The Bott family made history as the first family to cross the New River Gorge Bridge.
Written by Rachelle Leigh Beckner
In today’s world of influencers and fomo (fear of missing out), my grandparents, Flora Belle and Leonard S. Bott, would be considered trendsetters. After all, they made history on October 22, 1977.
Leonard Bott, who was 55 at the time, with wife Flora Jane, then 54, and their teenage daughters, Barbara and Jane, traversed at a snail’s pace the 3,030-foot concrete deck in their green 1972 Dodge Coronet on the New River Gorge Bridge opening day.
43 years ago, after a state trooper began the procession, followed by dignitaries and politicians, the Botts undertook that historic crossing. Leonard Bott understood they were making history as the first family to cross the arch bridge. It’s why he called on a friend to arrange for them to be first in line.
“My parents were amazed at the scope of the bridge. They were hardcore citizens and fans of West Virginia. We spent many weekends exploring all over the state,” Jane Bott says. “Visiting Fayette County was always a treat because of the nearby attractions and the ability to see close family friends.”
About 40,000 people followed the Bott family, who led a steady stream of vehicles across the bridge that crisp fall day. They were all commemorating the public opening of what at that time was the world’s longest steel arch span. It cost $37 million and took three years to complete.
Years later, Fayette County and local vendors came up with an idea for an annual celebration of that marvel of engineering: Bridge Day. It is the state’s largest single-day festival and one of the biggest extreme sports events in the world. Not only do hundreds of BASE jumpers leap off the bridge, but hundreds more rappel from the 876-foot structure into the New River Gorge. The entire area, encompassing 70,000 square miles—with the bridge as its centerpiece—became the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in 2020.
The first Bridge Day took place on November 8, 1980. Two parachutists jumped from a plane onto the bridge itself, while five leapt from the bridge that day. Organizers distributed 5,500 certificates to people who walked its 3,000-foot length.
The annual celebration has grown exponentially, attracting nearly 100,000 visitors, vendors, and extreme sports enthusiasts from around the world. Each year, my grandparents traveled from Morgantown to Fayetteville to celebrate Bridge Day—often with my sister, Sara Bott, and me in tow as my parents, David and Donna Bott, enjoyed a weekend without the kids at a West Virginia University football game.
As young children, my sister and I didn’t comprehend the significance of the bridge or the festival. We lamented making the 3,000-foot walk. Today, those childhood memories and the hundreds of others my grandparents created in Fayette and Pocahontas counties are the foundation of our love for the state and for our grandparents.
The New River Gorge Bridge is an iconic symbol for the state of West Virginia and a cherished memory for the Bott family. I treasure my 1991 Bridge Day T-shirt—by far the best design, in my opinion—and wear it every fall.