Pennsylvania's Engineering Marvels -
The Kinzua Viaduct
 
 
 
 

The Kinzua Viaduct towers over its surroundings.
Photo taken by Bill Symons; 1985


A Bridge Twice Built:
The idea to build what would be come the Kinzua Viaduct was the brainchild of General Thomas Kane, the Civil War hero who was a stakeholder in the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad.  His idea was to find a way to cross the Kinzua Valley by rail vs. a winding six mile route through the valley.  He along with Octave Chanute, a civil engineer, agreed that a viaduct high above the Kinzua Valley would be the best choice.  They hired the Phoenix Bridge Works Company, who later constructed the Pecos River High Bridge in Texas, to build the viaduct. 

Preliminary construction began in 1881 when the foundations of the bridge's 110 stone piers were laid.  To build the piers, 7,600 cubic yards of hard limestone was needed. (1)  The following year, construction of the viaduct itself began on April 10.  94 days later, the viaduct was complete.  Immediately thereafter, word of the accomplishment spread throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeast, and numerous excursion trains visited the Kinzua Valley over the next 30 years.

Erecting the viaduct was certainly an accomplishment.  Just shy of 302 feet high and at a length of 2,053 feet, the bridge was built without any scaffolding.  When one wrought iron tower was completed, a wooden crane was built at the top of that tower to assist the construction of the next tower.  The 40 man crew used this process to build what was then the world's highest and longest rail bridge ever built.  The bridge cost the railway $167,000. (1)

As trains and their payloads grew heavier, the ability of the viaduct to handle such loads came into question.  The bridge narrowly missed a devastating blow in 1889 when a train derailment saw three rail cars crash into the valley.  High winds were also a concern.  The winds were severe enough that a five mile an hour limit was in place.

A new bridge was necessary, and in May of 1900, the iron viaduct was closed to traffic.  Construction of a new steel bridge soon began.  The construction of the new viaduct started on May 24th; the entire ironworks were torn down and replaced by the sturdier steel structure.  Building the new bridge lasted only 105 days, and on September 25, 1900, rail service returned to the viaduct.

The new Kinzua Viaduct was built by the Elmira Bridge Company.  The new bridge retained the original height (301.5') and length (2053') of the original.  However, the steel structure was much heavier.  The new bridge consisted of 6,715,000 pounds of steel vs. the 3,105,000 pounds of iron used on the original viaduct 18 years earlier. (1)

Centerpiece of a State Park:
Like many other railways, the automobile era cut heavily into rail traffic.  Gradually into the mid-20th century, use of the viaduct by the Erie Railroad -- the successor to the New York, Lake Erie & Western -- declined.  Regular passenger service ended in 1949, and the last train to cross the bridge was on June 21, 1959.  The Erie abandoned the line and sold the bridge to Nick Kovalchick for $76,000. (2)  Mr. Kovalchick's original intention was to tear down the bridge and use it for scrap, but he changed his mind.  He eventually sold the abandoned viaduct to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who in 1963 announced the creation of Kinzua Bridge State Park.  The aging viaduct would become the centerpiece of the new park.

The park opened in 1970; and in addition to the bridge, the park offered hiking and picnicking.  In 1977, the viaduct was added to the National Register of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.  A decade later, and after nearly 30 years of silence, trains once again crossed over the Kinzua Valley on the now historic viaduct.  The Knox and Kane Railroad, formed in 1986, began a passenger excursion route with the viaduct as the main attraction.  Their first train crossed the viaduct in August 1987.  With the addition of the excursion train, the park became highly successful attracting nearly 140,000 visitors a year. (2)

A Tragic End:
In just over one year, the park and the viaduct suffered two strong blows.  The first was a temporary setback that was to preserve the viaduct's longevity; the second would greatly alter the bridge's history.  In February 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources -- who oversee the park -- deemed that the Kinzua Viaduct needed to undergo a full inspection.  As the inspection progressed, engineers learned that some parts of the bridge had rusted through.  It was determined that the high winds that routinely occurred in the valley could cause enough lateral pressure that the viaduct could collapse to the ground below.  (3)  As a result that June, the bridge was closed to train traffic.  Two months later in August, pedestrian traffic was prohibited on the viaduct.  (4) 

The question then arose on what to do with the bridge.  Various individuals and local groups voiced their opinion in preserving the bridge.  In February 2003, crews began a $10 million project to rehabilitate, stabilize, and strengthen the viaduct. 

Unfortunately, the work to refurbish the Kinzua Viaduct was never finished.  The second misfortune to the Kinzua Viaduct occurred on the stormy afternoon of July 21, 2003.  Around 3:15 p.m. that Monday, the bridge was partially destroyed by a tornado that rolled through the valley.   The tornado destroyed eleven of the towers that stood in the center of the span.  The entire center of the viaduct collapsed to the valley floor below.

In 2004, the DCNR decided not to rebuild the damaged viaduct as they considered it too costly.  The following February the Knox and Kane filed suit against the DCNR for compensation for the loss of the use of railroad facilities, specifically the rail lined owned by the K&K north of the viaduct, as a result of the tornado.  The law suit which was originally for $106,000 and eventually settled for $12,500. (5)  That April, the K&K announced it would no longer offer excursion trains to Kinzua Bridge State Park, as interest in the route decreased.  Finally in 2006, the Knox and Kane railroad would cease operations.   Currently, there are no excursion trains to the site of the damaged viaduct.

Kinzua Viaduct and Valley Photos:
All photos taken by Bill Symons, 1985


The Kinzua Viaduct on an extremely hazy day. With the full scenery, it is almost like the viaduct has grown up from the valley floor.
The similar construction of each tower allows for this great tunnel like shot. At nearly 302', the Kinzua Creek is a long way below. A few miles from the park, PA 59 crosses the Kinzua Branch of the Allegheny Reservoir.
The construction of the Kinzua Dam formed the Allegheny Reservoir. The yellow plate on the dan is the high-water mark during Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Site Navigation:
  • Tornado Damage to the Kinzua Viaduct 
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  • Sources & Links:

  • (1) Porter, Ross. "The History of the Kinzua Viaduct." Planet Smethport. http://www.smethporthistory.org/kinzuaviaduct/ (April 27, 2007) 
  • (2) "Kinzua Viaduct succumbing to age." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 6, 2002. 
  • (3) Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "Pennsylvania State Parks - Kinzua Bridge - PA DCNR." http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/kinzuabridge.aspx (May 1, 2007) 
  • (4) "Save the Kinzua Bridge." http://www.kinzuabridge.com/ (May 1, 2007) 
  • (5) Schellhammer, Marcie. "Railroad's agreement to use Kinzua Bridge State Park ends." The Bradford Era. December 21, 2005. 
  • Kinzua Bridge State Park --PA DCNR 
  • History of the Kinzua Viaduct ---Planet Smethport 
  • The Kinzua Viaduct @ Venangoil.com ---Daniel Alward 
  • Save the Kinzua Bridge 
  • Engines of our Ingenuity - No: 1865 - The Kinzua Viaduct ---The University of Houston 
  • The Kinzua Hall Viaduct ---Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology 
  • Kinzua Viaduct ---Kinzua Internet Services 
  • Kinzua Viaduct @ bridgemeister.com 
  • Kinzua Railway Viaduct ---American Society of Civil Engineers 
  • Knox & Kane Railway ---Allegheny National Forest Vacation Bureau 

  • Page Created: May 5, 2007
    Last Updated: January 17, 2010

    © 2007-10 Adam Prince

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