The Natural Bridge Climb: An 1818 Folly

Climbing Natural Bridge: A Youthful Folly

Natural BridgeIn 1818, four Washington College students (now known as Washington & Lee University), made the 14-mile trip to Natural Bridge, ready for a day away from their academic studies, and for some rock climbing.

They had plenty of that with Natural Bridge, a geological formation that is 90 feet wide and with a 215-foot high natural arch. Located within a natural gorge carved from an ancient river, today, that much tamer body of water is called Cedar Creek.

On this Spring day, though, one of these young men would be the first recorded person to climb the entire Natural Bridge. His name was James Hays Piper, a ministerial student from Culpeper County.

The young college students climbed over the higher rocks but were soon distracted by another student who was passing by. Robert Penn of Amherst County was on his way home from the Reverend Sam Houston’s Grammar School.

But Piper quickly lost interest in the discussion and disappeared. When his classmates discovered that he was gone, they were more than surprised to see Piper on a narrow ledge about 100 feet up the canyon and underneath the Natural Bridge arch.

James Piper’s Natural Bridge Climb

Piper’s classmates shouted in vain for the young man to come down. Eventually, he listened and did return to join his friends. But the partial climb had emboldened the young man. 

Suddenly, he left his group, crossed Cedar Creek and began climbing the other side of Natural Bridge. This time, however, he was more determined. Working his way up a narrow abutment, he climbed higher and higher.

James Piper worked his way up to a giant column of rock that jutted out from the Bridge. He then zigzagged his way further up the geological formation.

By this time, he was 50 feet past the spot where George Washington supposedly made his highest ascent. If the young man heard any cries for his safety from his friends, it was drowned out by Cedar Creek.

And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Piper was on a mission. Now 170 feet from the ground, he continued to climb. While his friends waited white-knuckled below, Piper continued his quest.

Finally, Piper found some small bushes and roots in which to plant his feet. It was from there, that he inched his way over to a crevice and pulled himself to solid ground on the top of the Bridge.

Once he completed his goal, James Piper safely returned to his waiting friends.

The Surprising Aftermath of the Natural Bridge Climb

While Piper’s friends might have hailed his feat, the president of Washington College, Dr. George A. Baxter, did not. Dr. Baxter told Piper that his behavior was “improper for a student of theology.” The president’s rebuke was so strong that it stayed with Piper his entire life.

Many years later, historian Samuel Kercheval sought to interview Piper about his climb but was rebuffed. He was one of many. According to a friend, “Mr. Piper converses on that subject only with reluctance.”

Dr. Baxter’s rebuke to the young ministerial student forever changed how James Piper viewed his incredible feat.

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