Landmarks of American Nature Writing

11. Landmarks III: The Natural Bridge

"[S]o beautiful an arch," Jefferson wrote, "so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven, the rapture of the Spectator is really indiscribable!" Yet "discribe" they did, as visitor after visitor attempted to best Jefferson's account of the Bridge in his Notes. Some of them, too daunted by the task, simply reprinted his words verbatim.


Daniel R. Preston. The Wonders of Creation; Natural and Artificial. Being an Account of the Most Remarkable Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Cataracts, Mineral Springs, Miscellaneous Curiosities, and Antiquities in the World. Compiled from Geographers, Historians, and Travellers, of the Greatest Celebrity. Vol. 1 of 2 vols. Boston: Published by John M. Dunham, 1807. Shown: Frontispiece, "View of the Rock Bridge," opposite title page.

A fascinating anthology, The Wonders of Creation reprints the description of the Natural Bridge from Isaac Weld's Travels (1799) and uses an engraving of the bridge for its frontispiece. Unlike Jefferson, Preston does not categorize the Natural Bridge with the "Cascades and Caverns," but with "Miscellaneous Curiosities," such as Harpers Ferry and the Dismal Swamp.

Thomas Jefferson. Letter to William Jenkings. Manuscript, 1 July 1809, from Monticello. On long-term loan from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.

In a manner that seems contradictory to modern ears, Jefferson in this letter speaks of the Natural Bridge as both "dead capital" and "undoubtedly one of the sublimest curiosities in nature." Both of these sentiments, however, are consistent with the promotional character of Notes on the State of Virginia and reveal Jefferson's consummate salesmanship in all endeavors. Although Jefferson retained ownership of the Natural Bridge until the end of his life, his desire to see "accommodations there" was fulfilled beginning in 1815. The letter reads:

When you spoke with me at Washington, on the sale of my lands at the Natural bridge, the proposition was new, & I wished to consider of it. On reflection I find that it is a dead capital in my hands, that in other hands it my be useful to the owner & the public. I am therefore willing to sell it. With respect to price, you said you supposed it worth as much as the adjacent tract which has sold two or three times at 10. D & some of it at 4. the acre. Within these limits therefore we may probably agree, altho in considering it merely as land we omit what gives it distinguished value, it's including the Natural bridge, undoubtedly one of the sublimest curiosities in nature. I had always believed that if there were accommodations there, the healthy part of the company which frequents the various springs, would pass the same season at the bridge of preference, as their object is merely to be absent from the lower country at that season & the climate & curiosity of the bridge would render a stay there much more eligible. I shall be glad to hear from you on this subject and tender you the assurances of my respect.

William Maxwell. Poems. Philadelphia: M. Thomas, 1816. Shown: "The Natural Bridge."

A fine example of romantic devotional poetry, William Maxwell's "Natural Bridge" praises the bridge's "romantic Nature" while contemplating the structure's divine creation. The poem closes in mysterium tremendum:

But hark! the voice of Rapture in my ears!
An angel sings! The music of the spheres!
A present God!--I feel myself no more,--
But lost in him--I tremble--I adore!

Francis William Gilmer. "On the Geological Formation of the Natural Bridge of Virginia." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 1 (1818): 187-92.

The first description of the Natural Bridge to explain correctly its geological formation, Francis William Gilmer's article was read before the American Philosophical Society on 16 February 1816 and published in its Transactions two years later. Contradicting the hypothesis of Jefferson in his Notes, Gilmer explains that instead of the formation of the bridge "being the effect of a sudden convulsion, or an extraordinary deviation from the ordinary laws of nature, it will be found to have been produced by the slow operation of causes which have always, and must ever continue, to act in the same manner."

Rufus K. Polk. Letter to William Polk. Manuscript, 11 May 1833.

Polk, a University of Virginia student, notes in this letter that "Washington Irving Esq passed through this place two days since on his way to the Natural Bridge and from thence to N. York. [H]e called at the University (in this stage) a few minutes and then passed on to the village. . . ." In 1853, Irving returned to the Shenandoah Valley, writing to his niece Sarah Irving on 22 June, "Here I am in the centre of the Magnificent Valley of the Shenandoah--the great Valley of Virginia. . . . [A]nd a glorious Valley it is--equal to the promised land for fertility; far superior to it for beauty and inhabited by infinitely superior people--choice though not chosen."

Edward Beyer. Album of Virginia. Richmond: n.p., 1858. Shown: Plate 1, "Natural Bridge, Rockbridge County, Va."

Edward Beyer, a German artist, came to Virginia in the mid-1850s and remained in the commonwealth for three years, spending most of his time sketching and painting in the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley region, which offered him a rich variety of landscapes for reproduction in his Album of Virginia, a popular folio volume of forty lithographs, from which the featured plate is taken. The Description of the Album of Virginia that accompanied Beyer's plates (and was probably written by Samuel Mordecai) includes the following information about the approach to the bridge:

It is approached along the James River, through a country, which, in beauty and grandeur of scenery, is unsurpassed even by the loveliest portions of the Rhine Land. One is environed by towering Mountains, whilst every where--above, around, beneath--is the interminable Forest. In truth, for many, many miles you pass through a Gallery of Pictures, most gorgeous and varied.

Elias Cornelius. Tour in Virginia, Tennessee, &c. &c. &c. Bound with: Joseph Sansom's Travels in Lower Canada. London: Printed for Sir Richard Phillips, 1820. McGregor Library. Shown: "The Natural Bridge."

