More than 200 years ago for literally pennies on the dollar, young Thomas Jefferson purchased a 157-acre tract of land that is now one of the most awe-inspiring state parks in Virginia.
I’m talking about Natural Bridge State Park, a gorgeous tract that’s a 45-minute drive from Staunton and so well worth the trip. The bridge itself, with cars zooming overhead, arches 215 feet from the ground. A lovely and very doable walking path lies underneath its immense shadow and keeps company with Cedar Creek that dead ends a mile out at Lace Falls.
I had an opportunity to visit it with a family member this week, almost a year to the day I had first set foot on the wide, leaf-strewn path with my friend Dorothy, well before I had moved to this area from Connecticut.
It blows my mind that Thomas Jefferson, who more famously owned Monticello and the Poplar Forest retreat, would buy this property for a mere 20 shillings (about 200 bucks) from King George III two years and one day before signing ourselves away from Britain with the Declaration of Independence. The property was sold to another private party upon his death due to Jefferson’s massive debt. Surprisingly, it has only been a state park for about five years, having been in the hands of various private owners for the last few centuries.
It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven.Thomas Jefferson, “The Natural Bridge,” from Notes on Virginia (1784-85). The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, eds. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (NY: Modern Library, 1944). http://coursesite.uhcl.edu/hsh/whitec/LITR/5535/sylsched/tjnatbridge.htm
When you walk underneath the bridge, note a white box painted around a spot in the limestone wall about 20 feet above the creek – the initials “G W” are clearly visible, said (and not proven) to have been carved by George Washington while he was helping survey the property. Our founding father a graffiti artist? Scamp!
As you continue along the path near the creek you come across a cave, rich with saltpeter (from bat droppings) that had been mined for their gunpowder producing properties, and also the re-creation of a Monacan Indian village. A brief chat with one of the village reenactors revealed that the people’s population had been greatly reduced mainly by skirmishes with other Indian tribes, rather than with European settlers. “The Sioux were particularly ruthless,” a Monacan costumed young lady alluded (although I have not been able to confirm that through additional research).
But not all trips to Natural Bridge were as incident free as mine have been. Jefferson decided at one point (was he smoking wacky tobaccy?) to take two of his granddaughters there, and one of them had a laundry list of gossipy complaints about the trip.
The written account penned by his granddaughter, Cornelia outlined the arduous trek across the state after “grampa” decided it would be a great idea to take her and her sister on a road trip to see the natural wonder (rookie mistake, gramps!). Among the trials experienced by the delicate young ladies were poor weather, a broken wagon axle, and abominable road conditions.
… our trip was attended with disasters & accidents from the time we set off untill (sp) we return’d again…Cornelia Randolph letter to Virginia Randolph https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/featured-letter-difficult-trip-natural-bridge
However, as is hopefully the case with any family vacation, the end seemed to justify the means. (I hear echoes in the back of my mind of the ‘are we there yet?’ exclaimed from the back of my parent’s station wagon.) As outlined in the same said letter, the petulant youngster enthused over the wonders of the Natural Bridge once they managed to get there, saying “it far surpass’d our expectations.”