History of the “Grand Old Lady”
Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land including the Natural Bridge from King George III of England for 20 shillings in 1774. He called it “the most Sublime of nature’s works”. Jefferson built a two room log cabin, with one room reserved for guests, beginning its use as a retreat. While President, in 1802, he personally surveyed the area. Many famous guests stayed here, including John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, and Martin Van Buren.
Natural Bridge was one of the tourist attractions of the new world that Europeans visited during the 18th and 19th centuries. Vacationing guests from all over the world took day trips from Natural Bridge on horseback or horse-drawn carriages to explore the countryside.
In 1833, a new owner erected the Forest Inn to accommodate the increasing number of people. The bridge had considerable notoriety during the 19th century. Herman Melville alluded to the bridge in describing Moby-Dick: “But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge…” William Cullen Bryant, another American literary figure, said that Natural Bridge and Niagara Falls were the two most remarkable features of North America.
During the 1880s Natural Bridge was a resort owned by Colonel Henry Parsons, who also owned the nearby Rockbridge Inn. Parson’s first hotel was an expansion of small a “roadhouse hotel” that was owned by Captain Stevenson. Soon after the expansion around 1890 Parsons went up the hill to the present day location of the historic hotel and built the first main hotel associated with Natural Bridge, it was called the Appledore. In the early 1900s the Appledore was expanded to accommodate more guests and the name evolved to the Natural Bridge Hotel. The Natural Bridge Hotel thrived up until it caught fire on April 24, 1963. The origin of the fire is still unknown today. It is rumored to have started in the kitchen.
In 1964 construction began under the watchful eye of James N. Hunter, on the present day hotel and opened its doors to the world with great pomp and circumstance in 1965. It was said that if one visited Natural Bridge and Niagara Falls, you were a very well traveled person.