Licensed as a Congregational minister in 1816, Elias Cornelius was appointed to solicit funds for a Cherokee mission project, which he did on a number of tours through the South and West. In his Tour in Virginia, Tennessee, &c. &c. &c., Cornelius says he desires, like Francis Gilmer, to furnish a "correct account" of the Natural Bridge, so he can discern whether "a convulsion in nature may have rent the hill in which it stands asunder." Echoing other travelers, he takes issue with Jefferson's claims about its uniqueness, saying that "on the summit of the hill, or from the top of the bridge, the view is not more awful that that which is seen from the brink of a hundred other precipices."

Knickerbocker 12 (July 1838). Shown: William Alexander Caruthers's "Climbing the Natural Bridge."

In 1818, while completing his first year at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), William Alexander Caruthers traveled to the Natural Bridge with three college friends, one of whom--James Piper--succeeded in making the first known ascent of the entire bridge. Caruthers first wrote a sketch of this feat in a journal kept by the custodian of the bridge, but when the story was deemed false by some and misrepresented by others, Caruthers saw fit to publish his version of the event and set the record straight.

Herman Melville. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851. Presentation inscription from the author. The only recorded presentation copy of the first edition. Barrett Library. Shown: Pages 604-5.

Although modern sailors might not envision the Natural Bridge when watching the arching leap of a whale, Melville's description of the White Whale in Moby-Dick testifies to the pervasiveness of the bridge in mid-nineteenth-century written and visual discourse. It also suggests the awesome sublimity it represented, since Melville does not employ the metaphor until the climactic chase scene, when Ishmael gets his first full glimpse of the whale:

But soon the fore part of him slowly 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.

Trip to the Natural Bridge. Manuscript, 1856.

One of several manuscript accounts of travel to the Natural Bridge held by Special Collections, this unfinished narrative is of particular interest because the writer fails to describe the bridge itself. Upon arriving at the inn owned by the bridge's proprietor, the travelers discover that it is Election Day (22 May 1856) in "Old Virginny," with two great matters to be decided: the selection of a sheriff and the question of "License or No License to Sell Liquor" (popularly known as "Licker or No Licker"). "Such weighty matters of state," the author notes, "left no space for a thought about Nature's handiwork; all her great principles dwindled to nothing in the minds of the precinct politicians present."

William Cullen Bryant, ed. Picturesque America; or, The Land We Live In. A Delineation by Pen and Pencil of the Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Forests, Water-falls, Shores, Cañons, Valleys, Cities, and Other Picturesque Features of Our Country. With Illustrations on Steel and Wood, by Eminent American Artists . Vol. 1 of 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1872-74. Barrett Library. Shown: "The Natural Bridge, Virginia," illus. Harry Fenn.

"The Falls of Niagara and the Natural Bridge are justly esteemed the most remarkable curiosities in North America. So exceptional is the beauty, mingled with sublimity, of these famous scenes, that thoughtless persons have characterized them as 'freaks of Nature.' But in Nature--great, beneficent, and doing all things in order--there are no freaks." So claims the text of Picturesque America, the nineteenth century's most influential volume of landscape reproductions. Harry Fenn's detail of the top of the bridge and the cataract below--complete with plunging bird--emphasize the "dizzying height" of the bridge better than most illustrations. In addition to the words of Jefferson, Picturesque America reproduces quotations from the Marquis de Chastellux (section 5).

A Description of the Natural Bridge of Virginia and Its History. Philadelphia: Printed by Billstein, 1889. Shown: "The Pathway to the Bridge," opposite "The Glen" and "The Lost River."

One of the more thorough promotional publications about the bridge, this Description of the Natural Bridge contains maps and photographs of the site, a history of events relating to the bridge, a brief anthology of writings, descriptions of other sites of interest, and advertisements for accommodations.

William Lee Popham. Natural Bridge Romance. Louisville, Ky: World Supply Company, 1911. Shown: "Boating on the Lake at Natural Bridge."

Part of the "Seven Wonders of the World Series (American)"--which includes Mammoth Cave Romance, Niagara Falls Romance, Garden of the Gods Romance, Yosemite Valley Romance, Yellowstone Park Romance, and Washington Monument Romance--Natural Bridge Romance combines promotional material about the bridge with a sentimental love story designed for children.

Natural Bridge, Virginia. Postcard, postmarked 7 PM, 18 July 1910, Buena Vista, Va.

Part of a large archive of Virginia postcards held by Special Collections, this postcard of the Natural Bridge suggests one of the ways in which the everyday communications of travelers can modify the impact of a natural landmark, changing it from a sublime spectacle into a common tourist attraction. The message (verso) reads:

Hello! Gladys:--

I am having a delightful time. Miss you all so much. What have you been doing? Have you seen Katie lately? Guess I will come home Friday.

Lovingly,
Alice Bell

Fanny Lecky Paxton. Natural Bridge, Rockbridge County, Virginia. Painting, c. 1893. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in.

This painting of the Natural Bridge was presented to the University of Virginia in memory of Mary Paxton Troutmann of Glasgow, Rockbridge County, Virginia, by her husband, Dr. Henry Troutmann, Class of 1916, the first student night librarian at the Alderman Library. Painted by Mrs. Trautmann's mother, Fanny Lecky Paxton, it won first prize at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.


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