Jefferson’s Bridge

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

Today being the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to think about how the author of the Declaration of Independence felt about nature. A revealing example involves some land Jefferson owned between Lexington and Roanoke, which he sought to preserve.

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.  Today, the land is Natural Bridge State Park, about a two-hour drive from Richmond. The 1500 acre park also contains forest, meadows, and hiking trails.   Hopefully, visitors to the park will avoid Jefferson’s violent headache and instead share his experience of the sublime.

This is an updated and revised version of a post from July 4, 2016.  In the intervening time, after some financial difficulties, the land containing the bridge has become a state park.


Reader Comments

9 Replies to “Jefferson’s Bridge”

  1. Thanks for this post, Dan. Among my earliest memories are family visits to what we called “Natural Bridge,” — Mr. Jefferson’s Bridge.

    John Davidson

    1. Heh, heh. I posted the link having read the post, sans image, directly from the email notification. Didn’t see that you’d already included the image!

  2. My Grandmother and her sister used to a week each summer at Natural Bridge. My Dad and Grandad would drive them up. My sister and I went along. We walked the path under the bridge, swam in the indoor pool, and played games in the arcade. After a meal in the cafeteria, great for kids, we drove home, and usually fell asleep in the back seat. It was always a great adventure.

  3. Dan, thanks for reminding us that Thomas Jefferson was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, especially this 4th of July which may well be our last as a nation with “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” because our politicians and intellectuals have failed to protect our unalienable rights from a “Deny, Delay and Death” dictator who rules our country today.

  4. Dan, it is hard to believe that Jefferson and his fellow founders warned us in their Declaration of Independence about the fallability of democracy, and today in 2021 we are losing it because one of our political parties is proving that they can commit an insurrection against our Capitol and our Democracy, and they can away with it, unless the democrats learn how to protect us in time.

    However, it is also hard to believe that we are now experiencing the Pacific Northwest Heat Dome because we failed to heed the warnings of the 2006 “Global Warning” special issue of CALIFORNIA Magazine with a cover story warning like “Can We Adapt in Time”:

    As Will and Ariel Durant most gravely warned us, one of the most important Lessons of History ever: When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.

    So today, on July 4, 2021, we are not only in grave jeopardy of failing to adapt in time twice, but we failed to learn from the Lessons of History, and time may have indeed run out.

    God Help our newest generations because the failures of our generations may have totally failed to provide them with an acceptable quality of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

  5. P.S. Dan, current events now prove beyond all doubt, the most Inconvenient Truth is that while our generations enjoyed the legacies of The Greatest Generation that gave us the best opportunities for Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness in the history of the human race, our generations allowed greed and hate to control the actions of far too many of our political leaders plus the fact that far too many intellectual leaders “— don’t want to take on the sort of of complications and impurities that come with being public” (per Hofstadter as quoted by Dirks in CALIFORNIA Magazine) to inform, educate and motivate the public that prevented us from producing and perpetuating an acceptable legacy for our newest generations. I wonder what Jefferson and our Founding Fathers would think about that ultimate failure in American Democracy.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more