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CLIMBING THE NATURAL BRIDGE.
BY THE ONLY SURVIVING WITNESS OF THAT EXTRAORDINARY FBAT.
I HAVE some reason to believe, that I am the only surviving witness of that most adventurous exploit of climbing the Natural Bridge in Virginia ; and believing that the particulars ought to be put upon record, I have selected the KNICKERBOCKER as the medium. I have oftentimes, and for many years, withstood repeated solicitations to do this, for the following reasons, which I give, lest it might be supposed, by some suspicious persons, that I had waited for the death of the other alleged witnesses.
Immediately after the adventure had been accomplished, and while all the circumstances were fresh in my memory, I recorded them in a sort of journal, kept to record visiters' names, by poor Patrick Henry, a man of color, who kept the Bridge. This record was referred to by Patrick, whenever a visiter became inquisitive about the circumstances. Some believed my statement, and others disbelieved it; but by far the greater number disbelieved it, as he informed me. This was far from being pleasant, to one who had never had his veracity doubted before. But this was not all.
I happened to be at the Bridge, some time after the event, when a large company of respectable-looking ladies and gentlemen had just returned from under the Bridge, and were waiting dinner, like myself, at the house on the summit, to which I have alluded.
The conversation, among this company, naturally turned upon the remarkable event, as it does to this day; and the book was referred to, as usual, for the particulars. I immediately gave Patrick the hint that I wished to remain incog., in order that I might hear for myself the remarks upon my testimony. It is an old saying, that a listener never hears any good of himself, and so it turned out on this occasion. The company were unanimous in discrediting my testimony, ladies and all. Little did they imagine that the man himself was ensconced in a corner of the same room with themselves. I forth with determined to volunteer no more testimony about things so out of the common current of events; at all events, I determined to hold my peace, until the public mind should settle down into the truth, as it generally does at last.
That time seems to have arrived. The public, without an exception, so far as I know, has yielded its credence to the united testimony of so many witnesses. Scarcely a periodical in the country, or a book of travels, but mentions the subject.
But there is another reason for coming forward at this time. Tradition has got hold of the story at the wrong end. In the very last number of your Magazine,* one of your contributors misrepresents the matter — unintentionally no doubt; and Miss Martineau, in her * Retrospect of Western Travel,' undertakes to detail the whole affair, scarcely one circumstance of which she does correctly. Under
See KNICKERBOCKER MAG'AZINE, for May.
these circumstances, I think a discerning public will readily appreciate my true motives in coming out over my own signature : indeed unless I were to do so, it would be useless to say any thing at all.
I think it was in the summer of 1818, that James H, Piper, William Revely, William Wallace, and myself, being then students at Washington College, Virginia, determined to make a jaunt to the Natural Bridge, fourteen miles off. Having obtained permission from the president, we proceeded on our way rejoicing. When we arrived at the Bridge, nearly all of us commenced climbing up the precipitous sides, in order to immortalize our names, as usual.
We had not been long thus employed, before we were joined by Robert Penn, of Amherst, then a pupil of the Rev. Samuel Houston's grammar school, in the immediate neighborhood of the Bridge. Mr. Piper, the hero of the occasion, commenced climbing on the opposite side of the creek from the one by which the pathway ascends the ravine. He began far down the banks of the brook ; so far, that we did not know where he had gone, and were only apprized of his whereabout, by his shouting above our heads. When we looked up, he was standing apparently right under the arch. I suppose an hun. dred feet from the bottom, and that on the smooth side, which is generally considered inaccessible without a ladder. He was standing far above the spot where General Washington is said to have inscribed his name, when a youth.
The ledge of rock by which he ascended to this perilous height, does not appear from below to be three inches wide, and runs almost at right angles to the abutment of the Bridge; of course, its termipation is far down the cliff, on that side. Many of the written and traditional accounts state this to be the side of the Bridge up which he climbed. I believe Miss Martineau so states; but it is altogether a mistake, as any one may see, by casting an eye up the precipice on that side. The story no doubt originated from this preliminary exploit.
The ledge of rock on which he was standing, appeared so narrow to us below, as to make us believe his position a very perilous one, and we earnestly entreated him to come down. He answered us with loud shouts of derision. At this stage of the business, Mr. Penn and servant left us. He would not have done so, I suppose, if he had known what was to follow; but up to this time, not one of us had the slightest suspicion that Mr. Piper intended the daring exploit which he afterward accomplished. He soon after descended from that side, crossed the brook, and commenced climbing on the side by which all visiters ascend the ravine. He first mounted the rocks on this side, as he had done on the other- far down the abutment, but not so far as on the opposite side. The projecting ledge may be distinctly seen by any visitor. It commences four or five feet from the pathway, on the lower side, and winds round, gradually ascending, until it meets the cleft of rock over which the celebrated cedar stump hangs. Following this ledge to its termination, it brought him to about thirty or forty feet from the ground, and placed him between two deep fissures, one on each side of the gigantic column of rock on which the aforementioned cedar stump stands. This column stands out from the Bridge as separate and dis
tinct as if placed there by nature on purpose for an observatory to the wonderful arch and ravine which it over looks. A huge crack or fissure extends from its base to its summit; indeed it is cracked on both sides, but much more perceptibly on one side than the other. Both these fissures are thickly overgrown with bushes, and numerous roots project into them from the trees growing on the precipice. It was between these, that the before-mentioned ledge conducted him. Here he stopped, pulled off his coat and shoes, and threw them down to me. And this, in my opinion, is a sufficient refutation of the story, so often told, that he went up to inscribe his name, and ascended so high that he found it more difficult to return than go
forward. He could have returned easily from the point where he disencumbered himself, but the fact that he did thus prepare so early, and so near the ground, and after he had ascended more than double that height, on the other side, are clear proofs, that to inscribe his name was not, and to climb the bridge was, his object. He had already inscribed his name above Washington himself, more than fifty feet.
