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"Highest bridge east of the Mississippi"

New River Gorge Bridge is the second highest bridge in the U.S., rising 876 feet above the New River in West Virginia. Only the Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River in Colorado is higher at 1,053 feet. The New River Gorge Bridge is also the second longest single arch steel span in the world. The bridge's arch is 1700 feet long. The Lupu Bridge in Shanghai, which opened in June 2003, is longer by about 100 feet.

The bridge opened to traffic on October, 22 1977 and was the final step in the completion of Corridor L in the Appalachian Regional Commission highway system. Corridor L is a 70 mile stretch of US Highway 19 located between Exit 48 of Interstate 77 to Exit 57 of I-79 near Sutton, WV. The bridge began to attract attention while it was still under construction which began in June 1974.

The bridge was designed by the Michael Baker Jr., Inc. and built by the American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel. Michael Baker Jr., Inc. was retained as the construction manager for the duration of the project. Three different designs were submitted including a suspension bridge plan but they were too costly.The support piers required would be almost 900 feet high. That would be taller than most skyscrapers. The final design was a steel arch with thirteen verticle supports between the arch and the bridge deck. These arch towers ranged from 26 to 305 feet in height.

"A bridge to build a bridge"

The New River gorge is similar to the Grand Canyon, on a smaller scale of course. It has steep sides and is very deep. An ingenious plan was devised at the start of construction to address the challenging topography. Four 300 ft. high towers were erected, two on each side of the valley. A helicopter was used to connect a 5000 ft. long half inch diameter cable across the valley and over the towers. Once the cable was across, a thicker cable was attached and pulled back. This process was continued until there was a three inch dia. cable strung across the valley between the towers and securely attached on each side. Several more cables were connected to the towers. It resembled the initial construction of a suspension bridge with parallel sets of cables draped across the canyon but these cableways provided a way to transport building materials out over the valley. Each cableway could support a 50 ton load and together they could carry 100 tons.

The structural steel was fabricated by Foster Creighton Company. Each piece of steel had a tolerance of 1/100th of an inch. With requirements this exact each section of the bridge was assembled in Foster Creighton's shop and then taken apart before shipment to the job. If there were any problems with the steel fitting together, it would be easier to fix it there than at the job. The steel members were sent by railroad to a station 19 miles from the job. They were then loaded onto truck trailers and then carried through the rough terrain on the north side of the valley to the construction site. It was stored there until needed and then hoisted to the superstructure level by the cable hoist above.

Cor-ten steel was used for the structural members. It would not require painting, another cost savings, since it develops a coating of rust that actually protects the steel inside. However after the bridge was done, there were some areas where water would lay for long periods of time on the steel. The highway department would spread salt on the bridge during snow storms. During an inspection it was discovered that salt had caused some damage to the structural steel and the pools of water. Specialty Groups, Inc. was hired to remove the salt accumulation with high pressure water sprayers. They removed a large number of birds nests and sealed up many of the places where water was getting through the deck.

While the hillside was being cleared, the foundations had to be completed. But it was discovered that there was an old mine tunnel under the location where one of the main bridge supports would be. That was filled with a mixture of gravel and concrete to stablize the ground. As the arch was being erected, the steel workers needed a way to support the steel sections until it was connected in the middle. American Bridge came up with an idea. Cables were attached to the ends of the incomplete arch and attached to the end of the bridge that was partially done above. The two ends were built slightly higher in the middle so that they could slowly be lowered into place for a snug fit.

When the arch was complete the 13 verticle arch towers were installed. They would distribute the load from the deck to the arch to the support foundations. Additional reinforced concrete was used on the deck as a counterweight to limit motion due to wind and varying loads from traffic. Traffic over the bridge averaged about 2800 vehicles per day the first couple of years. It averaged over 10,000 per day through the 1990s and is expected to double in the next few years.

Bridge Day

One of the beneficial tourist attractions to come from the new bridge is bridge day. On the third sunday in October, near the anniversary of the opening, the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic to allow people to jump off the bridge. BASE jumping off of the bridge is permitted, as well as bungee jumping, rappelling, and parasailing. Thousands of spectators come to watch the participants and enjoy the other activities. Food vendors set up stands and souvenir stands go up and musicians are playing and as many as 250,000 people gather. Bridge day has grown to the largest one day event in West Virginia.

The first person to jump off the bridge was Burton Ervin, a coal mine foreman from Cowen, WV. He went off the bridge on August 1, 1979 at 10:20 p.m. with about 200 spectators watching from beside the river below. His round chute opened at about 700 feet and he successfully landed in the water below. Getting out of the water could be just as critical as a successful landing. The first person to be killed going off the bridge died from drowning when he didn't release his parachute in time after landing in the river and was dragged under by the strong current. There was a rescue boat but it was occupied with other jumpers. Today no one is permitted to jump unless there is a rescue boat available and ready to go. Two other people died in later years. One was a bandit jumper who went off in 1986, but not on bridge day, and also drowned. A third didn't pull his chute open in time.

The first legal bridge day was in 1981, although a few jumpers had gone off before then. The story is that a group of skydivers were hired to jump into John D Rockefeller's inauguration at the state capitol. They asked the new governor if they could jump off the bridge on the next "bridge day." The rest is history. There were five jumpers the first year, 30 the next year, 100 the year after that and by 1984 there were 350. The number of spectators grew each year too. The number of participating jumpers hasn't grown much past 500 each year but the number of spectators has grown to 250,000.

White water rafting is a popular activity on the New River and the nearby Gauley River. There are several rafting businesses that offer daytrips down the river for all levels of experience. Hikers can access many hiking trails from the Canyon Rim Boardwalk next to the bridge a couple dozen other trails in the area of which 70,000 acres has been designated as New River Gorge National River. Some of the longer trails allow mountain bikes.

Regional Landmark

In the spring of 2002, the New River Gorge Bridge and the West Virginia Interstate were selected as the top two transportation infrastructure projects of the twentieth century by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association of Washington, D.C.. When they bridge opened it reduced what was once a 40 minute trip down narrow winding roads through the gorge to a one minute trip across the bridge. It wasn't long before southbound vacationers discovered a short cut through West Virginia that saved them 45 minutes. They could by-pass Charleston via I-79 and a short 20 mile stretch of the WV Turnpike and catch a glipse of the bridge as well. Coming back from Florida in the early 1980s my brother insisted that we stop at the New River Gorge Bridge on the Rt. 19 shortcut. We pulled into the Canyon Rim Visitor's Center and walked down about a hundred steps to an observation deck. From there you can appreciate the spectacular magnitude of the arch and appreciate the depth of the valley. It was one of West Virginia's best kept secrets then. Watch out for the speed trap in Summersville north of the bridge. They are very strict there.

When the bridge opened in 1977 Governor John D. Rockefeller IV had an open house. Two of the four lanes were closed so visitors could walk out onto the bridge and experience a view that could not be experienced riding in a vehicle at 55 MPH. Who knew then that this gathering would grow into the annual event that it has?


Sources:
New River Gorge Bridge (http://filebox.vt.edu/users/rkoors/Index.htm)
New River Gorge Bridge (http://www.nps.gov/neri/bridge.htm)
Bridge Day History (http://members.citynet.net/skydiver/)
New River Gorge Bridge (US-19 Corridor L) (http://www.roadstothe future.com/New_River_Gorge_Br.html)
New River Gorge Bridge & Interstate Highway System Selected... (http://www.artba.org/news/press_releases/2002/04-04-02.htm)

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