Historical Markers
Kinzua Viaduct Historical Marker
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Kinzua Viaduct

Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
Kinzua Bridge State Park, off SR 3011, 3.5 miles NE of Mount Jewett

Dedication Date:
August 15, 1982

Behind the Marker

Andrew Kinzua Stauffer was named for Kinzua [Viaduct] by his father, inspector of the structure [first] built … in 1882. Andrew drove the last rivet in the present bridge; he has asked to remove the first from it when it is dismantled.

                                                              Erie Railroad employees' magazine, June, 1958.

Kinzua Bridge Aerial Photograph Incredible, oversized photos of Kinzua after its collapse!
Kinzua Bridge Aerial Photograph.

Andrew Stauffer never got his wish. The Kinzua Viaduct - one of the most visually spectacular railroad bridges in the United States - was never dismantled, at least not by human hands. Until a 100-mph tornado knocked down more than half of it on July 21, 2003, this 301-foot-high former Erie Railroad steel bridge stretched for 2,053 feet across an isolated valley in northwestern Pennsylvania. The floor of that valley was traversed only by deer, hikers, and the three-foot-wide Kinzua Creek.

When first completed in 1882, the viaduct was part of a railroad constructed to carry bituminous coal from western Pennsylvania mines to Buffalo, N.Y.  A monument to engineering skill, the bridge was the legacy of Civil War Maj. Gen. Thomas Leiper Kane (1822-1883), whose New York, Lake Erie and Western Coal and Railroad Co. became part of the Erie system. His chief civil engineer was the French-born Octave Chanute (1832-1910), who awarded a construction contract to the markerPhoenix Bridge Company of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, renowned for its patented Phoenix columns - segmental wrought-iron shapes riveted into supports.
Showing construction on the Kinzua viaduct.
Showing construction on the Kinzua viaduct.

Workers placed the cornerstone on September 8, 1881, and assembly of the ironwork began on April 10, 1882. Forty men labored for ninety-four days to fabricate twenty iron towers, which, with girders, weighed 3.1 million pounds. The project cost $167,000. Trainloads of excursionists from as far as Pittsburgh and Buffalo visited the Kinzua Viaduct from the day it opened. Promoters touted it as "the eighth wonder of the world" and as the highest or longest railroad bridge in the world, or in North America.

Either distinction, if valid, lasted only briefly. Gustave Eiffel's 401-foot-high Garabit Viaduct in France opened in 1884. And in the United States, the 322-foot-high Pecos River High Bridge in Texas opened in 1892. (In 1976, with a height of 650 feet, the Yugoslav Railways" Mala Rijeka viaduct took the world record.)

In only eighteen years, growing train and engine weights made the iron bridge obsolete. So in the summer of 1900, workers replaced it with a steel structure that had the same dimensions, but was more than twice the weight - 6.7 million pounds. With a force of 100 to 150 men on the job, the new bridge opened on September 25, 1900. After that, Kinzua served well, but faded from the public eye.
Kinzua Postcard
Postcard of the Kinzua Bridge, Bradford, PA, circa 1910.

Veteran railroaders sometimes used the bridge to haze young brakemen. When a moving train was within a few minutes of the bridge, old-time crew members would direct an unsuspecting rookie to leave the caboose and go forward over the roof-walks on a pretext of checking for some unspecified mechanical trouble on a freight car ahead. As the train reached the viaduct, the new hire suddenly found himself terrified, staring down three hundred feet from the roof of a rocking boxcar.

Eventually, weight, speed limits, and the cost of upkeep took their toll. Heavy loads required two steam engines pulling together, but they had to stop at the viaduct to let one engine cross at a time. Being lighter, diesel locomotives ended this practice, and the last steam engine traversed the bridge on October 5, 1950. Still, the speed limit remained 5 mph.

Skirting the valley was a parallel route, several miles longer, owned by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O). In the late 1950s, the Erie reached an agreement to share those tracks and planned to retire Kinzua Viaduct. A final "farewell to the bridge" excursion ran on June 21, 1959. Four months later, a wreck on the B&O diverted detouring trains over the bridge, which reopened for one day, then closed for good.
Erie Railway, Bradford Division, Bridge 27.66, Spanning Kinzua Creek Valley, 1.5 miles northeast , Mount Jewett vicinity, McKean County, PA.
Erie Railway

Scrap dealer Nick Kovalchick bought the structure for dismantling, but, realizing its historic value, resold it in 1963 to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for public recreation use. Opened in 1970, Kinzua Bridge State Park has since grown to 329 acres, and attracts as many as 150,000 visitors a year.

In 1977, the bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks. Nine years later, the Knox and Kane Railroad began running tourist trains in the area, and after inspecting and rehabilitating the bridge, started running passenger trains across it in August, 1987. Carrying as many as 20,000 passengers a year, trains continued to run every summer and fall from then until the summer of 2002, when state officials noticed structural deterioration and closed the bridge.

Emergency repairs had been partially completed in July 2003, when a tornado toppled the eleven tallest towers into the valley below, leaving a 1,400-foot gap. Until the collapse, Kinzua remained the fifth-highest railroad bridge in North America, behind 347-foot-high Vance Creek Bridge in Washington, Pecos Bridge, 320-foot-high Crooked River Arch in Oregon, and 313-foot-high Lethbridge Viaduct in Alberta.
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