The West Virginia. Cyclopedia

New River Gorge National Park

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The New River Gorge National Park never existed, but efforts to establish the park began as early as 1959, when a proposal was advanced during hearings before the Senate Special Committee on Unemployment, chaired by Sen. Jennings Randolph, in 1959. A formal study, conducted the following year, concluded the New River Gorge was unsuitable for such a national park due to the man-made development that had occurred within the gorge, which first began during the 1870s. Circa 1960, coal was still being mined in the gorge, a few of the coal mining towns of the New River Gorge were still occupied, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway's line through the gorge was active, hauling freight and transporting passengers. However, in 1961, the Fayette County Court, acting in regards to the Federal Area Redevelopment Act, officially recommended the establishment of a New River Gorge National Park, calling it "by far the greatest recreational opportunity in southern West Virginia."

The New River Gorge Bridge -- "A Magnet for Tourism"

The concept of a national park languished until the late-1960s, when the residents of the area first began to hear of plans to build a 3,000-foot-long bridge across the New River Gorge, near Fayetteville, WV. In 1968, the State Road Commission of West Virginia directed the consulting firm, Michael Baker, Jr., Inc., to proceed with the design of an 11-mile-long section of highway under the Appalachian Development Highway Program, which included a 3,000-foot-long bridge spanning an 850-foot deep section of New River Gorge.

One of the early accounts regarding the proposed bridge reached the residents of Fayette County in the form of a newspaper article, of Nov. 22, 1969, which began with the lead sentence: "A bridge spanning New River Gorge from mountain peak to mountain peak -- impossible!" The article then went on to reassure readers that officials of the state had determined that the proposed bridge was indeed, very "possible", and closed with the prediction that if the bridge was built, it would become "one of the most popular tourist attractions in this part of the country."

The proposed bridge across the New River was part of the Appalachian Development Highway system, and would be one of the most expensive bridges east of the Mississippi. Newspapers articles of the period cautioned the public that there was one "big condition" on which the bridge construction was based, which was having enough federal money available for the construction at at time when work was scheduled to start. By 1970, a target date of 1971 was envisioned as the time when construction would begin. The target of 1971 would not be meet, but during the early-1970's Gov. Arch Moore and aides were successful is getting an increase in the federal share, from the normal 50 percent to 70 percent due to the great expense of the project. With the funding problem solved the bridge project moved forward.

The Overlook that Evolved into a Park

The colossal bridge spanning the New River was first called "The New River Bridge" but its name soon evolved into the New River Gorge Bridge. Because of the uniqueness of the bridge, included in the contract was construction of a parking area and overlook at one end of the structure, allowing sightseers to view the surrounding natural landscape of the New River Gorge. (1) Shortly before the contract for the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge was awarded (June 28, 1973), various officials of the state announced plans for construction of a park to allow visitors to view the construction of the bridge, and spoke of even more elaborate plans which centered around a state park, named Canyon Rim State Park, which was to be built on the north side of the bridge. (2)

By 1974, construction of the New River Gorge Bridge was progressing, and at about the same time the state established two small overlook areas, on both sides of the New River. Despite the fact that the overlooks were located some distance from the area's primary roads, which required a drive of many miles over secondary roads, great numbers of tourists and visitors came to the overlooks to view the progress of the bridge construction.

By about 1975, many of the elected and business leaders of the state and region had began advocating the establishment of a New River Gorge National Park. One of the chief proponents of the national park idea during the mid-1970s was the Fayette Plateau Chamber of Commerce, which represented Fayette County businesses in Oak Hill, Fayetteville, Mount Hope and Ansted. But the concept also had enthusiastic support from Gov. Arch Moore, the state legislature and the citizens of Fayette, Raleigh and Summers counties.

BOR Rejects the New River Gorge National Park

As a result of an amendment sponsored by of Sen. Robert C. Byrd in 1974, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR), conducted a five-month study of the New River Gorge from the Bluestone Dam, at Hinton, in Summers County, to Gauley Bridge concluded that the "cumulative effects of the man-made developments in the gorge are sufficient justification for not establishing the New River Gorge as a national park." Instead, the BOR recommended the gorge for inclusion in the national wild and scenic rivers system. A bill by Sen. Randolph that same year, to create a New River Gorge National Park, failed to reach the Senate floor.

Undaunted by the BOR's rejection, various state, regional and local organizations continued to pursue the concept of a New River Gorge park, but the leaders were somewhat split in their opinion on how to pursue the matter. The chairman of the Fayette-Raleigh New River Gorge National Park Committee, J. D. Schultz, stated that "we will not compromise, we must have a nation park for our beautiful New River... We must not divert our attention from our goal." State Senator Pat R. Hamilton, (D) Fayette County, advocated immediate wild and scenic river status for the New River, and hoped that Sen. Byrd, as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Dept of the Interior appropriations, would be able to exert his influence regarding the matter. J. B. Hess, then executive director of the Fayette Plateau Chamber of Commerce, viewed the national recreation area as a "second choice" to a national park, but he never-the-less would support the concept.

In 1978, the New River Gorge National River was established as a unit of the National Park Service, which gave protection to only 53 miles of the New River and its gorge, rather than the 66-miles advocates of the New River Gorge National Park had envisioned.