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High winds topple historic railroad bridge

Middle section of Kinzua Viaduct collapses in 80 mph wind

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The Associated Press

MOUNT JEWETT -- Blustery thunderstorms sweeping across the state toppled a historic railroad bridge yesterday afternoon near the Allegheny National Forest in McKean County that was once the tallest and largest in the world, officials said.

The center section of the 93-year-old Kinzua Viaduct lies in shambles along Kinzua Creek after being toppled by 80 mph winds. The railroad bridge was a turn-of-the-century engineering feat once touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World. (Francie Long, Bradford Era via AP)
Click photo for larger image.

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According to state park officials and crews at the site, storms packing winds up to 80 mph caused part of the Kinzua Viaduct to collapse, sending most of it crashing into the gorge below. The bridge was built in 1882 and reconstructed in 1900.

"Essentially the middle part of the bridge is gone," said Gretchen Leslie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and National Resources, which owns the bridge.

Leslie said crews had reported that as many as 12 of the 20 support towers that make up the 3,300-ton, half-mile bridge collapsed.

State officials closed the bridge to train and pedestrian traffic last summer because they feared a strong wind whipping through the valley could stress the structure enough to send parts of it crashing into the gorge.

"Our fears were realized today and the winds collapsed a good portion of the bridge," Leslie said.

State engineers are en route to the bridge this evening, about 110 miles northeast of Pittsburgh on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest, to assess the damage, Leslie said.

The storms and heavy wind whipping through the area also sent a tree crashing into a building at the Kinzua Bridge State Park, trapping a ranger, said Dan Gustafson, first assistant chief of the Mount Jewett Volunteer Fire Company.

Andrew Kinzua Stauffer watches as the final sightseeing train rumbles over Kinzua Viaduct on May 18, 1958. (Post-Gazette Archives)
Click photo for larger image.

The ranger suffered a broken leg and was taken to a hospital, Gustafson said.

The winds snapped telephone poles in half in nearby Mount Jewett, knocking out power, according to the National Weather Service.

The span, made of iron in 1882 and rebuilt using steel in 1900, stretched almost a half-mile. At 301 feet in height, it stood almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty and remained the fourth tallest railroad bridge in the nation.

The Kinzua Viaduct -- 1,552 tons of iron -- was built in 94 days and when it was completed, some hailed it as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But since the last freight train crossed it in 1959, the bridge had fallen into disrepair.

Cement casings around the original brick foundations were dyed orange from rust; some scarred with cracks and gouges from age. Rust had eaten through cross members and columns, sapping half of the strength from the bottom of the bridge and leaving piles of rust flakes a foot thick on the ground. Heavy loads had bent some of the girders over the years.

The Kinzua Viaduct was closed to even pedestrian traffic last September as engineers struggled to find a way to shore up the structure, which was still the fourth-tallest railroad bridge in the nation. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

"The storm did it in. I have lost one of my best friends," said Dick Robertson, 76, a director of the McKean County Historical Society.

Crews with W.M. Brode, of Newcomerstown, Ohio, began work to shore up the bridge in February working from the edges of the bridge to the middle.

Crews were cleared from the area before the storms swept through, Leslie said.

The Kinzua Viaduct was on the National Register of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks and National Register of Historic Places.

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