Kinzua Bridge Skywalk
Local Attraction Offers a Bit of History and an Easy Thrill
Story and Photo By John Thomas
It’s spectacular. It’s historic. It’s a wreck. Not often does a lovely state park come out of something that has been destroyed. But that is precisely what has happened in Pennsylvania. The Kinzua Bridge Skywalk in McKean County PA is the remains of a railroad viaduct that crossed Kinzua Creek as part of the New York Lake Erie and Western Railway. The trestle was blown partly down by a tornado in 2003. Today it is a state park with an excellent visitor’s center, picnic areas, and hiking trails. Just over an hour drive down 219 from Ellicottville, it’s an excellent place to take visitors for something new.
Visiting over Labor Day Weekend tourists had mostly filled the overflow parking lot. But the visitor’s center and the walkway easily handled the crowd. A short path leads to the former railroad trestle, which juts out over the valley like the proverbial bridge to nowhere. A footpath was built on the old railroad bed. The old tracks run down the middle. Walking out just a few yards onto the trestle, you quickly see how high the skyway is. There is a high railing on both sides of the skywalk, to help you feel secure at the dizzying height. At its highest point, the tracks were some 301 feet above the stream; high enough for the Statue of Liberty to fit just under it. At the end of the path is an observation platform. Most of the visitors approach the railing with a bit of trepidation, startled by the skyscraper height, then get absorbed by the view. Exhilaration takes over shortly. Across the valley lay the crumpled carcasses of the old support towers. In the center of the platform is a rectangle of thick glass floor. Looking down through it, the valley floor looms below. Although it’s perfectly safe to stand on, not everybody does.
The Bradford oil boom started in 1871 when the first successful oil well was drilled in the area. By 1875 wells were producing between 75 and 200 barrels per day. By 1881 the Bradford oil fields were producing 83% of the countries entire oil output. The problem was how to get the prodigious output onto the rail system for distribution. There were already tracks that distributed Pennsylvania coal, but how to get Bradford oil south to join those tracks? In 1882 Thomas Kane, President of the New York Lake Erie and Western Railway decided to build a branch line to connect the two. But Kinzua Valley lay in the way; 300 feet deep and a half mile across, it was a formidable obstacle. It would have been prohibitively expensive to build around the valley, or via a graded route down to the bottom of the valley and back out. The only solution was to cut straight across the gorge. He hired Octave Chanute, an engineer who worked with the Phoenix Iron Works to build the viaduct. Chanute established 110 masonry piers across the valley floor. Using an ingenious gin pole, the first tower was raised and bolted to the pier. A traveling crane built the track platform out to the tower, the gin pole raised the next tower, and the platform was extended to it, and the next and the next. Using this technique, the bridge was built in only 90 days. When competed the span was described as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” No other train trestle was as high or as long.
As the trains using the bridge became heavier, the bridge was considered no longer safe to carry the extra weight. The railroad decided to rebuild it. This time Howe Truss “timber travelers” crossed the bridge replacing the towers one by one. To save money, the engineers reused the bolts that had fastened the towers to the piers. The bridge reopened for service September 25, 1900. Eventually, railroad traffic bypassed the viaduct, and the bridge was taken out of service in 1959. The Kovalchick Salvage Company purchased rights to the steel and was planning to sell it for scrap, but Mr. Kovalchick couldn’t bring himself to tear it down, and arraigned to sell the bridge to the state. Sightseeing trips ran across the bridge from 1987 until the bridge was again closed in 2002. On July 21, 2003, a tornado plowed through the valley and snapped the bridge virtually in half. It was determined those original anchor bolts, reused from the first span, had failed, allowing the twister to pick up the towers and toss them to the ground.
Today Kinzua Bridge State Park holds a unique place in the country’s state park system. It is one of the only state parks centered on a man-made object. It has been described as “One of the World’s top 10 Most Beautiful Skywalks and Viewpoints,” by Culture Trip UK. To walk out to the end of the structure and stand high above the valley, suspended in almost empty space, is an experience you won’t soon forget.