Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

Once the highest and longest viaduct in the world, the Kinzua Bridge in McKean County was built in 1882 for the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad. Designed to carry heavy railroad cars filled with coal, lumber and oil across the deep Kinzua Creek gorge, the bridge was created from more than 3 million pounds of wrought iron by the Phoenix Bridge Co., a subsidiary of the Phoenix Iron Co. of Phoenixville, Chester County. Amazingly, a crew of about 120 men built the bridge without ladders or scaffolding, using only a mobile crane, two steam hoisters and rope. Extending 2,053 feet in length and 301 feet in height, the Kinzua Bridge was considered an engineering marvel from its creation. Prior to 1882 no bridge of this magnitude had ever been attempted. Trains could travel at a speed no faster than 5 mph across the flexible bridge, which vibrated with their passing across the deck supported by iron columns with an open latticework of crosspieces and struts.

In 1900 the Kinzua Bridge was completely rebuilt, with the wrought iron replaced by stronger steel members to carry heavier railroad loads. A crew of railroad bridge workers from Buffalo, New York, working 11 hours a day, completed the job in four months, which included an eight-day strike for better wages. The strike ended with an hourly wage increase from 40 cents to 45 cents. The bridge remained in continuous railroad use until 1959, when highways eclipsed railways for the transport of goods. A few years later in 1963, the bridge became the centerpiece of the newly created 331-acre Kinzua Bridge State Park.

Tragically in 2003, amid efforts to restore the bridge and replace rusted sections of steel, an F1 tornado destroyed 11 of the 20 bridge support towers in just 30 seconds of devastating high winds. Electing to leave the ruins of the fallen steel towers visible and in place on the valley floor, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources has reinterpreted this important historic structure within the state park and transformed the bridge into an overlook and observation deck to delight park visitors. The Kinzua Sky Walk, unveiled in 2011, allows pedestrians to walk across the remaining portion of the bridge and to enjoy a glass-floored observation deck suspended hundreds of feet over the Kinzua Creek gorge.

Drawing crowds of spectators and excursion riders from its inception, the Kinzua Bridge has long been a popular tourist attraction, as evidenced by postcards from the early 20th century like this one. The bridge was documented by the Historic American Engineering Record in 1971, designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1982, and commemorated with a Pennsylvania Historical Marker in 1982.

 

Pamela W. Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.