On 21 July 2003, a fierce tornado struck northern Pennsylvania and destroyed a large section of the Kinzua Viaduct, a historic railroad trestle that was once billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
The Kinzua Viaduct was first constructed in 1882, and at that time it was the highest and longest viaduct in the world measuring 92 meters tall and 625 meters long. The viaduct was built by the Lake Erie and Western Railway as part of a line from Bradford south to the coal fields in Elk County. Engineer Octave Chanute decided it’d be cheaper to build a bridge across the Kinzua Valley than to lay an additional 13 km of track over rough terrain. When finished, the bridge was larger than any that had been attempted, and over twice as large as the largest similar structure at the time, the Portage Bridge over the Genesee River in western New York.
The collapsed ruins of Kinzua Viaduct. Photo: Manfred Schmidt/Shutterstock.com
The bridge was completed in only three months by a shockingly small crew of forty. The short construction time was made possible by the fact that no scaffolding was used. Instead, a gin pole was used to build the first tower. Then a wooden crane was constructed on top of the first tower and was used to build the second tower. This process was repeated across all twenty towers.
The Kinzua Viaduct became a tourist attraction. People came from as far away as Buffalo, New York, and Pittsburgh and took a ride across the viaduct.
From the very beginning, high winds were a constant threat to the bridge. When winds became exceptionally strong the viaduct swayed and trains had to slow down to 5 miles an hour. By the turn of the century, locomotives had become heavier and the iron bridge could no longer carry the trains safely. In 1900, the bridge was dismantled and replaced by a new iron bridge, twice as heavy as the original. It was completed in a record time of just four months, which was made all the more remarkable considering the equipment used, forest fires and worker strikes that hindered construction.
The first The Kinzua Bridge. Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
As in the old bridge, a special construction technique was used in the building of the new viaduct. Construction was started on both ends using two 180-foot timber traveler, that spanned three towers each. While the traveler rested on the two extreme towers, the middle tower was demolished and a new tower was built in its place. Then the traveler moved forward by one tower to effect the reconstruction of the next tower.
Although the new viaduct was able to safely accommodate some of the largest and heaviest locomotives of the time, the speed limit of 5 miles per hour was still enforced. As the bridge aged, heavy trains pulled by two steam locomotives had to stop so the engines could cross the bridge one at a time.
In 1959, the ageing bridge was bought by the Kovalchick Salvage Company with the purpose of dismantling the structure. But when Nick Kovalchick, head of the Kovalchick Salvage Company, saw the bridge for the first time, he supposedly said—”There will never be another bridge like this.”
The Kinzua Bridge in July 1971. Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
Kovalchick ended up selling the bridge to the federal government and the bridge became the centerpiece of the Kinzua Bridge State Park. Excursion trains enabled brave tourists to traverse the viaduct long after it closed to coal haulage. In a May 1998 New York Times article, Dan Behrman describes being on the bridge as “more akin to ballooning than railroading,” because of the lack of high guard rails. “You stare straight out with nothing between you and an immense sea of verdure a hundred yards below,” Behrman wrote.
In 2002, inspectors found the bridge too wonky and decided to close it for visitors. Repairing was commenced, but before it could be completed, the tornado tore the bridge down. That day, wind speeds was more than 90 miles per hours and workers were instructed to leave the site early due to the weather.
Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr
An eyewitness later told investigators:
I was attempting to leave job number 0304 and a tree fell fell in front of my truck. The wind was blowing almost hard enough to turn my truck over. I saw the guard shack leave the ground and land twenty feet away from where it was. After the wind died down Kevin Hellmandallar and I ran out to see if the bridge collapsed. We saw the bridge was down.
Only one end of the bridge stands today. The fallen sections were never cleared, and is still visible lying on the ground. Park officials believed that the ruins could serve as a powerful reminder to the force of nature, and a poignant way of documenting the bridge’s tragic end.
Photo: Arron Walters/Shutterstock.com
Photo: Adam Moss/Flickr
Photo: Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr
Photo: Zack Frank/Shutterstock.com
Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/Flickr
Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinzua_Bridge
# Dan Behrman, Steaming Through Pennsylvania, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/08/travel/steaming-through-pennsylvania.html