BRIDGE DAY HISTORY.  The only official Bridge Day History On The Net!
Self portrait in 1976 ..Click Image for more
After  years of putting it off, I decided to place in time-line fashion the events of the early history of jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge.   This webpage has been on line since 1997 and most information on other Bridge Day websites have been gleaned (stolen) from this site.  

Much has been forgotten and many people seem confused as to how it all started.   I will do my best to use both interviews, newspaper clippings,  and memory in order to present a factual history.

Please keep in mind that during the 3 year period between 1979 (when the first jump was made) and 1981 (when the first LEGAL jumps were made)  a possible jump or 2 was made off the bridge  ( like Greg Lawsons....see below )  If you have information on anyone, and can prove it with photos/clippings etc.,  I will consider adding it to this history.

Oct. 1977
Lets start at the beginning of "Bridge Day" officially:

When the bridge was finally opened in 1977, then Gov John D Rockefeller IV, invited everyone to an open house. He had 2 of the 4 lanes of traffic blocked off so that the states residents could walk out onto the deck and enjoy a view that otherwise they would never be able to see while traveling 55 mph across the bridge in their cars.   This actually was the "Grand Opening" ceremony and was never meant to be a regular event.  For one thing, it's technically illegal to close off any part of a roadway such as this.  And even though the law was very plain concerning this fact,  enough people clamored for the event that most every official looked the other way when it was decided that Bridge Day would become a yearly event.  Actually it was never written in stone that there would BE a "Bridge Day".  It just managed to happen year to year somehow.  Of course when we finally got permission to legally jump the bridge,  then it was a matter of turning a relatively small affair into the monster we know today.  Every year it grew bigger,  and hundreds of thousands of dollars were being made for the vendors (who by now had set-up) and the hotels/restaurants etc.   However,  due to the fact that technically it's still unlawful to close the bridge,  this is the reason that we only have a 6  hour "window" to do our thing.    It's also the reason that Bridge Day never became a 2 day event.  Nothing would make the people of Fayette County happier (not to mention the jumpers) than to have Bridge Day over an entire weekend.  And the way I see it, if the officials can "look the other way" for one day...they can do it for two days right?   Well anyway,  guess we're lucky to have the one day.   Now lets move on to the first recorded jumper.....


Burton Ervin was the first man to ever jump
off the New River Gorge Bridge....
Friday Aug 1st, 1979


Get the Real Audio Interview That I Did With Burton 4 Years Ago. (It's been condensed but it's interesting none the less.)

Burton lived in Cowen WV and was a coal mine foreman.

He made his first skydive in 74/75 at "Green County Sport Parachute Club" in Bidwell Ohio under the direction of Jerry Nesbitt.  Burton broke his leg and his wife injured her back on their very first jump. Both were transported back to Cowen WV in a private ambulance after a quick stop at the local hospital.  Burton then made some trips to Virginia (the New River Valley Parachute Club) and made a total of about 25 jumps there.  He also flew with my father (my father being a pilot and living nearby) and jumped with my dad at NRVPC.  My dad was 60 at the time and the oldest person to static line at NRVPC.

Burtons jump numbers were only in the high 30s when he decided to attempt a jump off the bridge.

Burton jumped a conventional North American Aerodynamics Mini Rig System with a 32 foot Lopo canopy.  Due to the small number of jumps he was making each year,  Burton never had reason to purchase one of those "new fangled" squares (my words, not his)  that had just come on the market.  Besides, he trusted the round.

After much investigation, planning, and a lot of phone calls to parachute companies, suppliers, and personal jump friends, Burton decided that the jump COULD be made, but due to swirling winds during the daytime, the jump would take place at dusk.   Long story short:  Winds and the threat of rain postponed the jump until around 10:15 that night. (about 45 minutes after dark)

As reported in the "Richwood Leader"newspaper

Friday, August 17 at 10:20 p.m. a crowd of over 200 spectators watched skyward as Burton Ervin, skydiver from Cowen, made a daring parachute jump from the top of the 876-foot height New River Gorge Bridge, the first such jump from the bridge over the river, once called the "River of Death" by the Indians. From the time the bridge was constructed, it became a challenge to Ervin. It was a very tense time for all as he was assisted to the top of the bridge by Leon Spencer of Craigsville with a four-foot ladder, a critical time in the jump as he was getting set and stable.  Bill Chambers of Richwood stood on the ground under the bridge with a light to assist Ervin in the jump. His parachute was specially packed by rigger Tinker Hillman, who has made 1,500 successful jumps him self. The spectators, which included state dignitaries, strained their eyes upward as the parachutist came downward, descending to about 700 feet when the parachute fully blossomed and the ratio was right for the safest place to land was upriver from the bridge. The onlookers cheered as Ernie successfully completed his amazing feat, landing in the water.  His parachute was recovered some time later. Special cars maneuvered at each end of the bridge at the time the jump was made to prevent onto the bridge and cause problems.  Ervin had flown with Gerald Rader of Rader's Flying Service (a locally famous flyer and manager of the Summersville Airport) and other flyers over the bridge ( including my father) several times, checking wind indicators and turbulence.

