Tribute to the Bridge

Tribute to the Mile High Swinging Bridge by Charles Kuralt

Charles Kuralt’s Speech for the 40th Anniversary of the Mile High Swinging Bridge — Sept. 2, 1992

M<orton & KuraltThank you. Nice to be here with so many old friends, and to join in celebrating the birthday of the Mile High Swinging Bridge. When the Mile High Swinging Bridge was completed, opened and dedicated on the afternoon of Sept. 2, 1952, I was starting my sophomore year at Chapel Hill. There was a great deal of fuss in the newspapers of the state about the Mile High Swinging Bridge, since — as we know — the owner and proprietor of the Mile High Swinging Bridge has never seen any reason to be diffident and retiring about the improvements to his property up here. And from all the stories in the papers, I got the impression that the Mile High Swinging Bridge spanned a chasm one mile deep. You can imagine how I felt when I came up here and saw it for the first time and observed to my surprise that the Mile High Swinging Bridge actually hangs about 80 feet above the ground.

It is calculated that six million people have come up here to see the Mile High Swinging Bridge. How many of them would have made the trip if it were advertised as the Eighty-Foot High Swinging Bridge? The owner and proprietor of Grandfather Mountain knows what he is doing.

The first winter that the bridge was here, the winter wind came up and blew the bridge around and heaved it like a bedspread being shaken out the back door of the cabin by a mountain woman, and blew a lot of the boards out of the floor and forced the engineers to give the Mile High Swinging Bridge a second thought. The next spring, they attached those cables that hold the bridge to the ground below. I need hardly point out that since then, the Mile High Swinging Bridge, which is NOT a mile high, is not swinging, either. So what we have here is the 80-foot high, tethered bridge. Big deal.

And yet, somehow, it IS a big deal

And yet, somehow, it IS a big deal, hanging here 5,305 feet above sea level, which give Hugh Morton a 25-foot margin against any truth-in-advertising lawsuits. If you measure from Wrightsville Beach, it IS a mile high. From the center of the bridge, on a clear day, you can see down into the Linville River Valley 16-hundred feet below to the west… and down into the valley to the east 4,000 feet below.

This is a sufficiently awesome experience to dissuade many otherwise brave men and women from walking across. An extensive survey of 10,000 Grandfather Mountain visitors found that 30 percent of the women, and 12.7 percent of the men come all the way up here and then do not cross the bridge! North Carolina’s all-time great athlete, Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice, who never had the slightest fear of being pounded by 300-pound linebackers, for the longest time could not bring himself to step out on the bridge… I guess on the theory that while linebackers can drop you to the ground, even they cannot drop you 80 feet to the ground! Charlie Justice has conquered his fear and now strolls across pretending not to be nervous, as do more than 150,000 other visitors every year. The Mile High Swinging Bridge has been wonderful for the economy of the mountains. Visitors stop in neighboring communities to stock up on everything from picnic supplies to T-shirts, and especially, if they know they are coming to the bridge, on Dramamine and Valium.

No matter how brave you are

No matter how brave you are, if you are a person of normal imagination, it is impossible to approach the bridge without wondering if it COULD fall down, and wondering, IF it could, might it not do so with you in the middle of it. Visitors would often hold back from stepping onto the bridge if one or two other people were already on it. Hugh Morton had an ingenious solution. He put up a sign: Load Limit 40 Persons. He had figured that probably there would never be more than 40 persons on the bridge at one time, and so 40 persons it became. Actually, the bridge could hold 500 people with no trouble at all. But as soon as that 40 Persons sign went up, people would count, and if there were only 15 or 20 other people out there, they’d see that it was safe. That 40 Persons sign did wonders for the traffic on the Mile High Swinging Bridge.

Everybody thinks of the Mile High Swinging Bridge as a phenomenon of the mountains, but since I am telling you all the inside stuff this afternoon, you may as well know that it is actually entirely a product of Greensboro, North Carolina. It was designed by the architect Charles C. Hartmann Jr. of Greensboro, by the Truitt Manufacturing Company, and it was reassembled up here and put in place in three short weeks by the Craven Steel Erecting Company of Greensboro. The whole thing cost $15,000 dollars, which tells you something about what has happened to the value of dollars in 40 years.

Previous speakers in the history of the Mile High Swinging Bridge have all been running for something. The first person to cross the bridge on Sept. 2, 1952, was the Hon. William B. Umstead, who was running for governor. Candidates will do anything, of course, even risk their lives. Mr. Umstead lived through it and was duly elected governor two months later. The last time that a formal ceremony was held here was on the fifth anniversary of the bridge, Sept. 2, 1957, and the speaker that day was another politician, that great man of North Carolina, United States Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr.

I would just like to say that while this IS an election year, I am not running for anything, though it appears to me that everybody else in North Carolina is. No, I am here only to remark on this unique and wonderful span, and on its owner, a unique and wonderful man. The bridge is as famous in our beloved mountains as the Seven Wonders of the World were to the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. And they probably had anniversary celebrations like this one to commemorate the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They probably did not have Arthur Smith and Raymond Fairchild to play the banjo on those occasions… though I am no so sure about Arthur. He has been around a long time and may have been there.

I would call the Mile High Swinging Bridge the Eighth Wonder of the World, except that I went to the Republican Convention and learned in Houston that the Astrodome is the Eighth Wonder of the World.

But this bridge is the Third Wonder of Avery County, I’ll tell you that… right after Hugh Morton and Mildred the Bear.

I am still a little scared of the bridge and of Mildred, but toward Hugh Morton I feel only affection and respect… for everything he has done for North Carolina… and I thank my old friend for inviting me to be here with you this afternoon.