Rick Hiduk Summer 2016
The views of Kinzua Creek Valley from the Kinzua Bridge Skywalk are breathtaking. Now, the opening of a new visitors center near the entranceway to the Skywalk is expected to draw even more people to the unique site with a variety of interactive displays and activities.
The Kinzua Bridge State Park Visitors Center, which was expected to open in the spring, is located in McKean County, about 25 minutes south of Bradford. The park is accessible from the east and west via Route 6 and is situated about an hour and a half due north of DuBois and Route 80.
Voted Best State Park of the Year in 2012, the Kinzua Bridge State Park is also ranked number 11 on the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources(DCNR) list of “25 Must-See Pennsylvania Parks.”
The rugged terrain proved challenging for the transportation of lumber, coal and oil from and through the region in the mid 1800s. Famed Civil War General and Philadelphia lawyer Thomas Kane was also the president of the Erie Railroad and a coal company south of the Kinzua Gorge. He envisioned a bridge across the valley as the most efficient route for getting coal to his northern customers.
Construction of the sandstone piers began in 1881. The bridge was designed by Adolphos Bonzano, as were the patented “Phoenix columns” that effectively served as shock absorbers. The chief engineer was Octave Chanute. For 94 days, 125 men labored to connect the wrought iron towers, and the viaduct immediately became the largest railroad bridge in the world. In 1900, it was reconstructed of steel to accommodate heavier loads.
Passenger trains were added to the route as riders were invited to “ride the tracks across the sky.” In 1939, aviator Odo Valentine attracted quite a crowd to the gorge when he flew a biplane between two of the columns under the bridge.
Freight service across the viaduct ended in 1959, but the bridge remained a popular tourist destination. In 1963, Kinzua Gorge was designated by Pennsylvania as a State Park and it officially opened in 1970. In 1987, passenger excursion trains traveled through the Allegheny National Forest to the bridge from nearby Kane, coming to a stop 300 feet above the valley floor before making the trip back.
In 2002, an inspection revealed that sections of some towers were beginning to rust, and the excursion trains were halted. A $12 million repair job ensued in 2003. On July 21, skies darkened early, and the workers left the site early to avoid an impending storm. It was no ordinary storm, however. An F1 tornado fell out of the clouds, racing down one hillside of the gorge and slamming into the middle of the bridge.
After the rare twister, only six columns remained at the south side of the bridge and three at the north. At an exceeding cost to the state, the renovation project was abandoned, as was the bridge for the next six years. In 2009, plans were proposed to utilize what remained of the bridge as an observation deck.
The Kinzua Sky Walk was opened as a new and practical addition to the park in 2011, when visitors were invited back to “walk the tracks across the sky.” Extending 600 feet from the southern ridge of the valley, the observation deck stands 225 feet above the floor of the gorge. Not only can visitors see the mangled steel below that was once part of the bridge, the view up and down the valley is reported to stretch as far as 11 miles.
“The view is extensive,” said Mitch Stickle, park manager for Kinzua Bridge State Park and the nearby Elk State Park and Bendigo State Park, where the current regional office is located. Stickle has been with the State Park service for 28 years and has served Kinzua Bridge State Park for the past four years. He and his staff will move their operations to the new visitors center when it is completed. The new 2,800-square foot facility will be perched on the edge of the ridge just east of the bridge.
In addition to office space, the visitors center will feature two large exhibit halls in the main lobby. Among the exhibits will be a three-car train that pays homage to the coal, timber and oil industries that once supported the rail line. An additional excursion train car will serve as a theater where guests can see a short video highlighting the history of the bridge.
There will also be classrooms, a reception area, restrooms, and a PA Wilds Artisans Gift Shop, according to Linda Devlin, executive director of the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau. Though operated separately by federal and state agencies, the proximity of the parks to each other provides thousands of acres of public land for outdoor recreation and more than 600 miles of hiking trails.
Local inventions and other history of Mckean County will be featured at the Kinzua Visitors Center. In the second floor of the building, a model of the complete bridge will be displayed, along with some creative space for families to construct a bridge from magnetic blocks. Staff will also offer nature hikes and a tornado walk.
While the valley floor remains off limits to hikers due to the danger posed by the continuously settling bridge parts, guided tours are offered on occasion to the edge of the debris field. Guests may spot a wide variety of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, grouse, and songbirds while taking advantage of abundant picnicking areas.
Stickle said that guests are always overwhelmed by the scope of the bridge and its history. “They can’t believe that it was built in 94 days,” he remarked. Visitors will also hear the folklore of the Kinzua Gorge, which includes Big Foot sightings and a tale about $40,000 in stolen gold supposedly buried within sight of the bridge.
A grand opening ceremony is anticipated in the fall of 2016. “We want to make sure that everything is complete, including the landscaping,” said Stickle. The Center is open year-round from 8 a.m. to sunset. The first two weeks of October bring the most guests as the fall foliage peaks, however Devlin maintains that the winter panorama is equally stunning.
DCNR estimates that visitation to the park, which averages 150,000 per year, could easily double with the opening of the visitors center. For more information and to schedule educational tours for school field trips and motor-coach tours, readers can log on to www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/kinzuabridge.