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New River Gorge Bridge officially historic at age 36

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.

Working on the bridge "was a big deal, the greatest project in the United States at the time," Chandler told Riebe, according to an article prepared for a State Historic Preservation Office newsletter.

"He talked about taking a dip in the New River in the hot summers and how their lunches froze in the winter," Riebe said. "He also recalled the day the cable towers collapsed and described an accident when one worker died and several others were injured."

When asked whether the height of his work site bothered him, he replied, "Not really. The steel was 3-feet wide."

"The part about being listed on the National Register that excites me the most is that it honors the men who worked on the bridge," Riebe said. "I don't think they've been fully appreciated."

When the bridge was completed in 1977, it was the world's longest steel arch bridge -- a title it held until 2003, when the Lupu Bridge over the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China, opened for traffic. The New River Gorge Bridge remains America's longest steel arch bridge and the third-highest span in the nation.

Completion of the bridge and Appalachian Corridor L/U.S. 19 created a four-lane link between Interstate 79 near Sutton and Interstate 77 at Beckley, giving north/south through drivers a 45-mile-long shortcut in passing through West Virginia. The shortcut makes possible the fastest driving route between Toronto and Miami.

For drivers in the Fayetteville area, completion of the bridge reduced the 45-minute drive required to cross the Gorge by narrow country road and the Fayette Station Bridge to a drive of less than one minute over the new span. Though Corridor L/U.S. 19 was not complete when the bridge opened, traffic along the route increased 140 percent shortly after the bridge opened, and an area trucking company reported saving $3,000 a day in fuel and wages by creating the shortcut.

Fayetteville's population increased 38 percent between 1970 and 1980, while Raleigh County's population rose 24 percent during the same period, due at least in part to the new bridge's presence.

The bridge continues to receive praise from the construction and design communities. In 2006, the trade magazine Roads & Bridges

listed the New River Gorge Bridge as one of ten "Top All-Time Bridges," along with the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. Last year, Architectural Digest

included the Fayette County span on its list of "Ten Remarkable U.S. Bridges" for combining monumental design, feats of engineering and the natural beauty of the landscape.

The bridge was chosen to represent West Virginia on the 2005 state quarter, and on a 2011 U.S. Postal Service stamp.

Each year, at least 80,000 people, including 400 BASE jumpers, converge on the span to celebrate Bridge Day, a tribute to the New River Gorge Bridge's significance to the state.

"Really, it's the one historic resource that represents West Virginia today," said Riebe. "I'm excited to see it getting the recognition it deserves." Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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