VA’s Natural Bridge Becomes State Park

By: Kokomo Metzger, 1L
Staff Writer

In late 2016, Natural Bridge became Virginia’s 37th state park. Though Natural Bridge has only recently become a state park, it has been an attraction for as long as people have lived in Virginia. Before settlers discovered the bridge, the local Monacan tribes referred to it as the “Bridge of God.” In 1750, George Washington surveyed the land for Lord Fairfax, and in 1774 Thomas Jefferson bought the property for twenty shillings from King George III to preserve it for public enjoyment. In 1998 Natural Bridge became a National Historic Landmark. The bridge was privately held until 2013, when the property was parceled for auction and the Virginia Conservancy Legacy Fund purchased it. The limestone bridge was originally included on the Seven Natural Wonders of the World list and experts estimate the limestone bridge is approximately 500 million years old.

Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge was once considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world. | Photography by Kokomo Metzger

Despite the bridge’s storied history, until last year, neither the state nor the federal government owned it. Recently, the park had been financially struggling in private hands. Its owner, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, originally had very noble intentions for the bridge, but due to a lack of experience, was unable to maintain bill payments and faced foreclosure. Prior to the late September transfer to the state, the VCLF owned all property rights to Natural Bridge and the requisite property. In order to save the park from private ownership and promote the area’s economy, the VCLF partnered with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. According to Natural Bridge attorney and W&L Law alum Astrika Wilhelm, the ultimate goal is to transfer the bridge and corresponding land to the state park system, which will be better equipped to promote and evaluate data relevant to the preservation of the landmark.

Natural Bridge and the other various titles and land involved are still owned by the Virginia Legacy Conservancy Legacy Fund, which will continue in ownership until it pays off the nearly $9 million debt it incurred purchasing the property in 2013. It expects to fulfill its financial obligation anywhere from 8–10 years from now. As of right now, the Virginia State Park System is managing the property. One of the new managerial changes is a price cut—now $8 for adults—and new signs on I-81 advertising the park. The gift shop also carries Virginia State Park merchandise and may soon feature wine from all of Virginia’s 250 wineries.

“Gift shop and ticket sales are going to manage the park. Once the principle and interests of the loan are eliminated, then the state park system will be the legal owner of the bridge and corresponding property,” said Wilhelm. “This unique relationship came about with the goal of getting the hotel and the park out of foreclosure. The two parties were able to work together to keep what is a historic and environmentally important place up and running.”

The Natural Bridge Hotel and nearby caverns will remain under the private ownership of the VCLF.

One potential legal snafu with the transfer of ownership concerns Natural Bridge’s nightly light show. Titled the “Drama of Creation,” the show is based off the book of Genesis. It may not be appropriate for a light show based on a religious text to be a nightly ritual for a state-owned park. But for now, the light show will continue. Until the nearly $9 million debt is settled, the park is owned by the Virginia Conservancy Legacy Fund, not the state. Further assurance was given that the show would be held after the state park closed and proceeds from the ticket sales for the event would not commingle with state funds.

While the future of the park is not yet written in (lime) stone, it does look bright. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has the infrastructure to keep the park from going under. The state park system has developed a business plan estimating revenue will grow from approximately $2 million this year to $3 million in four years. The past few years have been tumultuous ones for Natural Bridge, but Thomas Jefferson’s dream of preserving this marvel for the public and future generations seems like it is still alive.

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