New River Gorge Bridge: Steel That Continues to Inspire

Until 2003, the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia had the largest arch bridge span in the world. Before that, throughout the 1900s, all the world’s longest arch bridges were in America. One material remained constant in all these bridges—steel. The versatility and speed of steel construction combined with steel’s durability makes it the consistent top choice of bridge builders. It’s easy to use steel in bridges since it’s relatively lightweight and only requires a shallow foundation. This minimizes the costs of underground substructures, while maximizing the possible size of the aboveground portion. Even with a shallow foundation, steel bridges don’t topple easily. This is a useful aspect of steel construction, particularly when the bridge must be built over wet, marshy ground.

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The New River Gorge Bridge is set high above the river, so marshy ground is not an issue. Before the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, travel time from one side of the gorge to the other took forty-five minutes. After construction, that time was cut to forty-five seconds. When the American Bridge Division of U. S. Steel began construction, they built towers on either side of the gorge and strung cables between them. They then sent trolleys across to precisely position the first steel elements.

Over thirty-five years after its construction, the steel bridge is still a commanding presence high above the river. It remains one of the most photographed places in the state, and was even used on the West Virginia state quarter to represent the area. Last year it was granted a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Tourists continue to visit the bridge, especially on Bridge Day, a local festival celebrating the bridge.  During the festival, bridge traffic is redirected and pedestrians are invited to hike across the bridge on foot.

The high vantage point from atop the bridge has inspired many extreme sports enthusiasts to join together for the festival. Part of the yearly festival includes BASE jumping, rappelling, and ascending. This has become the largest extreme sports event in the world.

Visitors whose nerves are not quite up to participating in extreme sports can hike beneath the bridge year round. The steel catwalk slung beneath the bridge offers magnificent views. All are invited to cross the two feet wide walkway with the aid of a guide and safety harness. The safety harnesses protect the visitors from their own missteps; the bridge itself remains strong and stable, decades after construction.

Steel has remained a popular bridge building material for many years. The long lasting durability of the material combined with a pleasing aesthetic endears it not just to thrifty builders, but also to the community it appears in. While the original builders of the New River Gorge Bridge benefitted from the low cost of construction, subsequent generations continue to enjoy the majestic steel structure.