It was a gorgeous, top-down, convertible kind of day in the mid-70s with a gentle breeze—a rare and perfect Indian Summer day in October. The kind of day where you drop everything and head outside to enjoy every last ray of sunshine. So, my husband and I, along with some friends, set out on a trip to Kinzua Bridge State Park to experience the Kinzua Sky Walk, which opened to the public in September 2011.
Many visitors — old and young — enjoyed that afternoon’s festivities. With cameras in hand, we walked the length of the ramps leading to the viaduct towering 301 feet above the valley floor.
Walking along the railroad tracks, I experienced a very freeing and safe feeling unusual for someone with an anxious reaction to heights. It was a sun-dappled day that illuminated the brilliant leaves of fall’s changing palette.
As we continued to wander outward onto the viaduct closer to the center of the valley, it was interesting to watch children with parents, couples with dogs, older folks with canes and riding scooters all taking in the view.
We all came out to this place for a common reason — to experience a slice of history created on Monday, July 21, 2003, when an F1 tornado with speeds of 71–112 miles per hour assaulted the Viaduct from three sides. This caused the iron anchor bolts to fail, ripping 11 of the viaduct’s 20 towers from their bases, scattering them about like pickup sticks. The six that remained standing on the south side, now make up the Sky Walk.
There was lots of clicking and posing for the cameras with the destruction in the background amidst the backdrop of fall’s gorgeous foliage. It was hard not to wonder how this viaduct, an engineering feat of its time over 100 years old, was built.
Constructed in 1882, the – Kinzua Viaduct was highest railroad bridge in the world at the time, built to access McKean County’s coal, timber and oil resources. It stood 301 feet high and spanned 2,053 feet, making it the highest and longest railroad bridge in the world at that time. It was once billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
In 1900, it was rebuilt using steel to replace the iron structure, with notable exception of the iron anchor bolts, to accommodate heavier trains. It continued as an active railroad bridge until 1959.
In 1977, the Kinzua Viaduct was declared a National Engineering Landmark, and from 1987–2002 excursion trains crossed the viaduct. But in 2002, an inspection uncovered extensive rust and it was closed to trains and pedestrians. Only one fateful year later, the tornado would turn much of the bridge into twisted metal and change the face of the valley’s landscape, because the iron anchor bolts that weren’t replaced during the bridge’s reconstruction gave way.
But nature has a way of healing itself over time, and in the ensuing 10 years, many changes have taken place in the Kinzua Creek Valley that was once shaved bald by the tornado.
Now, when you peer down into the valley, you can see where nature has begun to repair the scars left behind. Fallen trees have become habitats for all sorts of small wildlife and tender plants are thriving.
As we strolled along the viaduct’s pedestrian walkway flanking both sides of the railroad tracks, our group periodically stopped, mesmerized by breathtaking landscape. At the end of the Sky Walk, a spacious, octagon-shaped overlook treated visitors to the vast expanse of nature as far as they eye could see punctuated by the bright blue sky.
Looking over the railing was an interesting experience, but the real eye-opener came when standing over the 12-pane, glass floor looking straight down the “tunnels” formed by the support towers’ legs. One little girl laid down, her face tightly pressed against the glass, determined not to miss even one little detail of the depths below. Another young boy gave the blocks a “real” test by jumping up and down and hard as he could. Luckily, it passed.
The second outlook over the valley is located downhill from the main ramp to the Sky Walk down a short path that winds down the steep hill. This one featured another large platform providing an entirely different perspective looking up at the side of viaduct, which really punctuated its height and magnificence.
This is truly a sight to behold. It’s a great place for a family day trip and picnic.
Kinzua Bridge State Park and the Kinzua Sky Walk are located about 49 miles south of Ellicottville via Route 219 at 1721 Lindholm Dr., Mt. Jewett, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit http://visitanf.com/kinzua-bridge-state-park or call (814) 965-2646.