History of the Kinzua Bridge

In my research about the Kinzua Bridge for the story, I learned a great deal about how it was built and what a remarkable engineering masterpiece the bridge was when it was built. A friend of mine recently shared some of the details of its history. I thought this would be something to add to my blog. The bridge almost becomes a third character between Nicole and Tom — in fact, a few readers have even made that comment to me.

The idea to build what would be come the Kinzua Viaduct was the brainchild of General Thomas Kane, the Civil War hero who was a stakeholder in the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad. His idea was to find a way to cross the Kinzua Valley by rail versus a winding six mile route through the valley. He along with Octave Chanute, a civil engineer, agreed that a viaduct high above the Kinzua Valley would be the best choice. They hired the Phoenix Bridge Works Company, who later constructed the Pecos River High Bridge in Texas, to build the viaduct. Preliminary construction began in 1881 when the foundations of the bridge’s 110 stone piers were laid. To build the piers, 7,600 cubic yards of hard limestone was needed. The following year, construction of the viaduct itself began on April 10. 94 days later, the viaduct was complete. Immediately thereafter, word of the accomplishment spread throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeast, and numerous excursion trains visited the Kinzua Valley over the next 30 years. Erecting the viaduct was certainly an accomplishment. Just shy of 302 feet high and at a length of 2,053 feet, the bridge was built without any scaffolding. When one wrought iron tower was completed, a wooden crane was built at the top of that tower to assist the construction of the next tower.

The 40 man crew used this process to build what was then the world’s highest and longest rail bridge ever built. The bridge cost the railway $167,000. As trains and their payloads grew heavier, the ability of the viaduct to handle such loads came into question. The bridge narrowly missed a devastating blow in 1889 when a train derailment saw three rail cars crash into the valley. High winds were also a concern. The winds were severe enough that a five mile an hour limit was in place. A new bridge was necessary, and in May of 1900, the iron viaduct was closed to traffic. Construction of a new steel bridge soon began. The construction of the new viaduct started on May 24th; the entire ironworks were torn down and replaced by the sturdier steel structure. Building the new bridge lasted only 105 days, and on September 25, 1900, rail service returned to the viaduct. The new Kinzua Viaduct was built by the Elmira Bridge Company. The new bridge retained the original height (301.5′) and length (2053′) of the original. However, the steel structure was much heavier. The new bridge consisted of 6,715,000 pounds of steel vs. the 3,105,000 pounds of iron used on the original viaduct 18 years earlier.