Gretchen McKay

Kinzua colors: Reborn bridge offers spectacular views of Pennsylvania fall foliage

The Allegheny National Forest blazes with color in the fall in this view from overlook at the toppled Kinzua Bridge, now a spectacular skywalk

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 brklein@hughes.net) 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.

 

Find Bigfoot and more, at Jack Bell’s meat market in Kane, Pa.

Jack Bell, 76, has been making specialty sausages in his meat shop in Kane, Pa., for more than 40 years/Gretchen McKay

KANE, Pa. — Mom-and-pop butcher shops usually are pretty friendly places, but not always the cutest businesses on the block.

Not so with Bell’s Meat & Poultry, Jack Bell’s tiny market here in the heart of Allegheny National Forest.

It’s tough to say what’s more Instagram-tastic about the McKean County meaterie: the baskets of local produce stacked outside the front door that speak to the season, or the 10-foot-tall Bigfoot standing guard in the parking lot. Some guy named Snuffy hand-carved the wooden statue this past spring in honor of the hairy creature with the famously big feet who’s said to roam these parts (Animal Planet recently filmed an episode of “Finding Bigfoot” in the area). From the day it went up, it’s been an attention-grabber.

“That causes more commotion!” says the 76-year-old grocer, who has named several products after the giant ape-man. “I can’t tell you how many people stop to take pictures with him.

“And boy, it’s a dandy,” he adds. Even over the phone, I can tell he’s smiling. “He musta been looking right at him when he made it!”

Nearly as picturesque are the store’s shelves, packed with row after row of housemade pickles, jams and other curious delicacies you didn’t know could be stuffed into a Mason jar with sugar and vinegar. Pickled beef logs or chicken gizzards, anyone? I didn’t think so. Though Mr. Bell — Jack to friends, or basically anyone who walks into the store — is happy to try to change your mind with a sample. Will insist upon it, in fact, if he sees you making a face at the label.

Me? I was in search the gourmet sausages tucked into the cold case at the rear of the store — 32 varieties to date, with more in the works, with flavors ranging from sweet (Apple) to savory (Bratwurst) to peppery (Hot Wild Leek) to burn-your-lips spicy (Cajun Boudin). Prices start at $4.99 a pound.

“And I’ve got a Tasso that’s unreal,” I hear Mr. Bell tell a fellow customer as I consider my many options, which on this fine fall day also include Garlic Parmesan, Kick-Ass (with cheese and jalapeno) and the best-selling St. Mary’s Springwater, crafted with Straub beer from nearby St. Mary’s.

Meat sticks are among the many pickled items in Bell’s Meat Market in Kane, Pa/Gretchen McKay

When we first heard about Bell’s, my husband and I were enjoying a mouthful of Kinzua Journey, a semi-sweet white wine that Flickerwood Wine Cellars makes in honor of the new Kinzua Bridge Skywalk in nearby Mount Jewett. During our tasting ($3 for six wines), we’d asked the bartender what else there was to do in tiny Kane, which looked as if its best days just might be behind it, save for the Railroad Depot and Museum.

She pursed her lips in thought. “You could go to Texas Hot Lunch/4 Sons,” she said after a while, referring to a local hot dog joint that’s been in business since 1928. Then her smile brightened. “Or try my favorite, Bell’s deli. They make alligator sausage and Cajun crab dip!”

Hmm. Hot dogs or alligator. It wasn’t a tough decision.

A main-drag stalwart for more than 40 years, Bell’s sits at the very end of the business district on Route 6. Mr. Bell opened it in 1971 after spending 13 years as a deli-department manager for Market Basket, a small chain of groceries. Towards the end of his career there, a friend who used to be a Sugardale salesman opened a small market in Limestone, N.Y., and had so much fun running it that he urged Mr. Bell to go out on his own, too.

“I wasn’t really being challenged, so I thought, ‘Man, I think I’ll do that,” he recalls. He’s never looked back.

Like many new to the business, the New York native started small, offering just a handful of sausages in addition to cold meat. Right off the bat, he says, he had to learn how to make Korv, a mild Swedish sausage made of pork, beef and mashed potatoes and seasoned with allspice, to please residents of Mount Jewett, which has a large population of people with Swedish ancestry. Apparently, he nailed the recipe: Today, he sells upwards of two tons a week of the sausage during the holidays. Or as he puts it, “I’m an Irishman, but I’ve got those Swedes thinkin’ I know what I’m doin’. They come from near and far to get that stuff.”

As his skill grew with sausage-making, so did his varieties. Today there’s Polish sausage along with sweet and hot Italian; Mexican-style chorizo; smoked kielbasa; bacon sausage; blueberry and apple breakfast sausage; and in a nod to nearby Bradford’s annual Stinkfest each May, two types of ramp sausage — sweet and hot — made with the locally foraged wild leeks he stores throughout the year in two freezers. The Creole-seasoned Bigfoot sausage also is a heavy hitter, as is his Greek sausage, plump with feta and spinach.

“I got a lot of ideas,” he says of the ever-growing list of ingredients. “It all depends on what we’re thinking about that day.”

One of his latest is the ‘gator sausage. From 1988 to 2003, Mr. Bell fished professionally on the Bassmaster’s and FLW sport fishing tournament circuits, spending his winters in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. Two years ago, he decided to create a sausage that captured some of the flavors of the South. He decided on alligator because it’s as mild as it is exotic, and works nicely with Cajun spices.

“It’s farm-raised, not those wild ones,” he’s quick to point out. He imports the tail meat from a buddy in Okeechkobe, Fla., and from Louisiana, and mixes it with ground chicken thighs.

The region’s many gas and oil workers are enthusiastic customers of the sausage, and they also go crazy over his Tasso, a Creole-style smoked sausage that’s made from cayenne-, garlic- and salt-rubbed pork. (There’s a smokehouse out back.)

“Man, those boys like that. That’s a real Louisiana deal,” he exclaims.

Bigfoot stands guard over the parking lot at Jack Bell’s meat shop in Kane, Pa. And he’s on the menu, too/Gretchen McKay

Whatever’s stuffed inside the natural hog casings, the results have long been a family affair: Until she was beset by health problems, his wife, Carol, helped in the store. So did his daughter, Pam, who now lives in Georgia. These days, he works — seven 10-hour days a week — alongside his grandson, James, and his son, Jack Jr., who runs the greenhouse next to the market when he’s not on the job in the Marcellus Shale industry.

It’s a lot of long days, but Mr. Bell doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.

Starting his own meat market, he says, is “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Because it’s a true service counter — he’ll tell you how to cook what you buy and offer up recipes — he gets a chance to visit with people.

“We have fun in here,” he says. “Every day is a challenge, but my customers keep coming back. It’s all about the people.

“You don’t have to look over your shoulder up here,” he adds.

Unless, of course, you run into Bigfoot in the Allegheny National Forest.

Bell’s Meats & Poultry is located at 203 N. Fraley St in Kane, Pa. It’s about a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Store hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sun. Info: jackbellsmeats.com or 1-814-837-7321.