There are pieces of art from the antebellum era that capture a romance that is impossible to find today. While Hermann Meyer’s work was just one from that time period, it offers a portrayal of the Natural Bridge that I appreciate most. Of course, what it portrays is a time before European arrival in the Valley of Virginia (note the Native American’s targeting deer, on the opposite side of the creek). I’m particularly drawn to rapid, babbling creek, flowing under the archway.
One of the great stories to come from Natural Bridge was written by William Alexander Caruthers, in 1838… five years after Meyer’s image was published.
CLIMBING THE NATURAL BRIDGE.
BY THE ONLY SURVIVING WITNESS OF THAT EXTRAORDINARY FEAT.
I have some reason to believe, that I am the only surviving witness of that most adventurous exploit of climbing the Natural Bridge in Virginia; and believing that the particulars ought to be put upon record, I have selected the KNICKERBOCKER as the medium. I have oftentimes, and for many years, withstood repeated solicitations to do this, for the following reasons, which I give, lest it might be supposed, by some suspicious persons, that I had waited for the death of the other alleged witnesses.
Immediately after the adventure had been accomplished, and while all the circumstances were fresh in my memory, I recorded them in a sort of journal, kept to record visitors’ names, by poor Patrick Henry, a man of color, who kept the Bridge. This record was referred to by Patrick, whenever a visitor became inquisitive about the circumstances. Some believed my statement, and others disbelieved it; but by far from being pleasant, to one who had never had his veracity doubted before. But this was not all.
I happened to be at the Bridge, some time after the event, when a large company of respectable-looking ladies and gentlemen had just returned from under the Bridge, and were waiting dinner, like myself, at the house on the summit, to which I have alluded. The conversation, among this company, naturally turned upon the remarkable event, as it does to this day; and the book was referred to, as usual, for the particulars. I immediately gave Patrick the hint that I wished to remain incog., in order that I might hear for myself the remarks upon my testimony. It is an old saying, that a listener never hears any good of himself, and so it turned out on this occasion. The company were unanimous in discrediting my testimony, ladies and all. Little did they imagine that the man himself was ensconced in a corner of the same room with themselves. I forthwith determined to volunteer no more testimony about things so out of the common current of events; at all events, I determined to hold my peace, until the public mind should settle down into the truth, as it generally does at last.
That time seems to have arrived. The public, without an exception, so far as I know, has yielded its credence to the united testimony of so many witnesses. Scarcely a periodical in the country, or a book of travels, but mentions the subject.
But there is another reason for coming forward at this time. Tradition has got hold of the story at the wrong end. In the very last number of your Magazine [See Knickerbocker Magazine, for May], one of your contributors misrepresents the matter – unintentionally no doubt; and Miss Martineau, in her ‘Retrospect of Western Travel,’ undertakes to detail the whole affair, scarcely one circumstance of which she does correctly. Under these circumstances, I think a discerning public will readily appreciate my true motives in coming out over my own signature; indeed unless I were to do so, it would be useless to say any thing at all.
I think it was in the summer of 1818, that James H. Piper, William Revely, William Wallace, and myself, being then students at Washington College, Virginia, determined to make a jaunt to the Natural Bridge, fourteen miles off. Having obtained permission from the president, we proceeded on our way rejoicing. When we arrived at the bridge, nearly all of us commenced climbing up the precipitous sides, in order to immortalize our names, as usual.
We had not been long thus employed, before we were joined by Robert Penn, of Amherst, then a pupil of the Rev. Samuel Houston’s grammar school, in the immediate neighborhood of the Bridge. Mr. Piper, the hero of the occasion, commenced climbing on the opposite side of the creek from the one by which the pathway ascends the ravine. He began far down the banks of the brook; so far, that we did not know where he had gone, and were only apprized of his whereabout, by his shouting above our heads. When we looked up, he was standing apparently right under the arch, I suppose an hundred feet from the bottom, and that on the smooth side, which is generally considered inaccessible without a ladder. He was standing far above the spot where General Washington is said to have inscribed his name, when a youth.
The ledge of rock by which he ascended to this perilous height, does not appear from below to be three inches wide, and runs almost at right angles to the abutment of the bridge; of course, its termination is far down the cliff, on that side. Many of the written and traditional accounts state this to be the side of the Bridge up which he climbed. I believe Miss Martineau so states; but it is altogether a mistake, as any one may see, by casting an eye up the precipice on that side. The story no doubt originated from this preliminary exploit.
