A world-class visitors center opens this month at Kinzua Bridge State Park in the Pennsylvania Wilds. It caps a decade of strategic tourism investments in the rural region that marry conservation and economic development while creating opportunities for visitors and local businesses alike.
Already, thousands of people have stopped in to experience the new Kinzua Bridge State Park Visitors Center and Park Office, an $8.9 million project that opened in July and will be officially dedicated by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) on September 15.
“This place is amazing,” one visitor said recently while looking out a tall glass window that overlooks the facility’s star attraction: the historic Kinzua Viaduct, a railroad bridge that has been transformed into a skywalk. The woman took in the view, then gestured to the new exhibits inside.
“Who built this place?” she asks. “They did a great job.”
The Viaduct has long brought visitors to the area, but before now, they drove up to a gravel parking lot with a few interpretive kiosks. Now visitors can immerse themselves in an interactive walk through history in the 2,800-square-foot visitors center, which includes two exhibit halls; a lobby; a gift shop; park administrative offices; public restrooms; and classroom space.
Located just off historic Route 6, the 2,053-foot long viaduct was built in 1882 to transport coal and lumber across a wide valley. It was rebuilt in steel (from iron) in 1900 and became known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” touted as the longest and tallest railroad bridge in the world. It stood 301 feet tall — 24 feet higher than the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Kinzua Viaduct stood for over 100 years. It was partially toppled in 2003 when a rare F1 tornado swept through the Kinzua Gorge and picked up 11 of the huge steel towers. By then, the Viaduct had been retired to the state park system, where it had lived on as a visitor attraction, drawing train aficionados, history buffs and others who wanted to take in the park’s epic forest views.
In lieu of admitting defeat to Mother Nature, local advocates and statewide partners created an opportunity. As part of a regional effort to grow nature tourism in the Pennsylvania Wilds, the six towers that remained standing were reinforced, new bridge decking installed, railroad tracks repaired and a new “Skywalk” created. The bridge has since been named one of the Top 10 skywalks in the world.
“Since the skywalk at Kinzua Bridge State Park was completed in 2011, we’ve seen a growing number of visitors at the park coming to enjoy this unique experience,” says DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “The new center enhances their visit, welcoming them with exhibits and information about the history of the area and the many opportunities for outdoor activities at the park and in the Pennsylvania Wilds region.”
The project caps a series of strategic investments DCNR has made in the region since 2003. Others include the Elk Country Visitor Center, the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle, Tiadaghton Forest Resource Management Center in the Pine Creek Valley and the Wildlife Center at Sinnemahoning State Park.
“This visitors center is intended to complement our other regional investments,” explains Dunn. “It gives visitors the opportunity to spend several days in the region enjoying nature and the special character of the area.”
“We’ve seen robust economic activity around DCNR’s investments in the region,” adds Ta Enos, executive director of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, a regional nonprofit that operates programs for businesses and communities, and helps coordinate partner investments in the landscape. “We’ve seen businesses open, others expand, jobs being created — all while these facilities have helped tell our rural story and build pride of place. It’s been incredible to watch these attractions come online and work with entrepreneurs around them as they expand their services and product lines to meet new demand.”
Adding to this momentum, the PA Wilds Center has teamed up with DCNR to operate its first PA Wilds Conservation Shop, a gift shop at the visitors center that showcases locally-made artisan products from The Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania.
“Our region has so many skilled, creative artisans and micro-producers,” explains Enos. “We’re a region with a tradition of working with our hands. This was recognized pretty early on in the Wilds work, and we’ve spent the last several years building this network. The PA Wilds Conservation Shop takes that effort to the next level by finally marrying these products in a bigger way to the visitor experience and regional tourism brand.”
PA Wilds Center Managing Director Abbi Peters, who oversaw the store launch and helped build The Wilds Cooperative network, describes the store opening as “an amazing experience” a long time in the making.
“In five days, I’ve seen more than 1,000 customers come through, visiting from around the world and down the road, each with their own story and experiences to share,” she says. “They have been so impressed by the facility, the Skywalk and the gift shop, and it’s been so much fun to talk to them and find out what beauty they found in the area. Many of the visitors have truly appreciated our focus on local work and I just heard a woman comment that she was happily contributing to the local economy.”
Travelers enter the two-story, visitor center through a lofty entranceway, flanked by steel beams framing a massive window overlooking the Skywalk. Like DCNR’s other new facilities, the Kinzua Bridge Visitors Center has many green features including water-efficient plumbing fixtures, geothermal heating and cooling, and regionally-sourced, recycled-when-possible construction materials.
Breaking left, they come face-to-face with life-sized statues of the innovators (builder General Thomas L. Kane, engineer Octave Chanute and ironworks designer Adolphus Bonzano) who used a crew of 125 men to build the Kinzua Bridge in just 94 working days.
Downstairs, visitors can sit in a replica train car to watch short videos on the history of the bridge and view breathtaking photographs of it throughout the four seasons. They can also pull drawers and watch short clips to see if certain statements about the viaduct are “myth or legend.” The story of Odo Valentine, the man who flew a biplane through the towers of the bridge, is told through an interview with the St. Mary’s stuntman himself.
The center opened over July 4th weekend and the numbers are already staggering. The area’s local tourism promotion agency, the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau, estimates attendance could climb to over 300,000 annually (from a previous high of 160,000). Visitation in July alone tripled from last year’s, according to the organization’s executive director, Linda Devlin. Leaf-peeper season has always been a big season for this part of the Pennsylvania Wilds — Devlin says that once the colors pop, she anticipates 10,000 people a day on prime weekends.
The economic benefit of that kind of traffic ripples out.
The Visitors Bureau’s most recent research (done by North Star) puts the amount a tourist spends in McKean County at $78.57 per day; the average spending per trip is $266.34.
“So if we use the estimated 300,000 visitors per year, that is an economic impact to the region of $23,571,000 for day trips or $79,902,000 if they stay the average of 2.64 days per trip,” enthuses Devlin. “The increased visitation to the park is having a favorable economic impact on our local hotels, restaurants and shops — the two favorite activities of all visitors are to shop and dine.”
Enos says that if the experience in Elk Country is any guide, the growth potential is huge.
“Foot traffic at the Elk Country Visitor Center grew from 80,000 to more than 400,000 over the last five years,” she says. “Kinzua Bridge State Park offers a very different experience than our elk herd, but the bridge has a similar kind of robust following. It’s going to create a lot of new opportunities.”
EVENT: The Kinzua Bridge Foundation, a local volunteer group that pushed steadily for the visitor center and preserving the history of the bridge, will hosts its Kinzua Bridge Festival September 17-18. The popular event was cancelled the last few years due to construction; it will take place in the parking lot of the new visitors center. For more information, click here.
The Kinzua Bridge State Park (296 Viaduct Road, Mt. Jewett, PA) is open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. Phone: 814-778-5467. Park amenities include forest picnic areas, hiking trails and a seasonal snack shop.
This content was created in partnership with the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship.
*Keystone Edge Publisher Greg O’Loughlin is a founder and partner at SWELL, LLC; the company does branding work for the The Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania.