Vanessa Orr a RoamRight Blog Author

How A Tornado Created A Tourist Attraction

You’ve got to love a place that pays tribute to the fact that a bridge once stood there…and now it doesn’t. 

When it was first built in 1882, the Kinzua Viaduct, located in Mt. Jewett, PA, was once billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Standing 301 feet tall and 2,053 feet across, higher than even the Brooklyn Bridge, it was at the time the longest and tallest railroad structure in the world. Built to transport coal, oil and lumber from northwestern Pennsylvania, this marvel of engineering was later used to host passenger excursions for those wanting to cross the bridge on steam-driven trains while admiring the views of Kinzua Bridge State Park. 

That all ended in July of 2003 when a tornado tore through the area, crumpling 11 of the bridge’s 20 towers and leaving the twisted wreckage along the valley floor. In less than 30 seconds, the 136-year-old steel bridge was destroyed. 

Instead of tearing the rest of the bridge down, however, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources took what was left and turned it into the Kinzua Sky Walk, an exciting and semi-terrifying pedestrian walkway that allows people to walk 600 feet out into the center of the gorge. Now a popular tourist attraction, the Sky Walk is an intriguing combination of history, architecture, engineering and nature.

Not being a big fan of heights, I was a little hesitant to walk the reinforced railroad tracks, especially since you can look straight through them to see the valley floor below (far, far below). While it’s perfectly safe and very well-designed, something about walking out over an abyss goes against my better instincts. The challenge is well worth it, though, because once you reach the large viewing platform at the end, you‘ll be amazed by the picturesque views, and you can even look straight down through a partial glass floor to see the damaged steel towers below. I say “you,” because I did it once and am now good forever.

If you’d like a closer look at the damage that the tornado did, you can hike down to the bottom of the gorge on the Kinzua Creek Trail, or you can take a less strenuous walk to a picture-taking platform under the sky walk for selfies with an astounding backdrop. 

Though the scenery is stunning, make sure to also stop in the visitor’s center, because the story behind the viaduct is equally as fascinating. You’ll be met by life-sized statues of the viaduct’s creators, General Thomas L. Kane, engineer Octave Chanute and ironworks designer Adolphus Bonzano, who along with a crew of 125 men built the viaduct in 94 days—with none of the technology we have today. Other exhibits include lessons on the area’s geography, engineering advancements in the Industrial Age, and even a recording of pilot Odo Valentine, who famously flew a biplane under the viaduct in 1939.

My favorite part of the exhibition hall was the chance to sit in a replica of a train car and watch a video about the history of the project, as well as see views of the changing scenery in the Kinzua Valley throughout the year. Note that if you have kids, you may have trouble pulling them away from the model train or the chance to build a miniature viaduct on their own.

Considered one of the 10 most beautiful skywalks in the world, the Kinzua Sky Walk is a must-stop for those who love history, science and scenic views…and want a first-hand look at the overwhelming power of Mother Nature.

To learn more and get driving directions, visit the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau web site.

Have you visited any other sky walks? Share your story with us on Facebook!

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About the Author

Vanessa Orr

Vanessa Orr, a RoamRight Blog Author Freelance writer. Road tripper. Travel diva. Dog rescuer. Writes for food or kibbles and bits. Based out of Pittsburgh, PA, via Juneau, AK, Vanessa has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years, and has been published in many diverse publications,including GEEK, Recreation News, CATS, VFW magazine, the Antique Trader and more. An avid traveler, she always brings home amazing memories...and often more dogs. Follow Vanessa on her blog, Mood Swings and Other Things, on TwitterFacebookPinterest, or Instagram.

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