MOUNT JEWETT, Pa. — Even before its tattered remains were reimagined as a spectacular walkway over one of Pennsylvania’s prettiest gorges, the Kinzua Viaduct was one for the history books.
When it rose some 300 feet above the ground more than a century ago, the structure was the largest and longest railroad bridge in the world — higher even than the world-famous Brooklyn Bridge. Built of wrought iron by Civil War general-turned-railroad tycoon Thomas Kane, the engineering marvel stretched 2,053 feet across the Kinzua Valley, making it easier for workers to transport coal, oil and lumberacross the region’s rugged terrain.
Dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by its promoters, the bridge in 1900 was reconstructed to accommodate weightier, modern trains using 6 million-plus pounds of steel held together by 895,000 rivets, and for the next half century it reigned as McKean County’s industrial workhorse. Even when it was pulled from commercial duty in the late 1950s because trains had become too heavy, it still saw heavy traffic — from feet. Locals and tourists alike loved walking its wooden ties across the Kinzua Gorge (it’s pronounced “Kin-ZOO,” with a silent “a”) and hiking the woods below.
In 1987, years after the state purchased the bridge and created a state park around it, its tracks once again rang with the clang of steel on steel. The main attraction of the tourist Knox & Kane Railroad through Allegheny National Forest was a scenic, bouncy ride over the gorge.
“Man, I used to walk across the bridge all the time as a kid,” says Joel Broad of Butler, who on a recent, sunny Thursday was visiting the site. In September 2011 it was reborn as the Kinzua Sky Walk (kinzuaskywalk.com). “I remember when I was 7, I leaned over the side and thought I was going to die. But we still liked to fly foam planes off the center.”
Those fun and games came to an abrupt end in 2002, when inspectors discovered extensive rust on the structure and shut it down for repairs that would never be completed. On July 21, 2003, a tornado with 100 mph winds and torrential downpours ripped through the valley, pulling hundreds of trees from their roots and tearing 11 of the bridge’s 20 towers off their foundations. Within 30 seconds, the middle two-thirds of the bridge lay twisted on the ground.
When Mother Nature abruptly shuts one door, though, human ingenuity opens another.
The wreckage of the former bridge — placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1977 — still lies tangled in the grass on the gorge floor. Yet what managed not to fall is today even more awe-inspiring.
The nine remaining towers (six on the south end and three on the north) have been fashioned into a $4.3 million pedestrian walkway with a glass-bottomed observation deck that juts some 600 feet into the Kinzua Valley. It offers those who dare walk to the end spectacular views of the valley below.
If you’re acrophobic, it can be a scary stroll in the sunshine, especially if you choose to walk on the spaced wooden ties of the railroad instead of the wooden deck that straddles it. But no worries: They’re not wide enough to slip through and a chest-high rail the length of the walkway means you won’t topple over, either.
“I was scared to death the first time I did it because I’m not a big heights fan,” says Mr. Broad’s girlfriend, Dayna Sikorski of Butler. “But once you get out there, it’s really worth it.”
Since its grand opening two years ago, the skywalk has quickly become one of the area’s top tourist attractions, drawing more than 130,000 visitors each year. Hikers are officially prohibited from hiking down the hillside to the valley below, but not everyone follows the rules. Mr. Broad, for one, has made the half-hour climb numerous times in search of railroad spikes and lag bolts amid the wreckage.
“It’s really kind of cool,” he says. “It’s only when you’re at the bottom and look up that you can really see how big it is.”
We opted to get a better view of the walkway from a small observation deck built into the hillside just off the parking lot.
With miles of hiking trails nestled under the shade of old-growth trees, much of it alongside bubbling brooks, Allegheny National Forest is gorgeous any time of year. But it’s particularly lovely in fall, when the leaves on its many oak, maple and black cherry trees turn from candy yellow to candied-apple red, and roadside stands tempt with farm-fresh apples and bright-orange pumpkins. So fall is the perfect time to plan a visit to the Sky Walk, and then explore the small towns surrounding it.
This year, the colors in northern Pennsylvania are expected to peak in mid-October. For a weekly fall foliage report, visit www.leafpeepers.com/pa.htm or call the visitPA hotline at 1-800-847-4872.
If you go:
Getting there: Kinzua Bridge State Park is just north of Mount Jewett in McKean County. It’s about 145 miles (and three hours) northeast of Pittsburgh. We took Interstate 79 North to Interstate 80 East to PA Route 66 north (exit 60) to U.S. 6 East through Kane. In Mount Jewett, take PA Route 3011 north into the park. Admission to the park (open daylight hours) and skywalk is free. Info: tinyurl.com/kinzuapa or 1-814-965-2646.
Where to stay: Kane Manor Bed and Breakfast (kanemanor.com; $59 and up) has 11 guest rooms with period furnishings in a turn-of-the-century national historic landmark. Breakfast is served in the sunroom.
