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Kinzua Viaduct succumbing to age

Sunday, October 06, 2002

By The Associated Press

MT. JEWETT, Pa. -- The Kinzua Viaduct is a rusted 3,300-ton testament to the Industrial Age once touted as an engineering marvel, the tallest and longest railroad bridge in the world. Without repairs, it may someday be only a memory.

Visitors hike beneath the Kinzua Viaduct. (Gene J. Puskar/ Associated Press)

The History of the Kinzua Viaduct

Engineers are struggling to find a way to shore up the bridge, a turn-of-the-century architectural feat that remains the fourth-tallest railroad bridge in the nation and is listed on both the National Register of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks and National Register of Historic Places.

"Given the dependence of the railroading industry on bridges and being one of the biggest ever built, it is important," said Rob McGonigal, editor of Classic Trains magazine. "I made a pilgrimage when I was driving across Pennsylvania. I made a point to go out of my way because it is one of those landmarks of American railroading."

The span, made of iron in 1882 and rebuilt using steel in 1900, stretches almost a half-mile. At 301 feet in height, it stands almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty and, in its heyday, could support the 511-ton Big Boy, the biggest steam engine in the world.

Now it's off limits to pedestrians.

Cement casings around the original brick foundations are dyed orange from rust; some are scarred with cracks and gouges from age. Rust has 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 have bent some of the girders over the years.

The concern now is that winds whipping through the valley on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest, about 110 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, could stress the structure enough to send parts of it crashing into the gorge. How much stress it would take to break the bridge is anyone's guess, say engineers with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which owns the bridge.

A tourist train that used to chug across the bridge was removed in June; in August, pedestrians were banned. Officials don't even want anyone under the bridge in the gorge.

"It could be very unstable with high winds, say 80 to 90 mph. Everyone wants to say, 'Well, what happens at 50 [mph]?' You can't analyze all points of the structure," said James Eppley, an engineer with the state agency. "You could lose a girder or lose a tower and it would still stand up, but we don't like those kinds of chances."

The bridge has been saved once already. In 1959, the Erie Railroad sold the bridge to scrap metal dealer Nick Kovalchick, of Indiana, Pa., for $76,000. But Kovalchick, who has since died, reconsidered once he saw it. He sold the bridge to the state three years later.

"He fell in love with it. We talked about and went to the bridge all the time," said Joe Kovalchick, 61, Nick's son who now runs the Kovalchick Corp. "We are very proud of the fact we saved the bridge for the public."

State officials acknowledge little work had been done on the bridge in the past 43 years. Now that it has fallen into disrepair, engineers are trying to determine what they can do.

No one is sure the weakened steel is suitable for welding repairs, and few manufacturers make the parts, such as lattices and rivets, needed to fix the bridge. Any work would have to be done with care not to throw the bridge off balance.

Gen. Thomas L. Kane dreamed up the bridge as a way to lure the New York & Erie Railroad to build a line from Erie to Sunbury and help settle Elk and McKean counties.

Rather than snake tracks down one side of the Kinzua Creek Valley and up the other, Kane -- who has a borough named after him 15 miles away -- chose to build a bridge "loftier than any yet built by man." He hired the Phoenix Bridge Co., which went on to build the Pecos Viaduct in Texas, still the second-tallest bridge in the country at 320 feet.

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. When it was rebuilt using steel to accommodate heavier trains in 1900, it was still the fourth-tallest such bridge in the world.

The bridge hasn't had a freight train on it since 1959, when the Erie Railroad decided to share a nearby line. Still, it has remained an important tourist attraction, drawing as many as 140,000 people a year.

That provides additional impetus to keep the bridge standing.

One possibility engineers are looking at is whether it is feasible to tie cables to the bridge's 20 towers and anchor them in the ground. Other ideas include using tie rods to stabilize the legs of the towers.

Eppley estimates it will cost at least $1 million to stabilize the bridge and another $10 million to make it safe for trains again.

The state Department of Transportation has pledged $1 million for the repairs, which could begin late this year. Money for more permanent repairs is still a question, Eppley said.

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