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What remains of the Kinzua Viaduct is now a pedestrian overlook with glass floor.
What remains of the Kinzua Viaduct is now a pedestrian overlook with glass floor.

The Kinzua Viaduct

Field review by the editors.

Mount Jewett, Pennsylvania

Sometimes bad luck has good consequences. That happened with the Kinzua Viaduct, when a storm destroyed what had been a regional tourist attraction -- and made it better.

The Viaduct as it looked 100 years ago - before the tornado.
The Viaduct as it looked 100 years ago - before the tornado.

The Kinzua Viaduct was hailed as The Eighth Wonder of the World when it was built in 1882. Spanning a remote gorge a half-mile wide and 300 feet deep, it was the highest and longest railroad bridge in the world, suspended in air on metal towers that looked perilously inadequate to support the track, let alone a train. The delicate construction was deliberate, allowing the viaduct to flex with the winds that howled down the Kinzua Creek Valley and sometimes blew the roofs off of train cars as they crossed over it.

From its earliest days the viaduct was a public curiosity and a popular subject for early picture postcards, which offered various dramatic views of a tiny locomotive, barely visible, as it chugged across the void.

With time the Kinzua Viaduct became less of a transportation link and more of an attraction and, eventually, in retirement, a state park. That's how things stood on July 21, 2003, when a viaduct repair crew, sheltering from a downpour, heard a series of booms that they thought were thunderclaps. They weren't. They were the center towers of the viaduct being ripped from their moorings by a tornado and then collapsing, one after another, into the gorge. No one was hurt, but The Eighth Wonder of the World was demolished.

Visitor Center display shows the relative height of the Viaduct and Lady Liberty: they're the same.
Visitor Center display shows the relative height of the Viaduct and Lady Liberty: they're the same.

Men with beards designed and built the Viaduct.
Men with beards designed and built the Viaduct.

State officials briefly considered rebuilding the viaduct -- at considerable expense -- but soon realized that they didn't have to. Formerly of interest only to train-and-bridge people, the Kinzua Viaduct now also appealed to thrill-seekers, fans of Hollywood-scale post-apocalyptic ruins, and tourists who wanted something cool to photograph. As a wreck, it was more popular than ever.

Eight years after its collapse what remained of the viaduct officially reopened as the Kinzua SkyWalk. Five years after that, in 2016, a visitor center opened. Tourists can see statues honoring the viaduct's designers and builders, and exhibits about the $40,000 in gold coins hidden by a bank robber somewhere in the valley (now perhaps under tons of collapsed steel) and about Charles Stauffer, the 19th century viaduct inspector, who lived beneath it in a shack and survived on food thrown to him from passing trains. Replica freight cars showcase the tons of lumber, coal, and oil that once crossed the viaduct, and visitors can sit in an imitation passenger car for a simulated train ride (although not, as in Gettysburg, with Lincoln's ghost) across the gorge. A large model display compares the height of the viaduct to the height of the Statue of Liberty -- and they're identical.

View from the valley floor: wreckage and the SkyWalk above.
View from the valley floor: wreckage and the SkyWalk above.

The pedestrian SkyWalk juts out over the still-remote valley atop the viaduct's six remaining south-side towers, leading to an observation deck with a section of thick glass floor panels. These allow tourists to look straight down -- that is, those tourists too wary to have a clear view by just leaning over the side of the SkyWalk. Vigorous visitors can hike a trail to the valley floor for up-close looks at the pretzel-twisted wreckage (signs warn Do Not Climb), and gaze heavenward at the SkyWalk tourists several hundred feet above.

Kinzua debris stretches to the other edge of the valley.
Kinzua debris stretches to the other edge of the valley.

Pennsylvania gave the Kinzua Viaduct a second chance, hoping to teach lessons about American ingenuity, infrastructure maintenance, and Nature's power -- but most people visit for its catastrophic vistas. Those who run around the wreckage today should at least keep in mind that it got that way for a reason, and keep their heads on a swivel for the next tornado.

The Kinzua Viaduct

Kinzua Bridge State Park

Address:
296 Viaduct Rd, Mount Jewett, PA
Directions:
Kinzua Bridge State Park. From US-6, at the east end of Mount Jewett, turn north (no stoplight) onto PA-3011/Bridge St. Drive 3.5 miles. Turn left onto Viaduct Rd and drive a half-mile to the parking lot.
Hours:
SkyWalk daily dawn-dusk. Visitor Center daily; closed Su in winter. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
814-778-5467
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Penn Brad Oil MuseumPenn Brad Oil Museum, Bradford, PA - 11 mi.
Allegheny Arms and Armor MuseumAllegheny Arms and Armor Museum, Smethport, PA - 10 mi.
McDonald's Drive-Thru Oil WellMcDonald's Drive-Thru Oil Well, Bradford, PA - 14 mi.
In the region:
Little White Church in the Dell, Great Valley, NY - 32 mi.

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