The ledge of rock on which he was standing, appeared so narrow to us below, as to make us believe his position a very perilous one, and we earnestly entreated him to come down. He answered us with loud shouts of derision. At this stage of the business, Mr. Penn and servant left us. He would not have done so, I suppose, if he had known what was to follow; but up to this time, not one of us had the slightest suspicion that Mr. Piper intended the daring exploit which he afterward accomplished. He soon after descended from that side, crossed the brook, and commenced climbing on the side by which all visiters [sic] ascend the ravine. He first mounted the rocks on this side, as he had done on the other – far down the abutment, but not so far as on the opposite side. The projecting ledge may be distinctly seen by any visitor. It commenced four or five feet from the pathway, on the lower side, and winds round, gradually ascending, until it meets the cleft of rock over which the celebrated cedar stump hangs. Following this ledge to its termination, it brought him to about thirty or forty feet from the ground, and placed him between two deep fissures, one on each side of the gigantic column of rock on which the aforementioned cedar stump stands. This column stands out from the Bridge as separate and distinct as if placed there by nature on purpose for an observatory to the wonderful arch and ravine which it over looks. A
huge crack or fissure extends from its base to its summit; indeed it is cracked on both sides, but much more perceptibly on one side than the other. Both these fissures are thickly overgrown with bushes, and numerous roots project into them from the trees growing on the precipice. It was between these, that the before-mentioned ledge conducted him. Here he stopped, pulled off his coat and shoes, and threw them down to me. And this, in my opinion, is a sufficient refutation of the story, so often told, that he went up to inscribe his name, and ascended so high that he found it more difficult to return where he disencumbered himself, but the fact that he did thus prepare so early, and so , and so near the ground, and after he had ascended more than double that height, on the other side, are clear proofs, that to inscribe his name was not, and to climb the bridge was, his object. He had already inscribed his name above Washington himself, more than fifty feet.
Around the face of this huge column, and between the clefts, he now moved, backward and forward, still ascending, as he found convenient foot hold. When he had ascended about one hundred and seventy feet from the earth, and had reached the point where the pillar overhangs the ravine, his heart seemed to fail him! He stopped, and seemed to us to be balancing midway between heaven and earth. We were in dread suspense, expecting every moment to see him dashed to atoms at our feet. We had already exhausted our powers of entreaty, in persuading him to return, but all to no purpose. Now, it was perilous even to speak to him, and very difficult to carry on conversation at all, from the immense height to which he had ascended, and the noise made by the bubbling of the little brook, as it tumbled in tiny cascades over its rocky bed, at our feet. At length he seemed to discover that one of the clefts before-mentioned retreated backward from the overhanging position of the pillar. Into this he sprang at once, and was soon out of sight of danger.
There is not a word of truth in all that story about our hauling him up with ropes, and his fainting away so soon as he landed on the summit. Those acquainted with the localities, will at once perceive its absurdity, for we were beneath the arch, and it is half a mile round to the top, and for the most part up a ragged mountain. Instead of fainting away, Mr. Piper proceeded at once down the hill to meet us, and obtain his hat and shows. We met about half way, and there he laid down for a few moments, to recover himself from his fatigue.
We dined at the tavern of Mr. Donihoo, half way between the Bridge and Lexington, and there we related the whole matter at the dinner table. Mr. Donihoo has since removed to the St. Clair, in Michigan. Mr. Piper was preparing himself for the ministry, in the Presbyterian church, and the president of the college was his spiritual preceptor, as well as his teacher in college. Accordingly he called him up, next morning, to inquire into it, thinking, perhaps, that it was not a very proper exhibition for a student of theology. The reverend president is still alive, and can corroborate my testimony. I mean the Rev. George A. Baxter, D.D., at present the head of the Theological Seminary of Virginia. As to the other witnesses, Mr. Revely afterward became a member of the Legislature of Virginia, and somewhat distinguished, I believe, for a young man; but he unfortunately fell a victim to poison, as I have been informed. Mr. Wallace was then from Richmond, but a native of Scotland, whither he returned soon after. It strikes me that I once heard of his death, but of this I am not certain. He may be still alive, and able to substantiate my statement.
Mr. Piper himself afterward married a daughter of Gen. Alexander Smyth, of Wythe, and was soon after appointed principal of some academy in the West, which he abandoned, however, as he had done the ministry before. The last I heard of him, was during the last summer, when I saw his name registered at one of the Virginia springs. I was told he had become an engineer, and was then engaged in surveying a road between some two of the springs.
I have thus briefly and hastily related every thing about the exploit, which I have any reason to believe will be interesting to the public, either now or heareafter.
William A. Caruthers.
When this appeared in the Knickerbocker, Caruthers having relocated from Lexington (for the second time), had been in Georgia for about a year. At the time, he was also reconstructing his work, The Knights of the Golden Horse-Shoe, a Traditionary Tale of the Cocked Hat Gentry in the Old Dominion, which was lost in a house fire on the eve of his departure from Lexington. The work finally appeared in 1841, the Magnolia; or, Southern Monthly, as Knights of the Golden Horse-Shoe in 1841; the book followed, in 1845.
Caruthers died, after having contracted tuberculosis, in August 1846, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of Saint James Episcopal Church, in Marietta, Georgia.
Though by profession a physician, Caruthers had hoped to achieve note as a writer. Despite his distance from Virginia, it was clear his heart remained in the Valley of Virginia. Following his death, the Southern and Western Literary Messenger and Review noted, “He was a Virginian by birth, and in all his feelings.” Despite his literary efforts, he was not truly appreciated as the originator of the “Virginia novel” until the 1880s.
For more information about Caruther’s life and career, please see the biographical sketch in Encyclopedia Virginia. In the sidebar to the right/bottom, on this blog, I also offer links to a few of his published works.