Death Of A Landmark
IN OUR WINTER 2003 issue the historian and photographer David Plowden called the Kinzua Viaduct a “truly heroic nineteenth-century railroad bridge.” He went on to say, “It has stood rusting in a remote part of northwestern Pennsylvania ever since the Erie Railroad abandoned it in 1959, but its future is far happier than that of most unused bridges.” So indeed it seemed, for the majestic viaduct, towering 300 feet above Kinzua Creek, formed the centerpiece of a popular park, and the W. M. Brode Company, of Newcomerstown, Ohio, was about to start a $12 million renovation.
Brode’s work crews began in February and made good progress until 3:00 P.M. on July 21, when bad weather forced them to leave for the day. The site manager, Floyd Quillin, and a few others stayed behind to inventory construction materials. “It was raining and blowing very hard as I left the trailer,” says Quillin, “and I heard a series of boom, boom, booms, like thunder. Leaves and branches were starting to fly, so we hurried to our truck, and by the time we reached the park gate, the trees on either side of the road were bending down toward each other .
“We saw the 10-by-16-foot guard shack get picked up, and then we saw the driver’s-side wheels of the guard’s pickup truck lifting off the ground. I backed up to a culvert pipe, hoping we could take cover there, but suddenly it was all over. Someone yelled, ‘I think the bridge came down,’ and it took us a while to climb through the downed trees and wreckage to a point where we could see. It looked all right at first, but when we got closer, we saw that the whole middle was gone. Then I realized the booms I’d heard were the towers hitting the ground one by one.” In the space of about a minute, the centuryold Kinzua Viaduct had been felled by a Force 1 tornado, which knocked down 11 of its 20 supporting columns.
The 121-year history of the ruined structure is a tale of two bridges. In the early 1880s the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad wanted to bring Pennsylvania coal to Buffalo and the Great Lakes through the rugged terrain of McKean County. The company’s chief engineer, Octave Chanute (the same Octave Chanute whose glider research would later inspire the Wright brothers), proposed to cross the plunging Kinzua Creek Valley with a half-milelong viaduct. Chanute, Adolphus Bonzano, and Thomas Curds Clarke came up with an efficient and elegant design, a continuous Howe truss made from prefabricated wrought iron.
The Phoenixville Bridge Works assembled the Kinzua Viaduct in an amazing 94 days in 1882. As the highest and longest American bridge of its time, and briefly the world’s highest, the structure became an immediate tourist attraction. By 1900, however, it could no longer withstand the stresses of increased traffic and heavier trains, and the Erie Railroad replaced it with a steel deck-girder span designed by Chanute and Mason R. Strong and laid upon the original foundation piers. Construction began on May 24, 1900, and was finished on September 25.
It remained a working viaduct until 1959, when the Erie Railroad shut down the line. Nick Kovalchick, a scrap and salvage dealer, got the contract to demolish the viaduct, but he could not bring himself to destroy such a beautiful structure, and he persuaded the state to build a park around it. Kinzua Bridge State Park opened in 1970 and became a favorite among local residents and bridge lovers, who could cross the viaduct on foot or in an excursion train until the summer of 2002, when an inspection revealed significant deterioration. Unfortunately the ensuing renovation could not be com-completed in time to save it. As Stephen Brode of the Brode renovation firm says, “The towers we’d completely repaired withstood everything, even the forces of the broken part of the structure pulling against them as the tornado brought them down. They were never designed for that load.”
Jean Cutler, director of Pennsylvania’s State Historic Preservation Office, says the Kinzua Viaduct will not be delisted from the National Register of Historic Places or the National Register of Civil Engineering Landmarks. Instead, its status will be re-evaluated after the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources decides what to do with the structure. According to Terrence Brady, deputy press secretary of the DCNR, three options are under consideration: Leave the collapsed bridge as is, and shore up the parts that are still standing; repair what’s left, and clear away the wreckage; or rebuild the bridge. Among the 2,000 people who visit the site each day, the prevailing sentiment is clear: Rebuild it. Many even ask how they can contribute to the reconstruction fund.
To Lisa Gensheimer, who had just spent nine months developing a film about the Kinzua Viaduct with her husband for public television, “When a magnificent structure like this falls down, it drives home the importance of documentation.” She continues on a hopeful note: “Though this is certainly not the ending we had anticipated, we are going to follow this story wherever it leads us. This tornado is just one more event in the life of the bridge.”