Sunday, August 30, 2015

Natural Bridge, Thomas Jefferson, and a Butterfly

Today we finally got to visit Natural Bridge of Virginia. I call it Natural Bridge of Virginia because we used to visit Natural Bridge of Texas! Someday I'll have to dig up pictures of the Texas version, which is actually much smaller, but still a natural bridge.


After Thomas Jefferson visited the Natural Bridge of Virginia in 1767 he wrote in his infamous Notes on the State of Virginia a description of what made the site famous..."most sublime of Nature's works." In 1774 Jefferson bought this land, 157 acres, from King George III for 20 shillings. Colonial Williamsburg fans will be glad to know that he paid for the land at the Surveyor General's Office in Williamsburg. 

This story plus an engraving of the natural wonder are details often pointed out at other historic sites that pertain to Thomas Jefferson. With each visit to these sites I've yearned more and more to be able to visit Natural Bridge. At last the day came!
Our descent took us nearly 300 feet down into a canyon that was about 100 feet wide. We were led down a path that meandered through lovely greenery near a rippling stream and trickling waterfalls. Jefferson made other visits here, and even planned on building a retreat home here. For reference, his main home of Monticello is 80 miles from here, whereas his retreat home of Poplar Forest is 40  miles from here.
At long last we turned a corner...and there it was! 215 feet high! Can you see the teeny weeny people underneath it?
There is a road on top of the bridge. We stood there trying to figure out how to access the road to see what we could see from the top. Then it dawned on us. We had already driven on it when we missed the turn into the parking lot! So when we were done that day we had to drive across the bridge again because we wondered how we could have missed it. Indeed, there is no way of knowing, while above, what treasure exists below.    
Further on the trail led us to a salt peter cave.
Jefferson leased the cave for the purpose of salt peter mining to produce gun powder.
This area is such a rich geological area, that I pointed out many features to my daughter who was to take a geology class this term in college. I had taken a geology class myself in college, so it was quite a thrill to point out some keen details of the exposed limestone rocks.  Incidentally, the  natural bridge of Texas is also comprised of limestone.

Lace Falls is a quiet spot with an overlook of benches.
Eventually this creek empties into the James River.
Butterflies were everywhere.
I decided to invite one of the butterflies to land on my hand, which it willingly did and sat there for quite some time.
At this spot on the hike we could hear rushing waters. They came from inside this cave. Appropriately dubbed the Lost River, the subterranean river has eluded the sight of many an individual since the 19th century despite much testing.   
For quite some time we quietly sat in this spot to watch this heron catch and eat his lunch...
This spot marks the spot to stand to see the infamous GW marker of yore.
While standing at this spot near the bridge, and looking at the opposite wall across the creek, one can see the initials GW. According to legend George Washington himself carved these initials into the rock. In 1750, the 18 year old George Washington was a surveying assistant to Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas Jefferson). Their job was to survey the Old Indian Trail, a major north-south road that has served wildlife, Native Americans, and early settlers. (Today I-81 runs nearby, allowing the area to return to a quieter past.) So...that road we discovered on top of the bridge? That was part of this Old Indian Trail.
In fact, during the Civil War, soldiers from both the North and South passed through and wrote down their amazements of the area in their journals. One can read a historical marker about this at the top near the visitor center.

Remember this is lore and not proven fact that the intials were inscribed by George Washington.
Incidentally, Washington was not the only surveyor of this area. Thomas Jefferson surveyed it when he bought it.
Then around 1781 officers and engineers of the French General Comte de Rochambeau's command arrived to survey the bridge as well. (I'm guessing after Yorktown was won and while they overwintered in Williamsburg, they likely heard of this natural wonder and came out to investigate for themselves!) Copious notes and descriptions returned with them to Paris where numerous artistic renderings were made. One of Rochambeau's party even wrote a book where some renderings were included, perhaps the first published ones that would indeed capture many an imagination.
Even more Europeans and Americans came to Natural Bridge to write detailed accounts and create many an artistic rendering. This helped to promote the grander of America in a time when Europe considered the nation culturally inept.
In fact, many people worldwide have read about Natural Bridge in Herman Melville's 1851 book, Moby Dick.
And then, through, the serene tranquilities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by extreme rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wretched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight. (Moby Dick by Herman Melville)
Even the artist and naturalist John James Audobon made mention of the bridge in his works:

I recollect that, while traveling in Virginia with a friend, he desired that I would go somewhat out of our intended route, to visit the renowned Rock Bridge of that State. My companion, who had passed over this natural bridge before, proposed a wager that he could lead me across it before I should be aware of its existence. It was early in April, and from the descriptions of this place which I had read, I felt confident that the Pewee Flycatcher must be about it. I accepted the proposal of my friend and trotted on, intent on proving to myself that, by constantly attending to one subject, a person must sooner or later become acquainted with it.
I listened to the notes of the different birds, which at intervals came to my ear, and at last had the satisfaction to distinguish those of the Pewee. I stopped my horse, to judge of the distance at which the bird might be, and a moment after told my friend that the bridge was short of a hundred yards from us, although it was impossible for us to see the spot itself. The surprise of my companion was great.
"How do you know this?" he asked; "for," he continued, "you are correct."
"Simply," answered I, "because I hear the notes of the Pewee, and know that a cave, or a deep rocky creek, is at hand." (John James Audobon)
(For more information be sure to read this detailed article by Robert J. Smith.


In 1803, Jefferson had a 2 room log cabin built at the top of the hill, where the current hotel now stands. When he entertained guests from America and Europe at Monticello or Washington DC, he encouraged them to venture southwest to Natural Bridge. Many did travel here and stayed in the cabin, recording their names and observations in the ledger he left for record keeping.

Jefferson also wrote of Natural Bridge, "I view it in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced, or masked from public view." Thus a legacy was born. When Jefferson died, his private ownership fell to family heirs until, in 1835, they sold the land to a Joel Lackland for $1500.

Fast forward to the present. There have always been private owners who have allowed admittance of the public to view the wonder of the Natural Bridge. A few years ago the land was put up for sale, with a great bit of concern on many sides, including that of the seller. Who could afford the land and bridge at today's prices? Couldn't it become a state or national park? The vision of the current owner was like that of Jefferson, to hold it as a "public trust" for all to be able to enjoy.  It's a bit confusing, to me, but an agreement has been made...ownership, provision and money raising are all in the works...that will keep the bridge open to visitors, fulfilling Jefferson's original vision.


Natural Bridge (Images of America) by Ernst H. Kastning Ph.D. (found on google books for a preview)

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