As numbers go, this town doesn’t add up to much.In the view of the U.S. Census Bureau, Natural Bridge had 28 people during the count taken in 2000. But town officials, conducting their own survey, put the number precisely at 49.
By the census figures, Natural Bridge is Alabama’s second smallest municipality, behind Gantt’s Quarry in Talladega County, with an official population of zero.For most motorists, Natural Bridge is a mere blink on U.S. Highway 278, a hidden northwest Alabama community whose best known features are the unusual rock formation that inspired the town’s name and a restaurant known for its catfish filets and hamburger steaks with gravy.
But for the four dozen-plus-one residents who call Natural Bridge home, it’s a community where everybody.really knows everybody’s name and where time only makes the bonds of community pride grow stronger."Natural Bridge is a good place to live," said Virgie Dupree, one of five members of the town council. "Everybody is friendly and neighborly. I’ve been in the same place for 60 years, and I’ll be here until I die."
The days of coal mines employing most of the local folks are long over. Today, the town’s largest employer is the Natural Bridge Restaurant, which provides jobs to 25 people.Locals say the real epicenter of Natural Bridge is the post office, in existence since 1890.
"If you ever want to run into someone, they’ll be at the post office sooner or later," resident Paul Garrison said.Oddly, Natural Bridge has four churches, though residents say many of the people attending them come from out of town.Natural Bridge’s 60-foot-high, 148-foot-long sandstone and iron ore bridge formation is said to date back 200 million years. It is known as the longest natural bridge east of the Rockies.Tourists pay $2.50 to get into the park. Because of insurance concerns, they can’t walk over the bridge and instead view it while walking underneath.Jimmie Denton, who has owned the park for more than two decades, said he bought the bridge because it was a "nice and unique thing to purchase."
The park has not only been an attraction for out-of-towners but is also the focal point in many of the residents’ lives.Wayne Dickinson, 72, has lived in Natural Bridge all his life. While he has fond memories of playing in the park as a child, his most memorable moment in the park came on Aug. 14, 1954, when he married his wife, Lyda Mae."We had people everywhere, even sitting on top of the bridge," he said. "Everyone was there to wish us well."The serenity of Natural Bridge belies its fiery history. Some early settlers of the area were part of a movement in Winston County to secede from the state of Alabama during the Civil War.The town’s official roots were planted in 1895, when the North Alabama Railroad came through the community, first known as Larrisa, then Lowdie and finally, Natural Bridge.As the story goes, the town settled on the name Natural Bridge because it "just sounded better," said the town’s mayor A.G. "Pete" Parrish. Natural Bridge incorporated in 1914 and at its peak claimed more than 300 residents.The economy of Natural Bridge flourished because of its coal and timber industries. The town boasted two doctors’ offices, Masonic lodges and a general store.All that changed during the Depression, however, when residents began to move away in search of what few job opportunities were available. As a result of the dwindling population, the town’s charter became dormant, and operations were taken over by Winston County.This arrangement lasted until the early 1990s, when Natural Bridge residents decided they wanted home rule."We got together and decided we wanted to control our own destiny," Parrish said.But controlling their destiny meant finding the town’s charter, which had lain dormant for more than 60 years."We had to find the old charter, which took a long time," Parrish said. "We had to prove that we were a town. We had people around who were children and could remember how everything prospered, but we still had to prove to the probate judge that we had sufficient evidence to reenact the charter."
Several residents desperately searched town and county courthouse records only to turn up empty-handed. Finally, two people from Morgan County who were conducting genealogy research came upon the long-lost charter.
As part of the reincorporation process, signatures from all the landowners in town had to be obtained. Parrish said everyone signed it.It took longer than expected, but the town was officially reincorporated in 1997. No municipal taxes are levied, though the town takes in money from the state as well as an Alabama Power franchise fee.Dupree, the town councilwoman, said one of the biggest projects on the town’s agenda is construction of a town hall. In the meantime, the council meets in the conference room at Natural Bridge park.
Parrish said the town hall will serve as a community center as well as a desperately needed polling site. A small trailer next to the post office serves as the polling site for 276 voters during county elections.
The town is ready to start the project, but a lack of money for the building is hindering progress."We have the land, but we’re still trying to secure funding," Parrish said.Future growth for Natural Bridge is imminent. The town plans to annex some of the areas that surround it, but the largest source of growth is expected to come as a result of the Corridor X highway expansion project.Corridor X is a north-south four-lane highway on the western part of the state, which will connect Birmingham with Memphis.
Though seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Natural Bridge is a junction to many places. From one of the town’s crossroads, you can take U.S. Highway 278 to Hamilton, Alabama Highway 5 to Jasper or Alabama Highway 13 to Tuscaloosa.As the crow flies, Natural Bridge is 72 miles from Tupelo, 65 miles from Tuscaloosa, 102 miles from Huntsville and 67 miles from Birmingham."Even though we are a small, incorporated area, we have a lot of people coming and going,’’ Parrish said.He said the town definitely would see the impact of Corridor X because it will be only seven miles away.The residents don’t seem worried about the impact the highway project will have on their small, sleepy town. They simply want to ensure they will always have their independence as the town of Natural Bridge."We want to maintain our own identity," said Denton, the park owner. "People want to come home to Natural Bridge."