Thomas Jefferson was smitten with the rugged beauty of the Natural Bridge deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. He visited this geographic wonder 120 miles from Monticello at least six times, describing its sturdy limestone arch 250 feet above Cedar Creek, as “the most sublime of nature’s works.”
Natural Bridge, May 2022 (Barry D. Wood photo)
Jefferson was enthralled both by the bridge’s magnificence and its geological significance. He wrote this detail about the chasm above the stream in his 1785 book, Notes on the State of Virginia.
“….few men have the resolution to…look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from height about a minute, gave me a violent headache.”
The bridge and surrounding terrain are largely unchanged 200 years later. At the top on either side of the roadway trees and shrubs obscure the view and hide protective fences. Few travelers whizzing along US 11 are aware that they’ve crossed the famed Natural Bridge. Strolling the winding trail along Cedar Creek on the valley floor a visitor grasps the majesty and enormity of the mighty bridge above. There are similarities to Yosemite.
Before Jefferson, George Washington passed this way in 1750 as a surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley. He may have carved the initials, “G W,” on the bridge wall 20 feet up from the stream. The chiseled marks are still visible although there is no commemorative sign. The presumed Washington initials, nearly enveloped by others, are highlighted within a small rectangle. There’s an element of ‘George Washington slept here’ in this tale but there is little doubt that he did visit the Natural Bridge. A further tale has it that the physically strong Washington outdid his co-workers hurling a stone from the trail to the top of the bridge.
Thanks to Jefferson we have personal accounts of the frontiers men and women who lived here. These lands were sparsely populated except for the string of towns in the nearby Shenandoah Valley—Winchester, Harrisonburg, Staunton and Lexington, among them. Then as now the valley was an artery of commerce. After the Revolution British crown lands all the way to the Ohio River were ceded to the Americans, opening the floodgates to settlement west of the Alleghenies.
In 1817 Jefferson traveled to the Natural Bridge with two granddaughters, 18-year-old Cornelia and 21-year-old Ellen. They were among the eldest of the 12 children born to Jefferson’s daughter Martha and her husband Thomas Randolph, a wealthy planter and future Virginia governor. Like Jefferson Randolph owned slaves.
Jefferson, 74 in 1817 and retired from public life, retained a keen interest in the Natural Bridge, which he in fact he owned. In 1774 Jefferson had paid 20 shillings to the king’s agent for the bridge and 157 acres surrounding it.
Two letters written from Cornelia to sister Virginia back at Monticello described the arduous 1817 excursion. The party set out from Jefferson’s second plantation and country retreat, Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg some 20-miles from the bridge. Cornelia’s letters reveal the vast social gulf separating Virginia’s landed gentry from the rougher class of Americans building lives on the frontier.
When crossing a creek early during the two-day journey, a weak plank gave way. One horse fell, the carriage was disconnected but neither people nor horses were injured. The Jefferson party now had to walk over the “abominable” road, soon encountering a hunter, gun on shoulder, carrying the squirrel he had shot. Cornelia writes that once “grand-papa” engaged the man in conversation, he was friendly and invited the party into his log home in the woods.
“a large family liv’d in it tho it had but one room, these people were the first of that half civiliz’d race who live beyond the ridge that we had seen…(in the house) were his wife, two old men, one his father & a large family of children, all the young ones in their shifts and shirts; none of the men wore coats…(the oldest man) being 84, he was the most savage looking man of the two, tho they both were uncivilis’d, both in manners and appearance, the other going with his hairy breast expos’d & both speaking of us and our family before our faces just as we had been absent.”
Amazingly, no one recognized the former president although the family was aware these were prominent guests, probably they surmised, from Lynchburg. Cornelia reveals she and Ellen were offended when they were called ‘young women’ instead of ‘ladies.’
Nourished with fresh apples the Jefferson party sets out on horseback, pausing after a three-mile climb for a lunch of cold bacon and chicken.
In the second letter Cornelia is appalled at the conditions at Greenlee’s Ferry where they crossed the James and spent the night with the ferryman’s family.
“the house was an excelent brick house as well built as the houses of Lynchburg & there were three others building in the same yard two of brick & one of stone the one we went into was well finish’d in the inside but the filthiest place, I could not help thinking of sister Ellens wondering when she was a little girl if the house in which she was had been sweep’d today & the people & the children look’d as if their cloths never had been taken off since they were put on new. I felt exactly as if the place was polluted. I could not bear to touch anything, & at night they carried us into a very good little room, but the sheets of our bed were dirty & we were obliged to sleep on the outside this night. as sister Ellen had such a dreadful pain in the face that she walked up and down the room all night & did not sleep at all, grandpapa said he had a very nice comfortable bed but he slept in the room with two or three people.”
This was southwestern Virginia in 1817. Jefferson would continue to make summer visits to Poplar Forest and the Natural Bridge until 1821. Afflicted with rheumatism at 78 Jefferson made what would be his final excursion to the bridge. He wrote, “I am little able to walk, but ride freely without fatigue.” Proof of that, he continued, was this journey to Natural Bridge, “when I was six days successively on horseback from breakfast to sunset.”
(End of Part I)