MT. JEWETT – A tornado in July 2003 toppled the midsection of the Kinzua Viaduct and virtually knocked out the area's major tourist attraction.
Mother Nature won this battle, but the ingenuity of man has overcome that setback with the construction of the Kinzua Sky Walk-- a pedestrian walkway built atop the very towers that once supported the historic Kinzua Bridge near Mt. Jewett.
"Out of the disaster of the tornado, the idea to re-invent the park-side towers into the Kinzua Sky Walk was created," Linda Devlin said Thursday at a program prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Sky Walk. "The end result is spectacular."
Devlin is the executive director of the Bradford-based Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau (ANFVB), which has played a major role in reviving the Kinzua Bridge State Park as a destination for tourists.
According to Devlin, "it is estimated that the Kinzua Sky Walk will bring $11.5 million additional tourism revenue into our local economy."
The Sky Walk is a wooden walkway that provides visitors with a panoramic view of the Kinzua Creek Valley and the steel rubble from the bridge-- once the highest railroad span in the world. A glass floor at the valley end of the walkway enables visitors to see the support towers and the trees and vegetation below.
The $4.3-million project, which began in 2009, includes wide paved paths to the Sky Walk from parking lots at McKean County's only state park.
Rails still remain in the center of the walkway to remind visitors that trains once crossed the valley on the viaduct. The Knox and Kane Railroad operated an excursion train over the bridge for about 15 years from 1987 to 2002. Bridge-crossings ended in 2002 when it was determined that the bridge needed improvements to be safe. The renovations were under way when the tornado struck and downed the midsection of the bridge.
"We are excited that, eight years after the historic railroad viaduct at Kinzua Bridge State Park was in part toppled by a tornado, visitors can experience in a new way what the structure once was and also understand the power of the forces of nature that claimed a portion of it," Richard J. Allan said. He is the new secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which oversees the Kinzua Bridge State Park. The 329-acre park opened in 1970.
Allan called the Sky Walk "a fabulous tourist attraction" and believes it will be a "signature destination" for tourists.
According to Allan, "the idea to stabilize the structure came into play soon after the tornado struck" July 21, 2003.
"Understanding that this is an important tourist attraction in McKean County, DCNR felt it was important to continue to tell the story of its history, construction and destruction and to invest in this destination within the Pennsylvania Wilds region," Allan said.
Allan pointed out that the Sky Walk is the first phase of major improvements at the park. He said the proposed visitors' center will be developed at the park when "we get things nailed down" with the design. A trail system also is planned at the park, he said.
Allan pointed out that the Kinzua Viaduct often was called the "eighth wonder of the world." He referred to the new Sky Walk as "the ninth wonder of the world."
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Brockway) said the Sky Walk will "bring people to our area to show how beautiful it is."
He said it took "a collective effort" to bring about the Sky Walk and other major improvements at the state park. He said area residents and organizations appealed to state officials, saying, "We want our park back."
"It worked," he said.
Pick up a copy of the Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.