Calculations found August to be the best time for the jump, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. as the air is heavier at night.  Three previous attempts to make the jump were foiled by the weather and had to be called off. Ervin wore patriotic banners on his legs, with tributes to America and the state
of West Virginia.  What seemed to be the impossible has always been a challenge to Burton Ervin and he would seek for a way to work it out and this jump was one of the "impossibles".

Photo I took of Burton in 1999
See Some Great Newspaper Clippings Here  (large)

Several people had heard of Burtons exploits by way of a short interview with WOAY TV in Fayetteville WV.  They  came to visit Burton and make a jump, which they did, almost a year to the day of Burtons. (Aug 1980). These included John Noak and Brad Smith of Springfield Illinois and also Brian Hinni of Florissant Missouri. Sad to say, Brad Smith killed himself with a gunshot not too long after Bridge Day 97.

Word soon got to Carl Boenish and Jean, who then brought along a group of base jumpers,  (Mike Millhorn of Indianapolis was one and Mike was the official keeper of the NRGB numbers in the early days)   They also met Burton and stayed at his home, and then made a short base video. (if anyone knows the  day of this jump please mail me)

Now you must remember that we had no internet back then and it took quite a while for news to travel, mostly due to the secrecy of those doing the jumping. Nobody knew what the law would do to them if caught.  All we knew here in WV was that it HAD been done and we wanted to do it, legally if possible.  

Also during this time, a West Virginia jumper named Greg Lawson made a jump within days of the others,  on Aug 21st 1980.  Funny thing is, Greg had no idea that the other jumpers  had been here at about the same time.  Gregs jump was taped both by WOAY TV and a friend of mine named Dick Miller. Greg had someone hold his pilot chute when he jumped. Greg is a pilot today,  and I own the original Sony video system that was used to tape his jump.



The skydiving team I belonged to at the time was hired to jump into our new governors inauguration at the State Capitol. The leader of the team (Mig Fernandez) asked the governor (Rockefeller) if we could jump the bridge the following Bridge Day...and as they say, the rest is history. Keep in mind however that Burton and others were also working behind the scenes to pull this off.

That first legal Bridge Day in 1981 included a jump from our clubs plane onto the deck of the bridge by Mig & Ken Hamilton.  Then Mig,  Dennis Wood,  Andy Macintyre and Ken Hamilton became the first five to legally jump the bridge on Saturday November 8th 1981.

State Police guarded the area so the jumpers could pack, and then jump off the bridge.   I was there also as a team member and spotter.  I hadn't received my oversized pilot chute yet however which precluded me from jumping with the team that day and so I had to wait a couple of weeks to jump. I would jump a few weeks later all by myself. ( My jump was filmed by two people, since video systems cost $3,500 then.  I transfered the film to video years later and I still have it)

By the next year there were 30 or so jumpers....the following year over 100.   By 1984 there were about 350. I was Jean Boenish's liaison here in WV at that time. Carl had been killed during a "That's Incredible" episode, and so Jean took over and organized Bridge Day. I made the stairs that the jumpers climbed each year (crude by today's standards) and was also in charge of the jumpers transportation.  These were the"good old days" when you jumped whatever you normally jumped at the DZ.  In my case it was an everyday "Django Pegasus"... 220 SF 7 cell, the "hottest" canopy on the market at the time, with Sprint pilot chute that had parachute cord for a bridle back then.

The drivers I hired to haul the jumpers back up, had  old pickup trucks. Most were ok but a few were very dangerous because they had "cattle racks" on them.  I had told both the drivers and the jumpers to NEVER overload these trucks and to sit down at all times.  Well, due to the fact that everyone wanted to get back up to the top ASAP....those who rode in the trucks with the tall cattle racks would stand up.  Must have had 25 to 30 jumpers in those damned things.  I followed behind one truck and when it took one of those hairpin curves, the entire side of the truck would leave the ground placing the jumpers in the precarious position of being on 2 wheels  and ready to fall over a 500 foot mountain. Of course they thought it was great fun!

