By JAKE ZUCKERMAN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In 1977, Eddie Miller was among the first people to walk on the New River Gorge Bridge. On Saturday, he’ll do it again, for the first time in 40 years.
As it does every year, the bridge will close to vehicular traffic on the third Saturday in October for Bridge Day. Pedestrians will get a chance to catch a rare glimpse of the gorge’s natural beauty from the bridge — not to mention the parachutists leaping from its side.
Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., hordes of BASE (buildings, antennae, spans and earth) jumpers will fling themselves from the bridge and parachute the whole 876 feet down to the bottom of the gorge, on the only day of the year they can legally do so.
“There wasn’t that many people there when I was there, I was amazed,” he said. “There only may have been 8,000 to 10,000 people there.”
Miller, who lives in Christiansburg, Virginia, said he’s excited to return with his wife and 19-year-old daughter to see the pizzazz of the modern Bridge Day. Nearly 80,000 spectators are expected to attend, according to the event’s website.
Back in 1977, the event didn’t come jam-packed with onlookers, vendors, rappel ropes and zip line tours like it does today.
“You just walked on the bridge, people took pictures, they had a vendor or two set up for food. That was about it,” Miller said.
While it may have lacked the fanfare, Miller said at least he could park roughly 100 yards from the bridge before strolling across.
He also remembers, before the bridge opened, the extra hour and a half added to the drive when he’d have to loop all the way around the gorge to catch a West Virginia University football game in Morgantown.
The bridge opened to vehicular traffic on Oct. 22, 1977, at a final cost of $37 million. It took three years to build and is the second-highest bridge in the U.S., according to the Bridge Day website. When it opened, it was the largest steel single-arch bridge in the world, a distinction it kept until 2003.
Three years later came the first official Bridge Day, in which two parachutists jumped from an airplane down onto the bridge, and five jumped from the bridge down into the gorge. As the event snowballed into its current form, its planners added the rappelling, BASE jumping and — formerly — bungee jumping.
The bridge was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
For those who can’t make it to this year’s Bridge Day, the West Virginia Division of Tourism will livestream the festivities at www.gotowv.com.
5 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Taste of Bridge Day at Smokey’s Steakhouse at Adventures on the Gorge
7 p.m. to midnight: The Bridge Jam at the Cascade Festival Grounds on Maple Avenue.
8 p.m. to 11 p.m.: Groundhog Gravy Band at The Rendezvous Lodge @ Adventures on the Gorge
7 a.m.: Route 19 closes
8:30 a.m.: Shuttles begin at designated parking lots (Kroger, Walmart, Fayetteville High School, Lighthouse Worship Center and Midland Trail High School).
9 a.m. to 3 p.m.: Bridge Day begins
9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Into the Gorge bus rides start (these are pre-sold)
9:15 a.m.: 5K race begins
10 a.m. to 3 p.m.: Bridge Day Car Show at the Gorge Gateway Center on Laurel Creek Road.
2:30 p.m. to midnight: The Bridge Jam at Cascade Festival Grounds on Maple Avenue.
3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.: Bridge Day Chili Cook Off in Downtown Fayetteville
5 p.m.: Route 19 reopens
8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.: The Wild Rumpus at The Rendezvous Lodge at Adventures on the Gorge
For more information, call the Bridge Day office at 304-465-5617 or visit www.officialbridgeday.com.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at [email protected], 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.
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