In September, the Kinzua Bridge State Park Visitor Center and Park Office will celebrate its grand opening and welcome guests to explore the scenic wonder of the Kinzua Skywalk and the incredible history of the world-famous viaduct. Not only is the brand new 11,000 square-foot building the perfect starting-point for visitors to discover the natural beauty of the landscape, but its beautifully designed exhibits offer visitors of all ages a unique learning experience. Discover the engineering masterpiece that put Mount Jewett, PA on the map and has since had a lasting impact on the region.
The namesake of nearby Kane, PA, General Thomas L. Kane is credited as the driving force behind the creation of a railroad viaduct across the Kinzua Creek Valley. As the demand for coal increased across the northeast, railroads began improving their lines and creating more efficient ways for coal mined near Pittsburgh to be transported north to growing cities like Buffalo and Rochester. As president of the New York, Lake Erie, and Western Coal Railroad Company, Kane took a special interest in such improvements, and soon proposals for the design and construction of a viaduct were submitted from all over the United States.
In May of 1881, work on the viaduct began! A crew of local men constructed the sandstone piers in less than a year, and in May of 1882, work began on the erection of the tubular iron. This work was completed in just ninety-four working days, and the total cost was $275,000. At the time of its completion in 1882, the bridge was the tallest and longest railroad bridge in the world, standing at 301 feet high and 2,053 feet long! A true engineering marvel, the bridge accommodated the increasing traffic of freight trains for almost twenty years before improvements became necessary.
As the 19th century came to a close, railroad technology continued to improve, and new steel railroad cars and locomotives were being built. The cars’ weight increased dramatically, and the original bridge had to be replaced with a steel bridge that would be strong enough to support the heavier trains and increased traffic. In May of 1900, a workforce of approximately 150 men began removing the old bridge and building the new steel structure. Amazingly, it only took four months to replace the old bridge with the new steel bridge that weighed 3,500 tons.
By this time, the Kinzua Bridge no longer held the world record, as France’s Garabit Viaduct, built in 1884, was 401 feet high. However, railroad traffic on the bridge continued until 1959 when the Erie Railroad sold the bridge to Kovalchick Salvage Company of Indiana, PA. Head of the company Nick Kovalchick was reluctant to dismantle the incredible structure and worked closely with local groups who wanted to save it. In 1963, Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton signed a bill into law to purchase the bridge and nearby land to create Kinzua Bridge State Park. In 1977, the Kinzua Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1982 was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Although the bridge was no longer in use by freight trains, the Knox and Kane Railroad purchased the tracks and offered excursions across the bridge and back beginning in 1982. This continued for twenty years until train traffic and pedestrian traffic ended in 2002 due to the bridge’s aging structure. The state was in the middle of the rehabilitation project of the viaduct, when an F-1 tornado swept through the region on July 21, 2003, the bridge suffered considerable damage, as eleven of the twenty towers were destroyed. At the time, the bridge was still the fourth highest in the world, and its partial destruction was a true loss to the region.
Fortunately in 2011, the bridge was reinvented as the Kinzua Skywalk, a new pedestrian walkway where visitors can now walk 600 feet out on the remaining support towers. For miles, visitors can look out on the Kinzua Valley and look down through the partial glass bottom on the gorge some 225 feet below. The 339-acre Kinzua Bridge State Park offers visitors a beautiful picnic area and 1.5 miles of hiking trails, not to mention breath-taking views of the valley, especially the fall foliage in early October.
Now, the new Visitor Center and Park Office provides visitors with even more reasons to plan a trip to Kinzua Bridge State Park! Construction of the $6,900,000 project began in 2014 and has been recently completed this summer, which was celebrated by a soft opening on July 1. The new building, which will be open year ‘round, features a reception area, gift shop, and accessible restrooms. The building also features exhibit areas, which occupy over 2,000 square feet both upstairs and downstairs, where visitors can explore the history of the bridge and the environmental features of the area. Hands-on exhibits include a large freight train model carrying lumber and coal that would have traveled across the bridge over 100 years ago, as well as a “life size” passenger car that visitors can climb inside and watch videos about the bridge and recreation opportunities throughout the year. Other building features include an 874 square-foot classroom suitable for school and motor coach groups, as well as a kitchen and classroom room that can be reserved for meetings and events.
The Visitor Center and Park Office has been thoughtfully designed to reflect the natural beauty of the region, which is evident in the stone and tower entranceway that is reminiscent of the bridge. Nearby benches offer visitors the chance to relax and enjoy the view, while a beautiful exterior deck extends off the classroom and overlooks the Skywalk. The building is heated geo-thermally, which aligns with the park’s goal to use sustainable materials and reduce waste in order to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification.
The Kinzua Bridge State Park staff and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) are excited to welcome guests to the grand opening of the brand new facility in September! Look for the upcoming press release from the DCNR with more details about this event. The Visitor Center and Park Office will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. during peak season. For more information, contact Kinzua Bridge State Park at 814-778-5467.