Beginning in the mountains of North Carolina, not far from the State of Tennessee, the ancient New River flows northeastward through the Blue Ridge Mountains, meandering across the farm country of Southwest Virginia and then entering the Mountain State as it quickly descends into an Appalachian canyon known as the New River Gorge.
The Native Americans who lived in what is now Southern West Virginia are said to have feared the New River Gorge, the Shawnee are even reported to have named the area, “Keninskeha”, meaning “river of evil spirits”.
Though it is unclear why the river was feared so greatly and seen as a place where evil spirits resided, some have postulated that the river’s unpredictable characteristics may have led to such superstitious feelings.
National Park Service officials describe the waterway by saying, “Speed varies across the stream, being faster away from the channel sides and, vertically, fastest just below the surface. Speed also varies along the stream channel, being fastest where the channel is narrowest and the gradient steepest, and it changes with time, being fastest at flood stage. Speed probably varies from about 3.5 to 7 miles per hour. As the river moves along at ever-changing speeds, it takes on all kinds of swirling motion, called eddies, whirlpools, holes, and reactionaries; well know and understood by every whitewater boater who expects to survive. The motion of the river is highly complex and chaotic.”
Given the river’s chaotic and dangerous nature, coupled with the land around its course, which is often lined with steep cliffs and rock outcrops, particularly in its gorge in West Virginia, it should be no surprise that the river was feared for centuries by the region’s original inhabitants.
It is important to note that despite virtually all scientists agreeing that the New and Kanawha Rivers are the same waterway, the New River’s name changes to Kanawha at the location the smaller Gauley River empties into the New, approximately 35 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia; and while most rivers typically succeed in bringing various peoples together across vast geographic spreads, the New / Kanawha River has historically served as a separator of people rather than as a uniter.
A young surveyor by the name of George Washington was the first to recognize this when he stated, “people’s faces are naturally turned in the direction of the flow of their rivers,” prophesying roughly a century beforehand that the people of western Virginia, whose rivers largely flow west into the Ohio would eventually divorce themselves from the Tidewater gentry whose faces are turned eastward toward the ocean.
Attempts were made to bridge these two rivers and thus unite the opposite staring peoples by creating a canal that would link the east flowing James River to the northwest flowing Kanawha River; however, the costly endeavor was eventually abandoned in 1851 in Buchanan, Virginia, roughly sixty miles from the New River. Twelve years later, the divorce decree was final.
Fast-forward to the 1950s and 1960s in Fayette County, West Virginia, and the river was again dividing people.
Though little more than 300 ft. wide in the New River Gorge, it wasn’t the horizontal width that was prohibiting free travel from the western bank to the eastern bank, but instead the vertical drop off of the canyon rim overlooking the river.
Over eons of time, the sandy debris and flowing water succeeded in cutting more than 800 feet into the bedrock of the ground, creating a gorge that was nearly impassible.
Though a bridge had been constructed at the bottom of the canyon, near the elevation of the river, reaching this bridge meant descending 800+ feet to reach the bridge, then climbing the other side of the gorge another 800+ feet.
Recognizing the economic affect the separating gorge was having upon the state, two generations ago West Virginia leaders authorized what was at the time the largest highway project in state history to create a bridge linking one side of the Appalachian canyon to the other.
Coming in $4 million over bid, the final construction cost for 88 million pound bridge was $37 million, 70% of which was funded by the federal government.
The result was nothing short of an engineering marvel: The New River Gorge Bridge, which opened in October 1977, is a steel arch bridge 3,030 feet long, spanning the entire width of the 876 ft. tall canyon.
For many years, the New River Gorge Bridge was the world’s longest single-span arch bridge and upon its open, the car ride from one side of the canyon to the other was cut from 45 minutes to 45 seconds.
In 2005, the bridge was forever immortalized when it was placed onto the back of a US quarter, honoring the State of West Virginia.
Today, the bridge serves as a critical piece of national infrastructure, linking traffic from Canada, western New York and Pennsylvania to the South, bragging of more than 16,200 motor vehicles per day, 364 days a year.
One day a year, however, his critical piece of highway is closed to motorists and opened to the public for an event that lives up to West Virginia’s Wild & Wonderful motto.
To commemorate the bridge’s “birthday”, in 1980, West Virginia state and local officials commissioned a most unusual and thrilling festival: Bridge Day.
The first annual event which allowed thrill seekers the opportunity to lawfully parachute from the structure drew more than 40,000 onlookers and solidified itself as being an instant tradition.
In the years that followed, additional activities would be added, including rappelling in 1981, bungee jumping was briefly added in 1992, and later a catapult.
The annual event has been held every year since 1980, except for
October 2001, when fears of the event inviting a terrorist attack in light of 9/11 forced event planners to cancel the West Virginia festival.
Sadly, at least three individuals have died during the Bridge Day festivities: in 1983, an Alabama man drowned when his gear was caught in the current after he made a successful jump.
Four years later, a Pennsylvania man reportedly jumped using gear that was not BASE-specific gear and was killed after he was unable to open his reserve chute in time when his main chute failed to deploy.
During the 2006 festival an early pioneer of BASE jumping was killed when he failed to deploy his parachute in time.
Yet, despite these tragedies, the annual event continues each year and is West Virginia’s largest single-day festival, often showcasing crowds that rival the gameday attendance at West Virginia University’s Mountaineer Field.
Held the third Saturday of every October, daredevils, thrillseekers and curious onlookers gather on the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia to watch something that is truly Wild and Wonderful.
2019 Bridge Day Schedule: Saturday, October 19, 2019, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
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