New River Gorge Bridge

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New River Gorge Bridge
Fayetteville, West Virginia, United States
876 feet high / 267 meters high
1,700 foot span / 518 meter span
1977


A monumental steel arch built on a grand scale not often seen in bridge construction, the New River Gorge bridge in the U.S. state of West Virginia opened in 1977 as the highest and longest arch bridge in the world with a height of 876 feet (267 mtrs) and a main span of 1,700 feet (518 mtrs). Several Chinese bridges eroded these records away, first in 2001 when the Beipanjiang railway arch bridge opened with a greater height of 902 feet (275 mtrs) and then in 2003 when the Lupu arch bridge opened in Shanghai with a longer main span of 1,804 feet (550 mtrs). Then in 2009, China finally opened an even higher 4-lane road arch in the form of the Zhijinghe bridge with a deck 965 feet (294 mtrs) above the water - 90 feet (27 mtrs) higher then the West Virginia span.

Built at a cost of 37 million dollars, the bridge was designed by the large engineering firm of Michael Baker, Jr. and constructed by the legendary American Bridge Company. The massive span itself was built by using a highline with two 330 foot (101 mtr) tall towers some 3,500 feet (1,067 mtrs) apart. Cable stays anchored into a temporary “deadman” on either side of the canyon held the two halves in place until the arch was closed. Abandoned coal mine shafts just above the massive arch foundations on both sides of the gorge were filled with grout to prevent the possibility of unwanted ground settlement. The most unusual design element of the bridge was the decision to use a special type of steel that develops a brown colored rust coating that naturally protects the steel. It saves the West Virginia Department of Transportation a million dollars for every time they would have had to paint the bridge as well as giving the span a natural, rugged look that blends into the tree-filled surroundings. The tapered, vertical spandrel piers are another pleasing detail as they add a lightness to the structure as well as saving weight. Before the arch design was chosen, there were other bridge types considered for the 3,030 foot (924 mtr) long gap including a suspension bridge, a jackknife truss-arch and a continuous truss that is interesting for having a 500 foot (152 mtr) tall pier that would have been the highest in the United States. Luckily, the best design prevailed and West Virginia became the proud owners of one of the largest and most beautiful bridge structures in the world.

The New River Gorge is special in that it is the only high bridge in the world to be celebrated precisely because of its height. Every year on the 3rd Saturday of October, an official “Bridge Day” is held and the span is completely closed to vehicles. Nearly 200,000 people are then allowed to walk on the bridge for a one day festival that is centered around the spectacular view of the New River and BASE jumping. This marriage of bridge and thrill sport began back in 1979 and 1980 when several parachuters made renegade jumps off the bridge. Then in 1981, after negotiations with state Governor Rockefeller, it was legally allowed for the first time ever during the 5th annual Bridge Day with 5 jumpers taking the leap on Saturday, November 8th. By 1983, the number of registered BASE jumpers exceeded 200 before doubling to approximately 400 by 1985. Over the years, several jumpers have died below the bridge, most notably 66 year old Brian Schubert during the 2007 Bridge Day. Schubert was legendary in the BASE community for taking one of the first known BASE jumps off of the rock wall “El Capitan” in California’s Yosemite National Park in 1966. Bridge Day is the largest BASE jumping event in the world. The only other legal span open to jumpers is the Perrine bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho where BASE jumping is allowed every day of the year.

The importance of Bridge Day and its effect on the sport of BASE jumping was recently described by BASE jumper Nick DiGiovanni.

"To those of us that have been around for a while it's easy to see what a gem Bridge Day was and still is. And probably how different this sport would have developed without it. These early Bridge Days, since they were legal and accessible to the masses, were the breeding grounds for hundreds, if not thousands, of future BASE jumpers. And without these new BASE jumpers, the fledgling BASE gear manufacturers would have faced a much smaller market for their products and probably would have all folded up before they really got going.

Over the years we've seen it all at Bridge Day. We've seen BASE jumpers hauled off by federal agents at the rail. We've seen fights and arguments between BASE jumpers and Rangers and between BASE jumpers themselves. "Meet me at Bridge Day, you f**king bonehead," was a popular challenge between BASE jumpers back in those days. We've seen the registration fare rise from the $15 it was the first year I attended in 1985 to the $85 it is now. We've seen ourselves run Bridge Day with almost no outside support to the armed camp it's become now. (In the early days if we needed an ambulance we had to get on the phone and call one).

Over the years we've seen everything from weddings to bungee jumps, spectacular flights to spectacular mishaps. We've seen the brave, the foolish, and the just plain lucky. In the early days you could lean on the rail for an hour and see every BASE jumping mistake that's possible to make. One year I looked over at Moe Viletto and said, "Man, this place is a freaking F-One-Eleven laboratory!". His reply was, "Oh man, good thing this is a bridge and not a building. We'd need a giant squeegee to scrape off all the remains." We've seen countless river saves and a wingsuit make it pretty much all the way to the sand bar in freefall.

I'd say it was in the early 90s when things began to change for the better, skill wise, at Bridge Day. We went from putting on a circus to putting on a show. We went from first timers, and yes, even some experienced BASE jumpers, going ass over tea kettle to something that even folks who'd never seen a BASE jump before would call, "in control."

But there is one thing that never changes at Bridge Day. It's the joy and enthusiasm first timers feel after a successful leap. I've been to every kind of skydiving/BASE party you can imagine, but the Saturday night Bridge Day parties are, hands down, always the best of them all."

Experienced bridge rappellers are also a major fixture on Bridge Day, ascending and descending 700 feet (213 mtrs) from a catwalk on the underside of the road deck. There are many other events that go on during the Bridge Day weekend. If you plan to go, be sure to check out the latest schedule on the official web site at http://www.officialbridgeday.com/index.html. Detailed BASE jump information including registration, maps, rules, videos, a forum and more can be accessed at http://www.vertical-visions.com/.



New River Gorge Bridge Elevation


Image by N. Mueller.


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Aerial Image courtesy of Tracy Toler.


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by John Mueller.


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


The Tunney Hunsaker truss bridge lies just upstream from the arch. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


In 1992, a GMC truck commercial was filmed at the New River Gorge bridge with a vehicle being dropped over the side with a massive bungee cord attached. You can see a video of the commercial here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_dXgp4dpAE



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