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Author Topic: A Memory Blown Away  (Read 1349 times)

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The EETicket Arachnid

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A Memory Blown Away
« on: March 13, 2009, 01:59:26 PM »
A Memory Blown Away
19 May 2008, 8:19 pm

Many cities in the United States saw a rapid industrial growth in the decades following the American Civil War, and Buffalo, New York was certainly no exception. And if you want to have a successful center of industry, you must have the fuel to run it. In 1858, miles away in Titusville, Pennsylvania Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well. Oil would become the fuel of industry and transportation for future generations but in 1880, the year that Drake died, the industrial life blood of Buffalo was coal.

By 1880 Buffalo was consuming over three million tons of coal a year. Coal was used to fire the furnaces in the factories, ship boilers were fed coal so that they could deliver more coal to other Great Lakes cities and to keep the factory workers and sailors warm at home during the brutal Buffalo winters. Even the locomotives that brought the coal were powered by coal. Luckily for Buffalo, Pennsylvania had plenty of that too. Getting this coal to the Buffalo market quickly and efficiently from Pennsylvania was a priority of many businessmen at this time, not least of which was Civil War General Thomas Kane.

General Kane was the president of the New York, Lake Erie, and Western Railroad and Coal Company. The vision that Kane had for the company was as large and impressive as its name. To get a trainload of coal from north central Pennsylvania to Buffalo meant taking a long, circuitous route around the Kinzua Valley in McKean County. General Kane was more of a straight line kind of guy. He proposed his straight line to civil engineer Octave Chanute. They decided to build a viaduct over the valley.

The contract for the bridge was awarded to the Phoenix Bridge Works Company and within six months the stone abutments were complete. Iron work began on April 10th 1882 and in an astonishing 94 working days the 40 man crew had completed the highest and longest railroad bridge ever built. The viaduct was 301.5 feet high and 2,053 feet long and was promoted as the eighth wonder of the world. It weighed 3,105,000 pounds. In 1900 the iron had to be replaced with steel to accommodate the heavier loads and traffic that became common, not because of any flaw in the original structure.

Back in the eighties a person could hop on a train in Marienville and take a 97 mile train excursion that was highlighted by crossing the valley twice on the viaduct. I never had the pleasure of taking the train ride myself and regret having missed it. Numerous times I have walked across the bridge and back, the awesome autumn scenery coupled with the un-nerving experience of noticing the 300 feet of drop between each tie that you stepped on. I was more than a little afraid of heights then, and I swear that the constant wind sweeping down the valley moved that bridge side to side. I was not alone in this belief. Something about the viaduct compelled me to drive out to Mt. Jewett to admire her every time I took a retreat to my family’s mountain cabin nearby. I would stare at it and imagine 40 men over a century ago doing their heavy iron circus act live, without a net.

In 2002 a DCNR inspection of the bridge stopped all traffic, train and pedestrian. Some of the steel had been found to be rusted through, creating fears that the winds in the valley may shift the center of gravity of the structure and cause it to collapse. In February 2003 the W.M. Bode Co. began the painstaking restoration of the viaduct. But it was not to be.

On July 21, 2003 at 3:15 p.m. a category F1 (wind speed 73-112 mph) tornado struck the side of the viaduct. Eleven of the steel towers that supported the bridge were torn off of their concrete bases and hurled into the valley below.

Very soon it will be five years since the viaduct came down. The State Park that hosted visitors to the structure since 1970 is still there and open. You can no longer approach the bridge or hike down into the valley beneath it, at least not since last I heard. There is still an interpretive kiosk and an observation deck. After five years I still have not driven out to Mt. Jewett to look at the wreckage first hand.

Maybe I will drive out this year……

Top: Postcard of bridge, although not in Bradford.

Bottom : Courtesy of Jim Battista/

Source: The Absorbing Errand

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