In 1978 two very important things happened in Appalachia: The New River was designated and protected by President Jimmy Carter as a National River and our mold-maker Daniel was hired on as a truck driver by William H. Blenko.
The New River Gorge Bridge is one of the most recognizable structures in Appalachia, spanning the 1,700 foot gorge in a single, broad arch and rising over 900 feet above the river below. For many, many years it was the largest bridge of its kind in the world.
Daniel in his own right is an impressive structure of a man who is built tall, silent, and kind like so many men from these mountains are. With his blue coveralls and long, white beard he is as recognizable to longtime Blenko collectors as our bright colors.
43 years later, in 2021, The New River Gorge itself was named the 63rd National Park and Daniel was given the creative freedom to finally breathe life into our newest iconic shape here at Blenko: The Bridge. His design for this piece was originally one of the submissions for our 2020 West Virginia Day piece, but was not selected by the panel of judges for production.
Daniel persisted though, he not only believed in his design, but he believed that there could be no better timing for its introduction into the world than now. Daniel was right. He was given the go-ahead to carve the molds and give them to our glassblowers to produce prototypes. Prototypes were made– big, tall pieces of hand blown glass that replicated the arch of the bridge in a way that only Daniel had been able to predict. Everyone was on board.
In 2021, the bridge found another home as a celebration of Bridge Day, a large festival held every year in October on the New River Gorge Bridge that ushers in Fall with food, music, arts, whitewater rafting, and most famously, BASE jumpers. Unfortunately, as the calendar’s pages turned and cases of the Delta Variant of Coronavirus surged, it became apparent that Bridge Day would not be held in that year.
The path of the New River itself ties together the past and present, and the New River Gorge Bridge connects the communities around it. Its completion ushered in a sense of modernity into central Appalachia and paved both literal and figurative inroads for those outside of West Virginia to come to see our natural and man-made wonders. It became the foundation of a community home to world-class whitewater rafting, fishing, hiking and camping— a way for those outside of the region to experience West Virginia for themselves, to know some of the truest faces and places of Appalachia and see its beauty and potential with their own eyes.
Within the forest beneath the bridge’s impressive span you will find reminders of all of the people who came before, the Cherokee and Tupelo who called it home long before we ever had a name for this place, the remains of the old mining settlements that inspired Carter G. Woodson to document the lives and stories of his fellow Black miners and become the father of Black History in America. Deep in the cool hollows you will find old rail depots, trestle bridges, coke furnaces and towns like Thurmond all but reclaimed by wild rhododendron and kudzu.
The bridge and Daniel’s interpretation of its beauty are both symbols of a story of a sense of Appalachian perseverance and persistence that we are no stranger to here at Blenko. From our founder’s crossing of the Atlantic to experience the wonders of natural gas in glassmaking for himself, to the 384 Water Bottle and our pivot from architectural glass to tableware during the Great Depression, to our newest Blenko family members at the helm; making glass and pushing the envelope of function and artistry has been a labor of the heart and an exercise in mulish determination. We are proud in these recent years to be moving forward with new designs and experiments of color, but we know we would not still be here today without people like Daniel bridging the gap between our past and our future.