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Previous story West Virginia's New River Gorge is breathtaking and full of wonder Next story
Published on April 29, 2021 8:21 AM

by Aubra Salt - The Oregon Herald

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US National Parks are for everyone Was the world's longest single-span arch bridge for 26 years; now the fifth longest
Last year, West Virginia's New River Gorge became the state's first national park and preserve and the 63rd national park in the nation.

It's just a one word change -- but those who fought for the new designation say it could make all the difference for the local tourism economy.

Two other national parks -- one of the youngest, and one of the oldest -- have lessons for the future of the New River Gorge.

Three years ago, the Indiana Dunes Lakeshore was in the exact same position as West Virginia's New River Gorge. Congress had just approved a national park designation for its fifteen miles of ecologically diverse beaches along Lake Michigan.

The new name brought a lot of popularity that surprised the park staff.

"It was really amazing how much the name change meant to so many people out there, said Bruce Rowe, chief interpretive ranger.

The New River Gorge Bridge is a steel arch bridge 3,030 feet long over the New River Gorge near Fayetteville, West Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. With an arch 1,700 feet long, the New River Gorge Bridge was the world's longest single-span arch bridge for 26 years; it is now the fifth longest. Part of U.S. Route 19, its construction marked the completion of Corridor L of the Appalachian Development Highway System. An average of 16,200 motor vehicles cross the bridge each day. The roadway of the New River Gorge Bridge is 876 feet above the New River, making the bridge one of the highest vehicular bridges in the world; it is the third highest in the United States. When completed in 1977, it was the world's highest bridge carrying a regular roadway, a title it held until the 2001 opening of the Liuguanghe Bridge in China. Because of its height, the bridge has attracted daredevils since its construction. It is now the centerpiece of the annual 'Bridge Da'y, during which hundreds of people, with appropriate equipment, are permitted to climb on or jump from the bridge. In 2005, the structure gained additional attention when the US Mint issued the West Virginia state quarter with the bridge depicted on one side. In 2013, the bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Construction began on the bridge in June 1974, and was completed on October 22, 1977. The bridge was designed by the Michael Baker Company under the direction of Chief Engineer Clarence V. Knudsen, and executed by U.S. Steel's American Bridge Division. The final cost of construction was $37 million . It was approximately $4 million, or $13 million in 2019 dollars, over bid. It is made from COR-TEN steel. The use of COR-TEN in construction presented several challenges; notable among them was ensuring that the weld points weathered at the same rate as the rest of the steel.

At the time, the bridge was the West Virginia Department of Highways' largest project in its history, important both in terms of its overall cost, and that the federal government provided 70 percent of the funding. Construction gave a boost to the state and local economy; completion improved transportation. The bridge cut the vehicle travel time from one side of the gorge to the other from about 45 minutes to 45 seconds.

On August 14, 2013, the bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Even though it was not yet 50 years old, it was listed for its exceptional impact on local transportation and its engineering significance.

At time of construction, the New River Gorge Bridge's arch made it the longest steel arch bridge in the world, a title it held until 2003 with the construction of China's Shanghai's Lupu Bridge. It is currently the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third highest bridge in the country. Though the bridge itself employs a fairly conventional design, its construction represents a number of construction achievements. The engineers and ironworkers overcame major obstacles due to its enormous scale and the then-remote Appalachian location. The New River Gorge Bridge is located in a once remote area of West Virginia just north of Fayetteville in Fayette County, West Virginia. The bridge is situated in the northern section of the 53-mile long New River Gorge National River – a unit of the National Park Service – and is surrounded by lush Appalachian Mountain forest. It carries U.S. Route 19 across the deep gorge of the New River which runs 876 feet below. A rail line runs along each side of the river at the bottom of the gorge while Fayette Station Road winds its way down the steep terrain and under the bridge on both the north and south sides.

The bridge is a continuous-span, open-spandrel, arch truss bridge constructed of steel. The overall length of the bridge is 3,030 feet, 6 inches and the arch, the longest steel arch in the United States2 , measures 1,700 feet. The width of the bridge is 73 feet 5 inches to the outside of the parapet walls. In total, the massive structure weighs in at 88 million pounds including 21,000 tons of structural steel, 1,700 tons of reinforcing steel, 17,000 cubic yards of substructure concrete, and 6,000 cubic yards of superstructure concrete.

The bridge includes four 12 foot vehicular lanes, a 6 foot 10 inch median with barrier, and two 8 foot wide shoulders with safety parapets. All structural steel for the bridge is 'COR-TEN B,' a weathering steel that rusts when exposed to the elements for several years and eliminates the need for painting. Its chemical makeup also increases its resistance to corrosion. High-strength bolts, conforming to the standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials, were used in connections.

The bridge was not only an engineering feat but also a great improvement for the economy and lives of local residents. The drive across the gorge at this location was reduced from a 45 minute drive on winding and often treacherous roads to less than a minute. Once it opened to regular traffic, the bridge completed the link to connect areas north and south of the gorge. Traffic along the route increased 140 percent with the opening of the bridge.

The bridge opening had almost an immediate impact. For example, by April 1978, one trucking company reported an estimated savings in fuel and wages of approximately $3000 a day by cutting off 500 miles a week. Area hospitals located south of the bridge reported an increase in patients from north of the gorge including a 21% increase at Oak Hill Hospital, located about 15 minutes south of the gorge. Without the New River Gorge Bridge, such a trip would have taken about an hour. Prior to its opening, patients north of the gorge found it faster to get to Montgomery or Charleston for their health care needs.

Every fall since 1980 festival goers converge on the small community to attend Bridge Day, the only day of the year when it is legal to walk on, as well as jump and rappel from the bridge. The festival has grown from its humble beginnings with five parachutists and a few thousand onlookers to welcome an average of 80,000 spectators every year watching nearly 400 B.A.S.E. jumpers and 300 rappellers.