The Tale of Pennsylvania’s Kinzua Bridge

The Tale of Pennsylvania’s Kinzua Bridge

What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about Pennsylvania? William Penn? Philadelphia? Coal mining? Industry? Battlefields? Politics and policies? The Pittsburgh Steelers? I highly doubt something as innocuous as a failed bridge would be at the forefront of your musings. Heck, I didn’t even hear about it until the bridge collapsed during my college days in 2003 due to a tornado that tore through the Kinzua Gorge.

During the aftermath and news reports on the recent collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge earlier this year, it reminded me of another such event that took place back in 2003. A student in Tennessee at the time, I vaguely remember hearing reports about it on Tennessee news stations. It was that big of an event – an F1 tornado coupled with a toppled bridge – that it made national news.

Once touted as the “8th Wonder of the World,” the bridge was over a hundred years old by the time of its collapse. Its trusses spanned the 2,052 feet from end to end, and served multiple Pennsylvanian industries from 1882 to 1959.

“As the crew was leaving the site, trees were falling down across the access road,” said Steven Brode of W.M. Brode Co. of Newcomerstown, Ohio, the company working on the bridge. “That’s when my superintendent said he thought at first he was hearing more trees falling; he heard this series of booms — boom, boom, boom, boom. Later he realized that was probably the towers falling. He called me to tell me he thought part of the bridge had fallen.” […] A 1,400-foot section of the bridge had “just laid over on its side.”

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In this video found on YouTube, a group of engineers discuss just how this could’ve happened:

When it comes to weather events like tornados, one doesn’t often think of Pennsylvania experiencing, well, any at all. But I remember as a child having to hide under the basement steps for half an hour one summer evening and not ever wanting to have to do that again. “We’re not Tornado Alley,” I recall saying. “We live in the Rust Belt to avoid all that!”

However, according to the National Weather Service, the 2003 tornado was categorized as an F1, “which has winds from 73 to 112 mph.” Not only that, but to many in the group, it looked like an eerie scene out of a movie or a book rather than real life.

“It was very eerie. The whole valley was filled with fog, it was very dusky, and it almost looked like a battle scene, with the fog and this structure crumpled up,” said Emberg, vice president of Herbert Rowland & Grubic, an engineering firm in Harrisburg.

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Pennsylvania’s railroad system will forever be tied to its industrial era, as many of the rail building projects were funded by steel and coal industry moguls like Andrew Carnegie and HC Frick. Two bridges, engineered by two different individuals, once spanned the gorge. It wasn’t always the same construction. First, Octave Chanute took on the challenge of designing the original infrastructure and a company called the Phoenix Iron Works built and completed it in 1882 to 1883.

On completion, the bridge was the tallest and longest railroad bridge in the world and was advertised as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Six of the bridge’s 20 towers were taller than the Brooklyn Bridge. Excursion trains from as far away as Buffalo, New York, and Pittsburgh would come just to cross the Kinzua Bridge, which held the height record until the Garabit viaduct, 401 feet (122 m) tall, was completed in France in 1884. Trains crossing the bridge were restricted to a speed of 5 miles per hour (8.0 km/h) because the locomotive, and sometimes the wind, caused the bridge to vibrate. People sometimes visited the bridge in hopes of finding the loot of a bank robber, who supposedly hid $40,000 in gold and currency under or near it.

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Sometimes, but only sometimes, I wish I lived in a smaller state. As it stands, it would be about a three hour drive from where I live in Pittsburgh to reach this state park rich in history and gorgeous scenery.

I don’t think we can call it an “engineering marvel,” as upwinds from a very powerful tornado eventually caused the Kinzua Bridge’s demise. By the time it happened, the bridge no longer played a role in modern industry. It was no longer needed to haul freight, nor could it due to the increased weight of modern train construction.

As much as we’d like them to, build projects like the Kinzua Bridge just don’t last forever. Especially when there are engineering decisions made a hundred years ago that factor in to its ultimate devastation. Now, the Bridge acts as an overlook into the gorge, and I just may have to make a day trip excursion up to the park to check it out for myself. Alas, as life stands right now, it’s trip that’s a bit too far for my old junk Sonata to make. Perhaps when I finally get my new car, that will be one of the first places I’ll visit on my own.

For now, I’ll stick with the research. With the rise and eventual fall of Pennsylvania’s “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Kinzua Bridge. If you’re a Pennsylvania local, keep an eye on the news on July 21st. That date marks nineteen years since the incident.

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