By Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin
Whether you’ve driven across the New River Gorge Bridge, admired a photo of the iconic structure, walked the span during Bridge Day, or held a West Virginia quarter that bears its image in your hand – the bridge has captured the attention of many near and far with its grandeur and majestic views. Earlier this month, the National Park Service listed the bridge in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant historic resource.
A symbol of our state’s ability to transform a challenge into a magnificent architectural achievement, the New River Gorge Bridge was an engineering feat. When construction began, never before had a steel arch bridge spanned such a distance. As Clarence “Spud” Chandler said of the bridge he helped to construct, “It was a big deal. It was the greatest project in the United States at the time.” Today, many years later, it remains one of the greatest national infrastructure projects.
For many years following its opening in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge remained the longest steel arch bridge in the world and, today, it is still the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States. At almost 900 feet above the New River, it is the third highest bridge in the nation. To construct the bridge, engineers and ironworkers overcame not only geographic obstacles, but frigid winter temperatures, strong winds and sweltering days to build this now historic structure.
Back in the late 1970’s the bridge’s construction was so much more than a scenic drive. As many in the area recall, the New River Gorge Bridge replaced the Fayette Station Bridge, which was built in 1889 – connecting Fayette and South Fayette with a commute that took more than 40 minutes. Following the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, the commute was reduced to less than a minute. Today, the bridge is a vital link – connecting nearby communities and continuing to provide access to the state’s highway system.
The New River Gorge Bridge means a little something different to each of us. For me, it’s a symbol of perseverance and beauty. It tells a story of our history and shows, like Spud Chandler said, West Virginia can make big projects successful.