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
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.3
1852 painting by Frederic Edwin Church
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. 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 some myths 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
Natural Bridge is the remnant of an ancient cave roof, and Natural Bridge Caverns nearby offers public tours of an underground cave
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 sitings, 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, and George Washington throwing a dollar over the bridge (nearly 200 feet high).
Since Jefferson's purchase the bridge has been a popular tourist attraction, as described in the nomination to the National Register:9
Monacan village exhibit at Natural Bridge
reconstructed Monacan house
The geological rarity of the bridge makes the site significant, independent of the cultural history and myths about the tourist attraction.
Natural Bridge 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
Long ago in the past, rainwater seeped underground and absorbed carbon dioxide as the water travelled through the organic litter on the surface and the A horizon of the soil, filled with decomposing humus and animal life exhaling carbon dioxide. The water became slightly acidic as it trickled down through the topsoil to the Beekmantown Formation, a limestone deposited originally in a shallow sea during the Ordivician period 440–505 million years ago. In that limestone, 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 limestone rock and potions 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 near Natural Bridge. 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.
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.11
As Cedar Creek flowed through the partially-underground channel, it carried away the limestone debris every time a portion of the roof fell. At a similar natural bridge in China, Tianmen Shan, "the entire opening formed in one cataclysmic event when the back of a huge cave collapsed in 263 AD."12
The bridge is stable, but not unchanging. On October 23, 1999, a tourist was killed by a rockfall from the bridge. To prevent a repeat, metal plates were installed on the bottom of the bridge and attached with steel cables, then camouflaged with paint to maintain the natural appearance. There has been a road across Natural Bridge since 1753, but inevitably that remaining portion of the ancient cave roof will collapse into the creek.13
Natural bridges and arches can form through various processes, in addition to creation of underground channels by dissolution of limestone (as occurred at Natural Tunnel in Scott County) or by collapse when the underground cave/tunnel reached too close to the surface (as occurred at Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County). There is a second natural bridge in Virginia, located in Lee County near Jonesville. It spans Beatty Creek, and a state highway (Route 622) crosses it.14
Delicate Arch, a sandstone fin eroded by water and ice
Source: National Park Service, Arches National Park
sea arch formed by wave erosion
Source: Bureau of Land Management, California Coastal National Monument
Arches and bridges can be distinguised by various definitions, including "A natural bridge is a type of natural arch where a current of water, such as a stream, clearly was a major agent in the formation of the opening (hole)."15
Today, Natural Bridge is primarily a regional tourist destination; travellers 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 travellers:21
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 attaction.
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.22
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.23
The last time Natural Bridge was owned by a government organization, it was the colonial government led by Lord Dunmore in Wiliamsburg, 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 1774.24
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...25
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.26
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.27
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 year, and 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 could foreclose on the loan. It would end up owning the high-maintenance hotel, gift shop, and utility systems as well as Natural Bridge itself, plus 1,500 surrounding acres. The buildings and land not incorporated within a state park could be sold to recover the $9.1 million. Conservation easements, created when the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund acquired the property, permanently limit development on 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.28
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