I remember one time between the first and second year of "legal" jumping off the bridge me and my teammates decided to jump the bridge on a day that heavy rains had just ended. As we looked down upon the river, we couldn't even find aplace to safely land. The river was SO high and running SO hard that landing even near the edge meant certain death.We spied a tiny spot near where the ambulances park today and even that had water standing. Then it became the "Good old boy" complex: 'Hey!...I'll go if you go!" go first!

Needless to say, we all went and managed to survive.

I video taped the jumps in 1984 and 1985, including Ted Strongs Tandem jump.  I had 26 jumps off the bridge when it became so much red tape and work that I finally started to slow down.  Today, Bridge Day is so regulated (due to the National Park Service) that much of the thrill is gone for many of the free spirits who jumped whatever equipment they happened to jump at the drop zone,  and felt that anyone who wanted to jump off the bridge... should be allowed to no matter the experience.  Let's face it:  This is no carnival ride.  And you're still a little crazy for doing something like this.  So who am I to tell you that you cant be stupid?  However... if you survive,  you'll have stories to tell for the rest of your life than no "average" man can ever top!

As a former member and friend of the local media at the time (newspaper and radio) I fought to keep Bridge Day both open to jumping AND free. The news media thought it was a terrible idea for the state to allow this. The liability factor alone could bankrupt the state they said.  I spent hours having my objections published and calling radio and TV.  I would send Jean Boenish any updates pertaining to the "feel" of the lawmakers here. But finally commercialism took control and the locals heard the cash registers ringing like never before. They then jumped on the bandwagon to keep the jumpers,  come hell or high water.  And so its been to this day.


The first person killed on bridge day jumping from the bridge was Michael  Glenn Williams, 25, from Birmingham Alabama. Williams was a second  lieutenant at Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota . His death was a drowning.  From my memory he had a slight hesitation and fired his round reserve very quickly, then landed in the river and made no effort to get out of his gear.  I remember seeing him wave briefly, indicating that the landing wasn't a  problem, and that he was all right. He just stayed in his gear until the  current grabbed his reserve and pulled him under. There was only one rescue
boat that year, and it was busy with other jumpers. As a result of this death,  extra boats were used for later years, and we were unwilling to release a jumper from the bridge until we were sure there was a boat available for rescue. This became a serious issue on several bridge days with high water or wind when jumpers wanted to leap when the boats were full, but the staff would not let them.


Rick Stanley, Ontario Canada, drowned after a jump from the bridge in August 1986...It was a bandit jump not on Bridge Day.  Rick was unable to swim even a single stroke, and had trouble just staying afloat.

Stanley apparently had a slow opening. He was low man on a two-way jump and had a short canopy ride before landing in the rapids directly below the bridge known as the “Zipper.” He was also taken underneath the surface of the water and drowned.


Steven Gyrsting of Paoli Pennsylvania was killed at 2:38  PM on October 10, 1987 (Bridge Day) when he towed his 36 inch pilot chute to impact. He pulled his reserve just prior to impact but only received line stretch (from Baseline).

Gyrsting was making his third jump of the day using a skydiving pilot chute and a skydiving bridle. It was reported that jumpmasters questioned Gyrsting’s set-up, but he replied, “It’s always worked before.”

Gyrsting then launched cleanly for a planned three-second delay. He released the hand-held pilot and the bridle fully extended. However, the pilot chute did not inflate. In videotape of the jump, the pilot chute appeared inverted with the mesh side out.

Reports indicated Gyrsting pulled his reserve ripcord handle around the fifth second of his freefall, but received only line stretch prior to impact. That jump began the process whereby larger BASE pilot chutes and longer BASE bridles became mandatory at Bridge Day.


After a 19 year safety record, Brian Lee Schubert, 66, died of injuries in 2006 when his parachute opened too late. Brian was one of the first "BASE" jumpers in modern times. History notes that: "One day in the summer of 1966 Carl Boenish (Famous BASE jumper/filmmaker) hears a weird story. A story that would change the course of his life. Two skydivers from Barstow,  California, Michael Pelky, an accountant, age 25 and Brian Schubert, a truck driver, age 26, decided to parachute off Yosemite's El Capitan. They jumped side by side on a Sunday afternoon at around 5:00 PM and both did decent delays but did not track away from the wall. Their round Paracommander canopies opened fine but the updrafts and swirling winds pushed them back into the face and both repeatedly banged into the wall on the way down. By the time they landed in the rocky talus below both are pretty beaten up. Pelky has numerous abrasions and a broken ankle. Schubert also had many abrasions plus a broken leg and broken foot. Both were ambulanced to a local hospital. Brian was a retired police lieutenant and an outdoor enthusiast at the time of his death.


