The New River Gorge Bridge is today still a testimony to innovation and the third longest bridge in the United States, although it was first for a long time.
Its completion in 1977 marked an open door for new possibilities for southern West Virginia.
Steve Miller, West Virginia assistant commissioner of agriculture, explained that a trip across the New River Gorge that had taken 3 hours now takes 28 seconds.
For southern West Virginia, that meant a boost in commerce as well as fresher produce for the area, he said.
But although the bridge is recognized as a marvel of construction, it is rare the community hears from those who, beam by beam, built the structure.
On Saturday, May 5, however, Bridge Walk tours hosted a reunion for the underappreciated men who constructed the bridge.
Four iron workers, members of the International Association of Bridge, Structural Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Local No. 301, and their families again mounted the bridge on the catwalk tour 876 feet above the riverbank.
New River Gorge Bridge Walk Manager Benjy Simpson explained that many of the construction pictures of the bridge show the men working without being clipped in. They did have a net below them, but the work was still extremely dangerous.
The Michael Baker Firm of Pittsburgh estimated, for insurance purposes, that six men would die during the bridge’s construction, but no ironworkers died on the bridge itself, said Simpson.
Spud Chandler came from Charleston and started work on the bridge when he was 21.
“I can’t imagine doing that every day now,” he said. “When I started out, I thought it was something magic. You never heard of someone falling; sometimes you would hear about someone getting knocked off by something, but never someone falling. But you didn’t know until the day was over when you made it back on the ground.”
Chandler’s wife, Roni, said seeing the bridge with her husband gave her a new perspective.
“I have a whole lot more respect for them. They were never honored for their work. That’s what they did. They finished the bridge and walked away. They were a different breed,” she said.
Chandler said he wanted to come and work on the bridge to meet the ironworkers who followed the large bridges being built across the country.
He also wanted, as a young black ironworker, to “prove to myself that I could do this.”
“It is wonderful to see that what we did was worth something, that I was involved in something that put West Virginia on the map and made it easier to get from one town to another,” he continued.
The ironworkers have gotten together over the years for reunions.
Arnold Asbury, who started on the bridge as a 24-year-old apprentice, said he saw many of the same men and worked with them on later jobs.
Chandler said the men had a good time talking together at work and there was a strong sense of camaraderie. They depended on one another’s work to be done correctly.
“Today it seems like the job was dangerous. But it was safe for that time,” Asbury added.
“And there was no prejudice on the bridge,” Chandler said. “You might get mad at each other off the bridge, but on the bridge we didn’t.”
Very often they would save their laughter until they were back on the ground, but Chandler remembers a fellow iron-worker celebrating the joining of the bridge by showing off his commemorative underwear.
“It was always hot and cold up there. Even if it was freezing out, you would be sweating and the rubber boots froze your feet,” he described.
The men cut the snaps off their galoshes to prevent them getting caught and tripping on the small walkways, he added.
During the Bridge Walk tours, visitors get an interpretive tour and often they cannot get enough history about the bridge, the seven mining towns visible from the catwalk, CSX Railroad and the National Park Service, Simpson said.
Guide Doug Coleman took the ironworkers back to the bridge Saturday and said it was a learning experience for him for a change.
“To get the first-hand accounts and stories from the men who built the bridge was an incredible experience and gave me a different perspective,” he said.
Coleman expects to incorporate some of what he learned into his tours in the future.
Bridge Walk tours has been in business 18 months, during which time they have guided 4,500 visitors from 37 countries and 50 U.S. states across the gorge.
For more information on the New River Gorge Bridge Walk or to see pictures of the bridge’s construction, visit www.bridgewalk.com.
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