Around the face of this huge column, and between the clefts, he now moved, backward and forward, still ascending, as he found convenient foot hold. When he had ascended about one hundred and seventy feet from the earth, and had reached the point where the pillar overhangs the ravine, his heart seemed to fail him! He stopped, and seemed to us to be balancing midway between heaven and earth. We were in dread suspense, expecting every moment to see him dashed to atoms at our feet. We had already exhausted our powers of entreaty, in persuading him to return, but all to no purpose. Now, it was perilous even to speak to him, and very difficult to carry on conversation at all, from the immense height to which he had ascended, and the noise made by the bubbling of the little brook, as it tumbled in tiny cascades over its rocky bed, at our feet. At length he seemed to discover that one of the clefts beforementioned retreated backward from the overhanging position of the pillar. Into this he sprang at once, and was soon out of sight and out of danger.
There is not a word of truth in all that story about our hauling him up
with copes, and his fainting away so soon as he landed on the summit. Those acquainted with the localities, will at once perceive its absurdity, for we were beneath the arch, and it is half a mile round to the top, and for the most part up a rugged mountain. Instead of fainting away, Mr. Piper proceeded at once down the hill to meet us, and obtain his hat and shoes. We met about half way, and there he laid down for a few moments, to recover himself from his fatigue.
We dined at the tavern of Mr. Donihoo, half way between the Bridge and Lexington, and there we related the whole matter at the dinner table. Mr. Donihoo has since removed to the St. Clair, in Michigan. Mr. Piper was preparing himself for the ministry, in the Presbyterian church, and the president of the college was his spiritual preceptor, as well as his teacher in college. Accordingly he called him up, next morning, to inquire into it, thinking, perhaps, that it was not a very proper exhibition for a student of theology.
The reverend president is still alive, and can corroborate my testimony. I mean the Rev. George A. Baxter, D. D., at present at the head of the Theological Seminary in Virginia. As to the other witnesses, Mr. Revely afterward became a member of the Legislature of Virginia, and somewhat distinguished, I believe, for a young man; but he unfortunately fell a victim to poison, as I have been informed. Mr. Wallace was then from Richmond, but a native of Scotland, whither he returned soon after. It strikes me that I once heard of his death, but of this I am not certain. He may be still alive, and able to substantiate my statement.
Mr. Piper himself afterward married a daughter of Gen. Alexander Smyth, of Wythe, and was soon after appointed principal of some academy in the West, which he abandoned, however, as he had done the ministry before. The last I heard of him, was during the last summer, when I saw his name registered at one of the Virginia springs. I was told he had become an engineer, and was then engaged in surveying a road between some two of the springs.
I have thus briefly and hastily related every thing about the exploit, which I have any reason to believe will be interesting to the public, either now or hereafter.
WILLIAM A. CARUTHERS.
Bright rose the sun over the hills of Palestine, and never, since the world had birth, did it rise on a brighter or more inspiring scene. There, her gorgeous palaces and beautiful temples bathed in the sunlight of an eastern morn, rose Jerusalem !
• Her towers, her domes, her pinnacles, her walls,
Wove by gay fancy from the morning beam.' Jerusalem ! What hallowed associations rush upon the mind at that name ! Once, Queen of the East, and mistress of the world; unsurpassed in importance, and unrivalled in splendor; the home and pride of Judea's sons. Now, the jackall howls where her kings reigned, and the crumbled marble, once marking where her warriors slept, now mingles with the whirling sands of Arabia.
Roll back the tide of time ! Retrace the scroll of history to that epoch when Europe sent forth her noblest and her best, to battle with the Saracen, to rescue the sepulchre of their Redeemer from defilement and disgrace.
Under the city's walls were encamped the Army of the Cross. Companions in former wars, and victors in former battles, they had come determined to accomplish their errand, or die in the attempt. There were the flower and boast of Europe's chivalry. Steel hauberk and coat of mail gleamed in the sunbeams, and the trumpet's note of defiance rang on the morning air, with the taunting clash of the Turkish cymbal. That pennon which had floated o'er the head of its gallant lord amid former conflicts of his house, now danced gaily to an Asiatic breeze. The emblem of an ancient line, it was not there to be dishonored; the cherished relic of past splendor its fair blazonry was not there to be stained or sullied.
Who would blame the enthusiasm which had thus led them forth to battle? Who can censure that piety which gave strength and sinew to their arms in the battle's shock, and was their last solace in the hour of danger and of death? Yet, there are those who call the age of chivalry an age of folly — who denounce the Crusades but as an act of madness. Madness and folly they may have been; unjust they certainly were; but who of us, had he lived in that day, would not have also bound the sacred emblem to his shoulder, and followed the crusading host to the holy land ? The enthusiasm of the hermit of Amiens, the oratory of St. Bernard, and the commanding talents of Fulk, had successively been used to spur them on to action. The commands of the papal prelate were imperative, were not these enough to impel them to almost any deed. But the Saracen's insulting heel was on the very sepulchre of their Lord! The Turk's proud foot spurned the dust once pressed by the meek footsteps of Christ! Jerusalem was captive! Through her courts and palaces a Moslem strode in defiance, and reigned without rebuke! Were they Christians, and could they endure this ? Were they knights, and could they brook it ? Drawing the avenging steel, they swore never again to sheathe it, till their object was accomplished, or till