May 13, 1976
A major milestone took place for a steel arch bridge being built over the New River Gorge in the southern region of West Virginia. This milestone was a “topping out” ceremony in which the final link for the 1,700-foot (518-meter) supporting arch for the bridge was installed. “Bridge Work Gap Filled,” read a front-page headline in the next day’s edition of the Charleston Daily Mail. That last remaining link for the bottom section of the New River Gorge Bridge was a 39-inch (99.6-centimeter) beam connecting two 27-ton (24.5 ton) arch members; both of those arch members were decorated with the flags of the United States and West Virginia for that special occasion
Under the supervision of the West Virginia Department of Highways (since merged into the West Virginia Department of Transportation), the New River Gorge Bridge had been designed by the Michael Baker Company and was built by U.S. Steel Corporation’s American Bridge Division. At a cost of $37 million, this project was the largest one in the history of the West Virginia Department of Highways (WVDOH) up to that time.
Those on hand for the topping out ceremony for the bridge included Arch A. Moore Jr., governor of the Mountain State, who fired a flare to officially confirm the successful the linkup of the arch; and William S. Ritchie, WVDOH commissioner. U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia also attended this Thursday event, and he used the opportunity to highlight the overall significance of the bridge.
“It is a monument to the technical and scientific skill of American industry and engineering,” proclaimed Byrd. “Those who have planned, designed, and are building this span have brought together the latest developments in technology to provide West Virginia with a bridge that meets many needs – the needs of transportation, economics, and ecology.”
Work on the remainder of the New River Gorge Bridge continued well into the following year. The completed structure was dedicated on October 22, 1977, with Governor Jay Rockefeller (who had succeeded Moore nine months earlier) snipping a yellow ribbon to signify the formal opening of the bridge to traffic.
The New River Gorge Bridge, which is 876 feet (267 meters) above the New River, is one of the highest vehicular bridges across the globe. As a crossing for U.S. Route 19 in that area of West Virginia, the bridge is a key component of the multi-state Appalachian Development Highway System. At the time of its debut, the New River Gorge Bridge had the world’s longest steel arch span. It retained that record until the inauguration of China’s Lupu Bridge and its 1,815-foot (553.2-meter) steel arch span in 2003.
The New River Gorge Bridge has achieved other notable claims to fame as well. In 2005, for example, the U.S. Mint’s commemorative quarter for West Virginia (as part of a series highlighting major aspects of each state) featured an image of the New River Gorge Bridge. Eight years later, the bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This bridge, located within the National Park Service’s New River Gorge National River area, continues to be maintained by the Division of Highways of the West Virginia of Transportation.
Photo Credit: JaGa (licensed under Creative Commons)
For more information on the New River Gorge Bridge, please check out https://transportation.wv.gov/highways/bridge_facts/Modern-Bridges/Pages/NewRiver.aspx and https://www.byrdcenter.org/byrd-center-blog/the-new-river-gorge-bridge