In Westline, you’ll find brass beds, no TVs and tongue-and-groove wall paneling in the tiny Westline Inn’s simple rooms, but hey, there’s a really cool bar downstairs ($80 and up; westlineinn.com). The upscale Mansion District Inn in Smethport (mansiondistrictinn.com; $105 and up), located in a 19th-century Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion, offers both bed and breakfast rooms, and self-catered suites; its Sky Walk package ($276) includes a two-night stay with a gourmet breakfast each morning, a craft beer tasting and a bottle of wine upon arrival. Mountain Laurel Inn in Bradford, built in 1894, has seven guest rooms with private baths; some also have working fireplaces (mountainlaurelbradford.com; $85 and up).
Require more fabulous digs? See the facing page to read about the Lodge at Glendorn in Bradford.
Where to eat: We enjoyed terrific sandwiches and a decent craft beer selection at Corner Pizza Co. in Smethport (437 W. Main St.; 1-814-887-7755), and also had a great pork barbecue lunch in the Westline Inn’s cozy pub (1 Westline Road, Westline); starting at 5:30 p.m., there’s also fine American and French dining in the formal restaurant. Kaffe Sol, a charming Swedish cafe in Mount Jewett (1 West Main St.), serves delicious coffee, sandwiches, homemade breads (don’t leave without trying the sweet rolls or rye bread). Breakfast and lunch only. Also worth a try are the hot dogs or the souvlaki dinner at Texas Hot Lunch in Kane (24 Field St.), which has been in business since 1914. Beefeaters in Bradford (27 Congress St.) is known for, what else? — its ribboned roast beef.
If you’re looking for a treat to take home, stop by Bell’s Meat Market in Kane (401 N. Fraley St.). This quaint country story sells 2,000 pounds of gourmet sausage each week, including alligator (from Louisiana and Florida), tasso and Korv (a Swedish pork sausage). Read more about Bell’s at post-gazette.com/food.
Museums/Historic sites: Old house lovers will want to spend an hour or two exploring the Smethport Mansion District. During the town’s heyday in the late 1800s, vast fortunes from the gas, lumber and railroad industries flowed into this tiny community. Wealthy inhabitants built dozens of mansions and ornate public buildings, many of which have been restored. A self-guided walking tour brochure is atsmethportpa.org.
There also are several museums to explore. The most famous is the Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford (free; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun). Made popular by GIs during WWII, thousands of Zippo lighters and Case knives are displayed here.
Smethport’s Old Jail Museum offers stories of law enforcement from the pioneer days, and who knows — you might just see a ghost. It’s reputed to be Pennsylvania’s sixth most haunted place. ($5 adults/$3 seniors; 1 to 4 p.m. Tues. and Thurs.) The Eldred WWII Museum in nearby Eldred commemorates the sacrifices and stories of local heroism during World War II. ($5, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-4 p.m. Sun.)
The Kane Depot & Train Museum at the junction of U.S. Route 6 and PA Route 66 (www.kanedepot.org; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.) is a beautifully restored 1800s train station, with local Kane and train memorabilia. It also houses Art Works at the Depot, an artists’ cooperative gallery selling fine art and crafts from the region.
Crook Farm Historical Farmstead in Bradford includes a fully restored 1847 farmhouse, schoolhouse, blacksmith and carpenter shops and a barn. It’s open by appointment only through September (1-814-362-3906 or bradfordlandmark.org).
Great outdoors: Allegheny National Forest has fabulous biking and hiking. The Kinzua Trail starts at the Westline Inn and travels along Kinzua Creek, one of the best trout fishing streams in Pennsylvania. The Blaisdell-Emery Trail follows an abandoned railroad bed between South Bradford and Lewis Run. For serious bikers, the Longhouse Scenic Drive offers a 29-mile loop with lots of hills (not for the faint of heart!)
Even more strenuous — if you go the entire distance — is the 96.3-mile-long North Country National Scenic Trail. It’s the longest trail in the Allegheny National Forest. Hike it, and you’ll see vistas of the Allegheny Reservoir as it weaves through rock outcroppings, open hardwoods, old-growth forests and stands of hemlock.
Fun and games: For a bird’s-eye view of the bridge and Allegheny National Forest, take a ride in the open cockpit of a vintage biplane. Pilot Bruce Klein of Klein Aircraft Services (1-814-642-9486 or email@example.com) will take you up in his restored 1943 Boeing Stearman. A 20-minute ride, which leaves from Bradford Regional Airport, costs $80. Rather relax on the links? Play 18 holes of golf atop the mountains at Kane Country Club in Kane. Just $30 Mon.-Thurs. ($39 weekends) and that includes a cart (kanecountryclub.com). At Pine Acres Country Club in Bradford, you’ll pay $25 for 18 holes walking (pineacrescc.com).
Tastings of local wine are offered at Flickerwood Wine Cellars in Kane (flickerwood.com), which has rockin’ live music on weekends, and Allegheny Cellars in Sheffield (alleghenycellars.com). It opened in 2007.
Festivals: The 18th annual Kinzua Bridge Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 21-22 at the Sky Walk and includes live music, arts and crafts and food vendors. In a nod to local lore, there will be a Bigfoot calling contest at 3 p.m. Sept. 21. The elusive creature with the famously large feet is said to roam the wilds of Allegheny National Forest, prompting Animal Planet to film an episode of “Finding Bigfoot” in Kane last year.