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Kinzua Sky Walk opens at historic site

ANF Visitors Bureau

The Kinzua Sky Walk, built on the remaining towers of a historic Pennsylvania railroad bridge damaged by a tornado in 2003, opens Thursday.

A new vertigo-inducing pedestrian walkway that opens Thursday at Pennsylvania's Kinzua Bridge State Park will remind awestruck visitors why the structure was once billed as the eighth wonder of the world.

And if they time it right, they might get to meet the man who today qualifies as a world wonder unto himself.

That would be 96-year-old Odo Valentine.

First some history about a structure that’s properly historic.

The Kinzua railroad bridge was built in 1882 to speed trains loaded with coal and timber to market. At 301 feet above the valley — 24 1/2 feet higher than top of the Brooklyn Bridge towers — the bridge traversed a 2,053-foot gulf of sylvan splendor.

It pulsed with commercial railroad traffic six days a week, but on Sundays it was crowded with pleasure riders who came from all over to experience the tracks across the sky.

“There were no airplanes, so if anyone wanted to experience what it was like to fly, they’d take a Sunday train across Kinzua,” says Linda Devlin, executive director of Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau. “It was world renowned.”

It was rebuilt in 1900 by famed French railroad engineer Octave Chanute, who would become better known as the Wright brothers tutor and was eulogized in 1910 as the father of aviation.

Upon completion of the Kinzua restoration, Chanute boasted the bridge would stand 100 years.

He was off by three. A tornado blew down 11 of the 20 towers on July 21, 2003.

In 2009, work began to build a pedestrian walkway on the remaining towers of the old bridge.

ANF Visitors Bureau

The Kinzua Sky Walk concludes with a glass-floor view of the valley below.

Today, the Kinzua Sky Walk perches atop six now repaired towers and concludes with a reinforced-glass view of the valley below. Visitors can enjoy spectacular vistas while walking above the treetops in the park that also offers picnic areas, hiking and camping.

Maybe the only thing more incredible than the view is the story of Valentine, a barnstorming pilot determined to make his mark.

“When I was a kid just starting to fly, I told my dad one day I was going to fly through Kinzua bridge,” Valentine says. “And he said, ‘Son, if you’re going to do it, you’d better have someone take a picture ‘cause no one’s ever going to believe it.' "

On July 4, 1939, he flew a propeller biplane with a 32-foot wingspan perpendicular between the 64-foot center spans at 110 mph. One gust, one slip, and Valentine would be leaving a different sort of mark on Kinzua.

He deliberately chose July 4 because he knew everyone would be at a nearby holiday parade.

He immediately began squelching rumors of the stunt when he learned bridge owners were livid and determined to sue if they ever caught the reckless pilot, who was sure to lose his license.

For 70 years the high flier laid low. He never told a soul. He swore the cameraman and another witness to secrecy.

No one ever found out. He never lost his license and went on to be a decorated pilot trainer in World War II and the Korean War who enjoyed friendly associations with famed aviators Eddie Rickenbacker and ballplayer/ace Ted Williams.

“When the bridge came down, I thought I’d see if I could find that picture up in the attic. I was sure my wife had thrown it away.”

She hadn’t, and on Thursday, Valentine will be the guest of honor at the site where fame’s been deferred more than 70 years.

Will wonders never cease? Apparently not at Kinzua.

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Chris Rodell is a Latrobe, Pa., contributor who blogs at www.EightDaysToAmish.com.