Although the Kinzua Bridge is only about five hours from Washington, DC, we had to go through Chernobyl to find it.
Adam’s love of historical and science-focused TV shows is directly responsible for some of our favorite adventures. He discovered the UNESCO site Puma Punku in Bolivia while watching a show on the History Channel. We decided to skip Bali in favor of a visit to the UNESCO site Borobudur in Indonesia after another episode of the same show. A few weeks ago, while watching an episode of Mysteries of the Abandoned on The Science Channel about Chernobyl, he discovered a segment about a bridge in Pennsylvania that was once billed as the eighth wonder of the world. Located in Mt. Jewett, Kinzua Bridge State Park is almost directly south of Niagara Falls, so we decided to stop by on our way home from our weekend trip to New York. From history to drama to scenic views, our visit was an incredibly educational experience and proof that some of the best trips will take you off the beaten path!
Kinzua Bridge: Transportation HistoryThe Kinzua Bridge or the Kinzua Viaduct was built over the course of only 94 working days during the summer of 1882. Although it was an ambitious transportation project, the bridge was desperately needed as an answer to the growing problem of moving coal throughout Pennsylvania. The only other proposal involved laying eight additional miles of railroad track, a costly venture that was less desirable than building a bridge that could span the length of the Kinzua Valley. The bridge was built from hollow wrought iron columns, which were strong but lighter than stone or brick would have been. Once it was completed, the bridge spanned more than 2,000 feet and stood 300 feet off the ground, making it the longest, tallest railroad bridge in the world- a record it held for two years. In addition to solving the coal transportation challenge, the bridge served as a tourist attraction, with people traveling from through the USA’s northeast to see it and take a train ride across it.
It didn’t take long for the bridge to lose some of its luster. As trains started to carry more coal and became heavier, the bridge proved incapable of withstanding the extra weight; additionally, windy conditions caused the wrought iron construction to vibrate. Eventually, trains were limited to speed limits of five miles per hour in order to safely cross. By 1900, a new bridge construction plan was identified to replace the wrought iron columns with steel columns. It only took four months before the bridge was again operational, and while the new bridge was much stronger than its predecessor, the five miles per hour speed limit remained in effect. Ultimately, the Kinzua Bridge left service in 1959 when alternative track routes were identified. The end to that era gave birth to a new era: Kinzua Bridge State Park.
Kinzua Bridge State Park: the Next Chapter
When the bridge was no longer in service, the bridge and much of the surrounding land became a state park, an interesting decision in itself because no other state park had ever been created to preserve a manmade structure. When it opened in 1970, the park allowed visitors to both admire the bridge and explore it by walking across it or beneath it. In 1977, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks in 1982. Over time additions including dedicated parking, a visitors’ center, and hiking trails have added to the experience. It’s billed as a great place for a family picnic, a nice walk, and a spectacular place to view fall foliage. But if you’re thinking of walking across the entire bridge, that is one activity you aren’t able to do these days.
Kinzua Bridge State Park: One Final Surprise
There’s a good reason walking across the Kinzua Bridge is no longer an option for visitors: half of the bridge doesn’t exist anymore.
On July 21, 2003, a series of incredibly powerful thunderstorms swept through northeastern Pennsylvania and produced a massive F1 tornado that sliced through the bridge and tore more than half of the steel columns out of the ground. By the time the tornado lifted and the storm passed half of the bridge lay in warped ruins on the ground.
Investigations into the bridge’s destruction determined that the bridge’s anchor bolts were badly rusted and not capable of holding it in place. During the 1900 construction, Kinzua bridge engineers neglected to replace the wrought iron anchor bolts with steel anchor bolts, thus leaving the entire structure vulnerable to collapse. It took less than thirty seconds for the tornado to tear the bridge apart, rendering it unable to be repaired. After two minutes, the tornado had completely toppled 11 of Kinzua bridge’s 20 towers. Pennsylvania decided it would be too expensive to rebuild the bridge, and so the purpose of the state park was revised to emphasize its unique perspective on the forces of nature at work and just how powerful storm systems can be.While walking across the bridge isn’t possible these days, it is possible to walk across half of it. Today, the remaining portion of the bridge is open to visitors as a skywalk and viewing deck complete with a reinforced glass section where tourists can stare down to see just how high up the bridge stands. Visitors can also gaze out past the guardrails to see the mangled steel towers that remain where they fell almost 15 years ago.
Visiting Kinzua Bridge State Park
Driving to Kinzua Bridge State Park took us down a number of back roads and past a turnoff labeled “overflow parking,” which made me smile because I knew for sure we would be the only guests at the park on the chilly, overcast Sunday of our visit. When Adam turned into the main parking lot, I gasped: the parking lot was enormous, and it was full. We were able to find a spot not far from the visitors’ center, which turned out to be my second surprise. The visitors’ center is a large, new building which houses a modest gift shop and a lovely museum with videos and interactive exhibits that provide an overview of the bridge’s fascinating history. We spent some time looking through the museum before exiting to the outside, which took us to the bridge itself.Walking across the Kinzua Bridge is completely safe. You can feel it move a bit when the wind blows and when other visitors run across it, and the wooden planks on either side of the tracks bend and creak a bit under body weight. It’s without question very high off the ground; if you are afraid of heights, it’s not a good idea to attempt to walk across it. If heights don’t bother you, the views at the end of the skywalk are unparalleled. The fallen towers lay rusted and lifeless in stark contrast to the lush, green trees and grass that grow around them. Although autumn is certainly gorgeous at the park, it was even pretty under the gray clouds that greeted us when we visited.
Walking across the bridge was worth the stop, but some of the best views are actually underneath it. We hiked down below the bridge to its base, where we found a few lookout spots that provide great viewpoints to photograph the bridge. To one side of the bridge you can take great pictures showing how it expands across the valley before abruptly stopping, with several towers crumpled on the ground in the empty space. From right in front of the bridge you can look right through the towers to appreciate the strength of the steel that held up heavy trains for so many years. It’s in that spot, perhaps, that you can appreciate nature’s strength even more. The original bridge was strong, and it’s second version was stronger; neither iteration could stand up to 30 seconds of one of nature’s powerful storms. Kinzua Bridge State Park provides a perfect backdrop to truly appreciate the world we live in.
Plan Your Visit to Kinzua Bridge State Park
Our visit to Kinzua Bridge State Park was one of convenience; our trip to the Finger Lakes and Niagara Falls made a stop there much easier to plan than if it were a destination in and of itself. Mt. Jewett is about two hours from Buffalo and three hours from Pittsburgh, which makes it a great day trip option if you want to escape the city and don’t mind logging some travel time in the car.
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path spot for history, hiking, and photography, the park is a terrific option. Visiting is free; although there is a gift shop and donations are welcome, it’s an inexpensive way to spend a day.
More Information: VisitANF.com
I truly expected Kinzua Bridge State Park to be a quiet monument to one of the most impressive bridges ever constructed. The park is much, much more than that; it combines the region’s fascinating history with plenty of fun, family friendly activities, making it a terrific road trip stopping point and a worthy destination on its own.
More than anything, Kinzua Bridge State Park proved that the world is full of unexpected and wonderful places to visit. Some of the most interesting and unique spots aren’t on the traditional tourist paths many of us take when we’re on the road. You never know where you might find the inspiration for your next vacation. We wouldn’t have guessed a TV show about Chernobyl would lead us to a fascinating history lesson complete with panoramic views, but it’s a great reminder that we should always keep our eyes open for our next great vacation idea!
Ready to visit Pennsylvania? Here are a few more places to consider as you plan your itinerary.