In 1990 Tom King and Vivian Taylor had a wedding on the bridge, then Tom jumped off.


In 1982, Ed Cummings was the first person to make a static line jump off the new river bridge. His static line was 75 feet long to clear the super structure. After that he made 9 freefalls off bridge from 1982 until 1984. Later he became known for other things like being treasurer of U.S.P.A.


Mark Chamberlain and "Conrad Freeman" made a bungee jump attached to a pink elephant in 1984.  "Conrad" was actually Martin Lyster (now Dr. Martin Lyster)  He was, at that time, a member of the Dangerous Sports Club, which invented and pioneered bungee jumping in 1979, in England. To pay for the trip. Martin arranged with a TV company that they could film a bungee jump from the bridge and in return they would pay for the expedition. Mark bungee jumped first (without the elephant) and a base jumper went simultaneously, so there was no hiatus in base jumping for that.  When Martin bungee jumped, there was only the shortest of interruptions  (literally, a minute or so)  and once he settled on the end of the rope, base jumpers carried on jumping (he was able to chat to them, as they opened just above ).  So he didn't cause any real annoyance or disturbance to the base jumping.  (It was the guy from New Zealand making bungee jumps, years later  that  did interrupt the base jumping for some time, which pissed off and rightfully so, the base jumpers.)   The bridge was around Martins tenth base jump and he continued base jumping up to his last one in 1996 from El Capitan in YosemiteMartin "Conrad Freeman" Lyster now lives in Oxford, England



One "incident" I remember in 1989 is some kid who wanted to bungee, but took-up so much time doing it that it pissed everyone off,  (as they had to stop until he was hauled back up.) I have some video of this.He had set-up a truck with the real wheel removed and a hoist drum affair attached.  He strutted around (mostly scared it appeared) as the crowd waited for him to make up his mind. Finally, he stood on the platform/railing for even more time... ( it appeared he was stalling ) Finally, he jumped. I don't remember there being anything unusual about the jump,  except that the hoist took forever to bring him back up to the top. By then, much jump time had been lost and we swore we'd never allow something like that to eat-up our precious 6 hour time limit again.


In 1983 the Beckley Newspaper reported 40,000
spectators and 242 jumpers.

In 1984 The Register Herald reported 100,000
spectators and 200 jumpers. Jump
Magazine reported 248 registered jumpers.

In 1985 The Charleston Gazette reported 350 jumpers
and 100,000 spectators. The Register Herald reported
100,000 spectators based on police estimates.
Jump Magazine reported 448 registered jumpers.

In 1986 The Register Herald reported 200,000
spectators, based on police estimates. The Register
Herald also reported 383 jumpers. The Cleveland Plain
Dealer reported 392 jumpers.  Baseline and Jump
Magazine reported 405 jumpers.

In 1987 Baseline reported 275 registered jumpers.
200 were pre registered, 25 Friday registrations and 50
Saturday registrations. Registration fee was 20.00

In 1988 the Gazette Mail reported 150,000 spectators
according to an NPS estimate, and more than 300 jumpers.
Baseline reported more than 300 jumpers.

In 1989 the water level was very high and wind was
a problem The event was all but canceled. A few hardy
souls did jump, but there were no published estimates

In 1990 the Register Herald reported more than 300
jumpers and more than 100,000 spectators.

2001 was the first time that Bridge Day was canceled
due to the events in New York of Sept 11.

(Thanks to Tom Buch for helping with these facts)

See a large group photo of us in 1985


Bridge Length
Arch Length
Final Cost
Bid Price
    Heaviest Piece
Deck Width 
Construction Started

Construction Finished
876 ft.
3030 ft.
1700 ft.
360 ft.
88,000,000 lbs.
44,000,000 lbs.
44,000,000 lbs.
184,000 lbs.
21,066,000 lbs.
69-1/3 ft
June, 1974
Oct, 1977



As I remember and also gather more information, I will try to update this page as much as possible.  I hope this has been of some interest, as we must never forget how "Great" events get started. If you have something to add...mail me or just click on the message board below to leave a thought.



See my old Bridge Photos

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Copyright 1997  Jerry Waters
May not be used without permission of the Author