Mr. Jefferson’s Bridge

Anticipating modern environmental views, Jefferson viewed nature as a public trust.

This being the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to talk about Jefferson’s relationship with nature. A revealing example involves some land he owned between Lexington and Roanoke.  Two years before the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land  from the King.  He bought the land because it contained a remarkable feature — a 200-foot natural bridge carved out of the rock by a small stream.  Jefferson had first seen the bridge seven years earlier when he was doing research for his book, Notes on the State of Virginia.  A small cabin was built there, and the visitors book contains such names as Marshall, Monroe, Clay, Benton, Jackson, Van Buren, and Sam Houston.

Jefferson described the bridge at length in his book on Virginia, where he called it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” In terms of the experience of seeing the bridge, he had this to say:

“Though the sides of this bridge are provided in some parts with a parapet of fixed rocks, yet few men have resolution to walk to them and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ach[e]. If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from below is delightful in an equal extreme. 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, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!” 

At one point, in desperate financial straits, Jefferson tried to sell the land, but he later thought better of the idea. In an 1815 letter, Jefferson wrote  that he now had “no idea of selling the land. I view it in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced or masked from public view.”  This is a noteworthy early appearance of the idea of that we hold nature in trust for the public, not for private gain.

In 1998, the bridge was designated as a National Historic Landmark. In 2014, owners reached a complicated agreement with a land trust with the aim of ultimately converting it into a state park.  The plan ran into financial trouble the following year, but by March of this year, the financial issues seemed to have eased.  As of late June, the plan was to turn over management of the land to the state this Fall.  Hopefully, visitors to the park will avoid Jefferson’s violent headache and instead share his experience of the sublime..