FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- Though only 36 years old, West Virginia's iconic New River Gorge Bridge has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places as an engineering achievement of national significance.
The National Park Service certified the listing of the span on the National Register on Aug. 14.
"Generally, for something to be listed, it has to be at least 50 years old," said Erin Riebe, national register coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office. "If it's less than 50, it has to meet extra criteria demonstrating that it is of exceptional significance."
Riebe, the author of the bridge's 46-page nomination document, said getting the bridge on the National Register of Historic Places has been a goal of hers since moving to West Virginia 10 years ago and stopping to look at the span with her husband.
"Driving over the bridge, then getting out to admire it from the overlook, was an awe-inspiring experience," she said. "But it's not until you drive down under the bridge, as I did in May, and look at it from below that you understand the enormity of what the engineers and ironworkers went through to design and construct it."
Riebe got an even closer look at the underside of the span in May, when she toured the bridge with SHPO photographer Tyler Evert and Benjy Simpson of Bridge Walk LLC, the company that offers tours of the bridge from an 876-foot-high catwalk beneath the bridge deck.
"I contacted Benjy Simpson with the intention of just walking under one end of the bridge and snapping a few pictures, but he and Tyler convinced me I would regret it if I didn't go across on the catwalk. They were right. It was an awesome experience."
According to the nomination document written by Riebe, Division of Highways engineers initially looked at having four lanes of Appalachian Corridor L (U.S. 19) descend one slope of the New River Gorge and ascend the other, crossing the river at the base of the canyon. But that approach proved too costly.
A suspension bridge was considered for crossing the rim of the Gorge, and could have been built within a realistic price range. But that approach would have required construction of 300- to 350-foot-high bridge towers at both rims, posing hazards to aircraft, and the plan was scrapped.
An eight-span truss bridge was also considered structurally feasible, but would have required extremely high -- and expensive -- support piers. It, too, was rejected.
A steel arch bridge was considered the best solution to solving the problem of crossing the rim of the Gorge, and a design team at Michael Baker Jr., Inc., spent the equivalent of one man working 15 years to come up with its final design.
In June of 1973, U.S. Steel Corporation's American Bridge Division submitted the winning bid of $34 million for the project. ABD's bid was 26 percent under state estimates, and $7 million less than the next-lowest bidder. Even so, the project was the most expensive ever undertaken by the Division of Highways at the time.
Work began within weeks, starting with the development of access roads and clearing trees and brush from the construction site. Deep voids from old underground coal mines were discovered under the planned sites for two bridge piers, and were filled by pumping a sand and concrete grouting mix through 6-inch holes.
Simpson put Riebe in contact with Clarence "Spud" Chandler of Charleston, who was in on the construction of the bridge from the beginning, starting as a 21-year-old apprentice for the Ironworkers union, and putting in enough hours on the span to qualify as a journeyman.