New River Gorge Bridge celebrates 40th birthday among people who love it most

Cupcakes were passed around the crowd on the New River Gorge Bridge Saturday at the 38th annual Bridge Day in celebration of the bridge's 40th birthday. 

Folks from all over the country came to celebrate the bridge's birthday, including West Virginia representatives and even workers involved in the construction of the bridge many years ago.

The New River Gorge National River's Superintendent Lizzie Watts said the birthday celebration was a way to honor all those involved in the building of the bridge.

“All of those people, they had a vision,” Watts said. “And that vision was to open up this section of southern West Virginia.”

Watts, who said she is proud to call West Virginia her home, stood on the podium on the bridge when she brought attention to all the resources the bridge acts as in West Virginia.

“It's not just for West Virginians,” she said. “It's for all of those people who need to make it to the grocery store, the hospital, or to see that family member they only got to see once a year because the bridge wasn't here before.”

The bridge notes something for West Virginia, and according to Watts it is a true testimony to opening up the north/south corridor in the state.

“But it doesn't just note us,” Watts said, “but truly the millions and millions of visitors who drive through this bridge and realize what we already knew – that it's the prettiest place on the face of the Earth.”

U.S. Congressman Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., was among the many who attended the birthday celebration and said after 40 years, it is nice to think about what the symbolism of the bridge means for West Virginia.

The bridge stands for many things for individual West Virginians, but according to Jenkins it is a symbol of strength, power and resilience for everyone in the country to see. 

“It stands strong, West Virginia strong,” he said. “And when people around the world come and see this bridge, they'll know that's West Virginia, that's West Virginia strong. And it will remain strong for a very long time.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said her father, former West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore, attended the opening of the bridge 40 years ago.

“It was definitely one of his crowning achievements,” she said. “And I know he is smiling today.”

Capito said attending the bridge's 40th birthday celebration was a spiritual event for her.

“I am at one of the most beautiful places in the world, and all you can see is the sky in the world.”

She recalled a time when her father used to hold his breath as they drove across the bridge together, but not because he was scared.

“But because of the beauty and wonder of the bridge and the state.”

Capito said when you see the thousands of cars driving across the bridge, including people driving from all over the world and people connecting from West Virginia north and south, you begin to think about what a bridge does for you.

'We need to build a bridge from our children to our grandchildren so the next generation and the next 40 years of Bridge Days have the opportunities and education they deserve,” she said. “And that's what I want to do, I want to be known as the bridge builder my father was.”

While the birthday celebration was an emotional day for many, it was an exceptional day for those involved in the designing and building of the bridge.

Bob Thomas recalled when he was a carpenter and framer for the bridge back in 1974.

He said he had no other word to describe how far the bridge has come other than “great.”

“I never expected all of this,” he said. “I never expected it to turn into such a huge legacy.”

Thomas said thankfully, the New River Gorge has made West Virginia better.

“Better,” he said, again. “Everything is just better. I am so excited and thankful I got to be a part of it, and I absolutely love what it has become.”

Berry Bender was an engineer for the bridge many years ago, and currently lives in Ohio.

This was Bender's first time back at the bridge since its dedication 40 years ago.

“So, this is my first time at Bridge Day. It's something new to me,” he said. “And, man, is it mindblowing, and just simply amazing.”

Bender said he believes the bridge is a great opportunity for the state to cash in on the area, wildlife and whole region in general.

“Being back just really makes me remember how much I really enjoyed working here,” Bender said. “And honestly, the people, the whole state, and everyone involved have made such a contribution to this wonderful landmark.”

By:  Jordan Nelson
Source: Beckley Register-Herald