The History of Kinzua Bridge State Park

The History of Kinzua Bridge State Park
August 2, 2023 126 view(s)
The History of Kinzua Bridge State Park

Parts of this historical account taken from an article originally written and researched by Ed Byers

Kinzua Bridge State Park is the story of a man-made marvel, the power of Mother Nature destroying its original purpose, and how some ingenuity brought the location back as an amazing visitor center.

The beginning of the railroad bridge

Known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Kinzua Bridge railroad was one of the tallest railroad bridges in the world at 301 feet high (almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty) and 2,053 feet long.

Construction of the Kinzua Bridge/Viaduct began in 1881 with towers, decking and tracks going up in 1882. It took 40 workers only 94 days to build the 2,053-foot-long bridge with more than 15,000 tons of iron.

Image: Vintage Kinzua Bridge postcard

With the bridge crossing at a height of more than 300 feet above the valley floor, it was a perilous journey even in the best of conditions. There was a 5-mph speed limit for the trains, which carried  coal, timber and oil, fueling the furnaces of the industrial revolution. Because of these trainloads of vital goods,  town populations grew and the economies of these towns flourished.

The structure was closed in 1900 to replace the ironwork with steel, but was reopened after that.

As the railroad company that controlled the line shifted from The New York, Lake Erie and Western Coal and Railroad company (which became part of the Erie Railway system), the bridge was no longer used.

The state acquires the land

In 1959 the Kinzua Bridge was closed and later sold to an Indiana, Pennsylvania scrap-metal dealer for $76,000. However, the scrap dealer, realizing its historic value, sold it back to the state.

This meant new life for the land around the bridge in August of 1963 when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania bought the bridge and property creating the Kinzua Bridge State Park. It opened to the public in 1970.

Image: Vintage postcard of the Kinzua Bridge passenger train for tourists

In 1987, as freight traffic faded and tourism took off, the Knox and Kane Railroad began running passenger trains loaded with sightseers across the bridge. Passengers described the ride with words like “suspended in mid-air,” “flying,” “magical,” and some said it was like “being at heaven’s door.”

More than 100,000 visitors eagerly boarded the trains every year for a thrilling ride across the “Tracks in the Sky’” to view the Kinzua Valley from dizzying heights. In 2002, things changed, and those sightseeing trains were the last trains ever to cross the Kinzua Bridge.

Disaster strikes

In the summer of 2002, it became obvious something was seriously wrong. Sections of the bridge towers were rusting through, making it too dangerous to cross. The bridge was closed, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) ordered an inspection.

“Our analyses showed bridge deterioration worse than originally estimated,” said then DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis. “Emergency repair of this structure is no easy task, but all parties involved are fully committed to returning foot and rail traffic to this historic landmark and popular tourist attraction.”

In February 2003, W. M. Brode Co. of Newcomerstown, Ohio, a national leader in railroad bridge repair, was hired to begin a $10.8 million fix.

Photo: Kinzua Bridge wreckage by Kyle Yates

Brode’s crew was hard at work on the afternoon of July 21, 2003, when a band of severe storms began thundering across the Allegheny National Forest. Brode’s project superintendent Floyd Quillin ordered his workers to leave the bridge and get out before the storms hit.

At 3:00, a mile west of the bridge, an F-1 tornado packing winds of 90 miles-per-hour touched down, snaking its way through the Kinzua Valley toward the bridge. The tornado smashed dead- center into the viaduct, taking out 11 of 20 towers and 1,200 feet of the span. The tornado lifted the center towers from their ancient, rusted anchor bolts, slamming the twisted towers to the valley floor. With a direct hit to the bridge’s gut, only six towers to the south and three towers to the north remained standing.

In fewer than 30 seconds, the era of rail traffic spanning the Kinzua Creek Valley was history and a bridge lasting more than 100 years was gone.

A renewed vision of how to rebuild

When the bridge blew down, most people feared it was the death-knell for tourism in the area. But in a fit of “never say die,” reinventing the remaining bridge section as a pedestrian skywalk quickly took shape with the state allocating $700,000 in June 2005 to repair the remaining towers.

DCNR submitted an $8.9 million proposal for a Visitor Center and a Skywalk 600 feet long and 225 feet high featuring an octagon observation deck with glass floor at its center. It would allow visitors to stroll out on the remaining support towers high above the valley floor with a breathtaking view.

The lifeless remains of the toppled towers would stay put in the valley below for viewing from the new observation deck. A hiking trail through the valley would give visitors a close-up view of the tornado’s destruction.

Construction of the new Skywalk and Visitor Center began in the fall of 2009. The six towers that remained standing were reinforced, new bridge decking with ramps and railings were installed. DCNR was quick to assure “skywalkers” that the walkway would be routinely inspected to ensure their safety.

The Skywalk and Visitor Center opens

Costing $4.3 million the Skywalk opened to the public on September 15, 2011 with the DCNR predicting a handsome return on the investment — $11.5 million annually in tourism revenue for the region.

Equally as stunning as the Skywalk itself is the adjacent 2,800 square-foot Kinzua State Park Visitor Center. Here visitors immerse themselves in an interactive walk-through history in the Center, which includes a lobby, two exhibit halls, a PA Wilds Conservation Shop, park administrative offices, public restrooms and classroom space.

“Since the skywalk at Kinzua Bridge State Park was completed in 2011, we’ve seen a growing number of visitors at the park coming to enjoy this unique experience,” says DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “The new center enhances their visit, welcoming them with exhibits and information about the history of the area and the many opportunities for outdoor activities at the park and in the Pennsylvania Wilds region.”

Supporting the local artisans and craftspeople is the PA Wilds Conservation Shop. Located at Kinzua Bridge State Park, the Conservation Shop features primarily locally made products that reflect the region’s beauty, bounty, and rural traditions so visitors can take home a piece of the PA Wilds.

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