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Once a global attraction, Virginia's Natural Bridge sold and now destined to be state park

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RICHMOND, Va. - Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-high stone bridge once owned by Thomas Jefferson and a centuries-old tourist attraction, has been sold by its private owner at a fraction of its value to a conservation group and is destined to become part of Virginia's park system.

Under a complex deal sealed Thursday, Washington, D.C., real estate developer Angelo A. Puglisi accepted $8.6 million for the 1,500-plus-acre property in southwest Virginia and tossed in the 90-foot-long limestone bridge for free in return for tax credits. The bridge alone is valued at $21 million.

The Shenandoah Valley property, which includes 35 parcels, caverns, a 150-room hotel and cabins, has an estimated value of more than $40 million.

Once the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund repays the loan it used to pay Puglisi, the attraction will be transferred to Virginia as a state park. That could occur as early as 2015.

The sale adds a new chapter in Natural Bridge's history — from a sacred site for Indians before Europeans arrived, to Jefferson's purchase from King George II for 20 shillings in 1774, to what was considered one of the natural wonders of the world in the centuries that followed. It even had a mention in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," which describes a whale's arched body rising from the water "like Virginia's Natural Bridge."

George Washington surveyed the property, and Jefferson called it "the most Sublime of Nature's Work." A stone found nearly a century ago in Cedar Creek, which lies beneath the bridge, bore the initials "G.W."

It was that history that attracted Puglisi to buy the southwest Virginia land in 1988. The son of Italian immigrants, his father worked as a labourer in the building of Washington's Union Station in the early 1900s and later was a grocer.

Grateful to the country where his father established a new life, the young Puglisi studied the Constitution, deciding that a property once owned by Jefferson was a fitting gesture to his good fortune and a testament to the nation's founders.

In an interview, Puglisi said he was hopeful future visitors would be mindful of Natural Bridge's history.

"I think they would need to reflect on this history, the founding fathers, what a great, great man Thomas Jefferson was and the courage they had," he said. "It took those men to make this country, a place where my father could come and do much more than what his circumstances were."

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .

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