierstadt and Carleton Watkins, brought the images of such natural wonders to the general public, helping to pave the way for the creation by the U.S. government of the world’s first state and national parks, at Yosemite and Yellowstone, in 1864 and 1872, respectively.
The conservation of Natural Bridge traces its roots to a letter Jefferson wrote to William Caruthers in 1815. Although he was in a difficult financial position, Jefferson had no interest in selling the Natural Bridge property, which he had come to see “in some degree as a public trust.” The former president wrote that he did not want the site “injured, defaced, or masked from public view.”(4) Jefferson, in effect, “enunciated an idea that twenty-first century Americans still find intriguing—namely, that privately-owned landscapes could provide public benefits as well as private financial return and personal enjoyment. The land trust movement, for example, has in recent decades used such a framework to protect millions of acres from development.”(5)
Jefferson’s letter to Caruthers presaged the more formal protection in the late 1850s of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate by a non-governmental organization, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, and the 1891 creation of the world’s first regional land trust, now called The Trustees of Reservations, in Massachusetts. Still, Natural Bridge itself, as a privately owned site listed in the National Register of Historic Places, at present enjoys only modest legal protection from development that could be contrary to Mr. Jefferson’s wishes.
Toward that end, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation just created a Special Project Area encompassing 178,800 acres in Rockbridge and Botetourt Counties, including the area of the Natural Bridge. The Special Project Area designation benefits residents who wish to create land easements and otherwise focus their conservation efforts.
(1) Historical Marker Data Base: Natural Bridge. See: http://www.hmdb.org/ marker.asp?marker=48. Sec also: Carrie Hunter Willis and Etta Belle Walker, Legends of the Skyline Drive and the Great Valley of Virginia. Richmond: The Dietz Press, 1940, page 81.
(2) Registration for Natural Bridge in the National Register of Historic Places, available at http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/Rockbridge/081-
0415_Natural_Bridge_1997_Final_Nomination.pdf. See also, Robert J. Smith, Natural Bridge of Virginia, Competitive Enterprise Institute, June 1998, at http://cei.org/studies-issue-analysis/natural-bridge-virginia.
(3) See “Registration for Natural Bridge … ” above, Section 8, page 4.
(4) Thomas Jefferson to William Caruthers, March 15, 1815, cited by The Thomas Jefferson Foundation on its Monticello website at http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/natural-bridge.
(5) James N. Levitt, “Financial Innovation for Conservation,” in From Walden to Wall Street: Frontiers of Conservation Finance, Island Press and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2005, page 7.