Virginia’s Natural Bridge: Testimony to Private Conservation

Published January 1, 1999

It boggles the mind, notes one observer, that one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World remains virtually pristine even though it has become a major commercial success.

Indeed, the Natural Bridge of Virginia and its surroundings, which now serve as backdrop for a corporate conference center and family vacation spot, might not exist had it not been for Thomas Jefferson, who, in the Declaration of Independence, advanced the idea that private ownership of property was synonymous with individual liberty.

Because of Jefferson’s commitment to that then-rebellious principle, 300,000 visitors each year are able to enjoy Natural Bridge, a massive limestone arch formed by water erosion over millions of years.

“The history of Natural Bridge’s successful private preservation over 250 years is indeed a testimonial to private property and private ownership,” wrote Robert J. Smith for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). “Mr. Jefferson was onto something in his Declaration of Independence.”

Smith, a senior scholar with CEI’s Center for Private Conservation in Washington, DC, outlined his position in a case study published in June. Located in southwestern Virginia about 200 miles from the nation’s capital, Natural Bridge has been in private hands since Jefferson, its first owner, purchased it from England’s King George III in 1774.

Management of the site, Smith notes, is in sharp contrast to the “sorry state of the nation’s National Parks–general neglect, deferred maintenance, polluted streams, trampled wildflowers . . . air pollution harmed trees from too many cars . . . overcrowding from too many people in the parks.”

Weighing an estimated 36,000 tons, Natural Bridge rises about 215 feet above Cedar Creek (55 feet higher than Niagara Falls), measures 90 feet between the walls, and averages about 100 feet wide. The bridge is 50 feet thick.

Throughout the centuries, the structure has served as a wildlife trail and corridor, an American Indian trail known as Great Path, and a horse and wagon road for settlers and farmers who called it the Great Wagon Road. Today it carries highway traffic.

“Yet deep in the canyon, 200 feet below, one can neither see nor hear the highway traffic,” wrote Smith. “One hears only the water, the wind, and the songs of the abundant bird life.”

Who first discovered Natural Bridge is uncertain, but legend has it that it was seen first by the Monacan Indians, a tribe that lived about 30 miles from the site. According to Monacan oral history, Natural Bridge is sacred ground because it provided an escape route for the tribe as it fled from pursuing Shawnee and Powhatan Indians prior to European settlement of the area.

The earliest documented European contact with the bridge is 1742, recorded in the diary of John Peter Sellings.

Legend also has it that George Washington surveyed the bridge in 1750, although there is no official documentation to support the story. The initials “G.W.” are carved into the southeast wall of the bridge, and in 1927 a rock with Washington’s initials and a surveyor’s cross was found under the bridge.

Much of the original flora and wildlife remain at Natural Bridge, including a 1,600-year-old arborvitae that is the oldest and largest known in the world. The bridge has remained a favorite spot for artists, photographers, and those seeking simply to briefly escape from modern life.

Improvements in the area, all of which are paid for by the private owners and visitors who use it, have been tastefully implemented so that they are in keeping with the wishes of Jefferson, who wrote, “I view it (Natural Bridge) in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced, or masked from public view.”

Smith notes that “All the buildings in the Natural Bridge center follow the same colonial architectural scheme and color scheme with red brick, cream wood, and gray roofs. There are red brick walls and natural wood fences,” and even the signage blends in with the natural surroundings.

“One would scarcely realize that this sleepy little colonial style complex is now a major corporate conference center and family vacation spot,” wrote Smith.

The site offers 180 accommodations ranging from modest rooms to luxurious suites, and 10 conference facilities capable of handling groups of 25 to 500 people. Other amenities include the Colonial Dining Room (southern regional cuisine), gift shop, snack bar, indoor mini-golf course for children, tennis courts, and a heated indoor swimming pool.