Burning roadside: Can Mark Cline rise again from the ashes?

Just as the tourist season was about to begin, one of Virginia's most trip-worthy attractions has been destroyed by fire, a rude turn for the one-man whirling dervish whose creativity, for 30 years, has kept the tiny town of Natural Bridge on the map of summer fun.

A mid-April blaze demolished the Victorian-era mansion that served as the Haunted Monster Museum as well as the centerpiece of a bizzaro place called Dinosaur World where dinos would gobble Union soldiers and where brave visitors could also hunt Bigfoot with a "redneck." But the fire means no attractions this summer from Mark "Professor" Cline.

"We're gonna take a break this year," says Cline. "I just need more time to regroup."

Although the fiberglass dinos in the woods outside were saved, the Monster Museum was incinerated. The mechanical rats, the "Elvis-stein" monster, and the mighty fiberglass python that seemed to slither in and out of the second-story gable windows all went up in flames late on the afternoon of April 16.

During a next-day visit, the ruins are still smoldering when a State Police investigator shoos a reporter from the scene.

"This is Natural Bridge property," barks the officer, as Cline ushers the visitor away from the charred house.

"He was my dragon," laughs Cline, recalling the era when the future officer was a teenager piloting not a Crown Victoria but a lawn tractor and sporting a character costume at Cline's last attraction, the Enchanted Castle. In a still-unsolved 2001 fire, a blaze whose investigation (or lack thereof, as he alleges) still makes Cline bristle with anger, the Enchanted Castle went up in flames.

"I'd much rather have Barney Fife and Inspector Clousseau out here," says Cline, recalling how State Police investigators conducted interviews hinting that Cline himself had torched the Enchanted Castle, despite the fact that the Castle was uninsured, and that he lost his office, his studio, and all the irreplaceable 8-millimeter films he made as a boy.

"We've done a pile of work on that case," says George "Stick" Austin, the State Police captain overseeing that investigation, noting that it's standard procedure to interview owners. "It is still considered an active investigation."

As for the recent fire, it was an otherwise uneventful spring afternoon when Cline says he was on the grounds of his studio, where– with a small crew– he manufactures fiberglass figures for America's roadside playgrounds.

"I got a call at about 5:45 from the assistant general manager of Natural Bridge," says Cline. "I dropped everything and ran outside."

Cline pauses, looking mournfully down the highway in the direction of the smouldering ruins.

"I looked up and saw a plume of thick black smoke," he says, "and I knew immediately it was gone."

By the time Cline could speed the three miles south on Lee Highway, what may have started as a minor blaze on a stage at one end of the structure had become an engulfing inferno. Cline snapped a few photographs as the mansion cooked.

At the time of a reporter's visit 24 hours later, all that's left are a trio of chimneys and the front wall, executed in a rusticated gray limestone.

To 64-year-old Kilmarnock resident Ann Gill, whose grandparents owned and operated the structure as a hotel/antique shop called "Stonewall Lodge," it's a crushing blow.

"It was a romantic old home," says Gill. "My mother was married there."

In the years after Gill's family sold the structure in the 1950s, the Natural Bridge company eventually let the place go to seed, and by the 1980s the expansive front lawn had reverted to forest.

Cline says the abandoned house seemed creepy when, a decade ago, he approached the owner, Natural Bridge LLC, with his plan to haunt it. In 2002, he unveiled his Haunted Monster Museum there. Two years later, as an April Fool's prank, he built a full-size replica of Stonehenge called Foamhenge about a mile away.

The past two decades have been a tough time on traditional road-trip destinations. While Natural Bridge keeps attendance figures under wraps, educational places like Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg reveal numbers that have fallen from their peaks in the pre-Internet, pre-water-park era.

The venerable Homestead Resort just announced plans to put in a water park. Massanutten installed its water park in 2005.

As some may recall, there was a proposal in Charlottesville 20 years ago to give land to a steam train operator. But that was at least five hotels ago, before the Downtown Mall and myriad wineries erupted with enough critical mass to fill all the new lodgings.

Despite having what's been billed as the Seventh Wonder of the natural world, Natural Bridge has had no such luck. The town's newest hotel appears at least 50 years old. A pair of zoos, a cave, a wax museum, an Indian village, and a new indoor butterfly garden helped draw families off the Interstate, but it was Cline's humor/horror compound that drew national attention from roadside enthusiasts.

"It was a nice addition to our attractions and particularly popular with kids," says Natural Bridge general manager Debbie Land. "It's a total loss as they say in the insurance world."

It's a great loss to Kay Lera. A retiree from the San Francisco Bay Area who for nine years ran a B&B in her new hometown of Lexington, Lera notes how one man can make a difference.

"Natural Bridge has the beauty of the bridge and the caverns," says Lera, "but having some wacky humor incorporated into the scenario does make it a family destination."

So strong is the pull of Professor Cline that when an unassuming adult walks into the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke to ask what the Museum has to offer, the first words out of the front desk lady's mouth are these: "Well, Professor Cline is gone…"

We didn't even ask about Professor Cline, whose exhibition there had closed a couple of weeks earlier. But when a man hangs a fiberglass King Kong on the side of your museum and breaks attendance records with such twisted figures as the "Franken-chicken," people take notice.

Like the rest of us, Cline says he's now trying to face the prospect of a summer without his Monster Museum. He's seen an uptick in contract work, like the 13 men's room sinks he recently built for the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. A couple of reality show producers have made inquiries about following him around.

Cline veers between "pissed off" anger at an unknown arsonist and the peace of knowing that nobody was killed or injured in the fire.

"We made a lot of magic there," says Cline, mulling the impermanence of his creations. "Even one day the great Pyramids of Egypt will be just dust in the wind. This might just be one of those messages from the universe saying it's time to move on."

2 comments

How sad. I had no idea this or any of the others attractions mentioned in this article existed. This is something I think our family would have loved to visit. Perhaps the town should advertise these little attractions more? I've only ever heard of the Natural Bridge, none of the other little attractions that I think we would have so much fun visiting! This area is now on my list for the summer even though we have missed out what was sure to have been an awesome Haunted Mansion.

Sometimes the best thing you can do in life is save a small town . I hope Professor Cline had insurance this time and that he wouldn't move on . Natural wonders sometimes need man made wonders to come alive.