James River – The Natural Bridge

The chief river of Virginia is the James, a noble stream, rising in the Alleghenies and flowing for four hundred and fifty miles from the western border of the Old Dominion until it falls into Chesapeake Bay at Hampton Roads. Its sources are in a region noted for mineral springs, and the union of Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers makes the James, which flows to the base of the Blue Ridge, and there receives a smaller tributary, not inappropriately named the Calfpasture River. The James breaks through the Blue Ridge by a magnificent gorge at Balcony Falls. Seven miles away, spanning the little stream known as Cedar Brook, is the famous Natural Bridge, the wonderful arch of blue limestone two hundred and fifteen feet high, ninety feet wide, and having a span of a hundred feet thrown across the chasm, which has given to the county the name of Rockbridge. Overlooking the river and the bridge and all the country roundabout are the two noble Peaks of Otter, rising about four thousand feet, the highest mountains in that part of the Alleghenies. This wonderful bridge is situated at the extremity of a deep chasm, through which the brook flows, across the top of which extends the rocky stratum in the form of a graceful arch. It looks as if the limestone rock had originally covered the entire stream bed, which then flowed through a subterranean tunnel, the rest of the limestone roof having fallen in and been gradually washed away. The bridge is finely situated in a grand amphitheatre surrounded by mountains. The crown of the arch is forty feet thick, the rocky walls are perpendicular, and over the top passes a public road, which, being on the same level as the immediately adjacent country, one may cross it in a coach without noticing the bridged chasm beneath. Various large forest trees grow beneath and under the arch, but are not tall enough to reach it. On the rocky abutments of the bridge are carved the names of many persons who had climbed as high as they dared on the steep face of the precipice. Highest of all, for about seventy years, was the name of Washington, who, in his youth, ascended about twenty-five feet to a point never before reached; but this feat was surpassed in 1818 by James Piper, a college student, who actually climbed from the foot to the top of the rock. In 1774 Thomas Jefferson obtained a grant of land from George III. which included the Natural Bridge, and he was long the owner, building the first house there, a log cabin with two rooms, one being for the reception of strangers. Jefferson called the bridge “a famous place that will draw the attention of the world ;” Chief Justice Marshall described it as ” God’s greatest miracle in stone ;” and Henry Clay said it was ” The bridge not made with hands, that spans a river, carries a highway, and makes two mountains one.”