Ranking among Earth’s finest mega-bridges, the New River Gorge Bridge can be challenging enough to motorists’ bravery simply when driving across. But one day each year it takes thrill-seeking to a whole new level when BASE jumpers from all over the world cling to its girders and fling themselves off in a massive festival made special for its legality, of all things.
Built in 1977 to connect the hills on either side of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, the bridge was, for years, the world’s longest single-span arch bridge made of steel (today it ranks fourth) and the highest vehicular bridge in the world. A marvel of engineering, the New River Gorge Bridge is a staggering 3,030 feet long and rises 876 feet above the rapids below.
It only took two years after the bridge opened for someone to realize it made a great place to intentionally throw oneself off of (with the intention of surviving). That man was coal mine foreman Burton Ervin, who BASE jumped from the bridge to much attention from the local press and famously suggested, “They’re going to keep coming. Might as well try to make some money off of it.”
Thus was born the annual tradition of Bridge Day.
Every third Saturday in October since 1980, the New River Gorge Bridge becomes the only place in the National Parks Service dominion where it is legal to BASE jump. The first years saw only five jumpers, and one hit the rocks. In a fluke twist for a sport known for its fatalities, he walked away with a broken jaw and missing most of his teeth, but dismissed officials’ concerns that the fledgling festival was “dangerous” by insisting to a Charleston Daily Mail reporter that BASE jumping was “safer than marriage.”
In its present incarnation, Bridge Day’s participants are capped at 450, with strict rules as to how many skydives they must have under their belts before BASE jumping at the bridge. Spectators number in the tens of thousands, partly to watch daredevils fling themselves into the ravine below, but also to enjoy familiar scenery from a new vantage point, as the festival marks the only day in which foot traffic of any kind is permitted on the bridge.