Sunday, June 05, 2016

Legends of the Kinzua Viaduct: Lost Gold & Daredevil Pilots

I have written before about the Kinzua Viaduct which was featured in one of the stories in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall. I've also written about the lost Civil War gold in Pennsylvania but this is another story about a buried treasure, and a second legend, that of a daredevil pilot with quite a tale to tell.

The Kinzua Viaduct was built in 1882 as a railroad trestle, the brain child of Thomas Leiper Kane, the legendary Civil War colonel who founded the Bucktail Regiment of Sharpshooters including the Elk County Rifles from my home county. The bridge's architect, Octave Chanute, studied architecture in Paris along with a fellow by the name of Eiffel, who was also good at building stuff.

Kane was then the President of the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad and he wanted to find a quicker way to bring coal and timber from Elk and surrounding counties to Lake Erie, where it could be loaded onto barges. You have to marvel at the audacity of a man who could look at a 300 foot deep valley and say, I'm gonna build a bridge over that.

The bridge was built by 40 men in 94 days. It spanned a 2,053 foot gulf and at 301 feet tall it was 24 feet higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. It was known as the Eighth Wonder of the World at the time, and was dedicated by General Ulysses S. Grant himself when it was opened. In 1900 it was rebuilt to bear heavier trains. It stayed in operation until the mid 1950s. When I was a kid it was a frequent place for family picnics. A few years later it was frequently a “make-out” destination. My family took occasional excursions across it on the train.




Then in 2003 during a violent storm the middle section was blown down. The decision was made not to repair it and it has since been turned into a Tourism Site with a glass sky walk and a visitor's center. There are two notable legends that surround the Kinzua Bridge.

One is that in 1883, a couple of robbers held up a bank in Emporium, Pa, and, in the process of trying to evade the law, they made their way to Mount Jewett, and buried $80,000 stuffed in glass jars under a rock beneath the bridge. Over the years since, lots of folks with metal detectors have scoured those woods but so far the money remains hidden.
The broken trestles on the valley floor as seen from Google Earth
The better legend is about a brave young daredevil pilot who vowed that some day he would fly his biplane through the trestles under the bridge. In the era of barn-stormers, flying under the viaduct was strictly forbidden by the powerful railroads. A pilot foolhardy enough to do that risked losing his pilot's license.

In my family there was always a story that my dad's first cousin Odo Valentine, a respected barnstormer, had flown under the bridge, but we always thought it was just a story. Odo was quite a character and well-known for his tall tales about his friends Eddie Rickenbacker and football player Ted Williams. In 2003, when the bridge blew down, Odo, then in his nineties, went up to his attic and dug out an old photograph that was eventually to become famous.

On July 4, 1939, Odo had indeed flown a propeller biplane with a 32-foot wingspan under the bridge between two trestles. Not only did he do that but he had the foresight to hire local photographer Tom Ewing and an autogyro pilot named Alvin Lombardo, to fly with him and photograph his stunt.

Odo said he chose to do his fly-through on the 4th of July because there were parades going on in the surrounding towns so he was pretty sure no one would be at the bridge. He didn't want to get in trouble as he pulled his great stunt. When Odo was a boy, first getting interested in flying, he told his father, my Great-uncle Tom, that someday he would fly under the bridge and Uncle Tom told him he better have it photographed or no one would believe him.

Odo was at the grand opening of the Kinzua Skywalk in 2011 and I'm sure he had fun telling his story. He is now 102 and still spinning his yarns. And he has some good ones.
My niece and sister goofing off under the bridge when it was still intact.

Thanks for reading.



12 comments:

  1. Great stories. I thought I had seen this, but am not sure. It looks a lot like a trestle in Letchworth State Park in NY (near Rochester) and another in the Grand Canyon of the East at Pine Creek Gorge in PA (I've hiked in both parks).

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  2. I've hiked Pine Creek Gorge, too. Beautiful place. Never been to Letchworth though!

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  3. What a history behind that bridge. You are a font of lovely folklore and legends. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Roland, legends often form the background for my writing so I'm always collecting and telling them.

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  4. We could use 40 men like those who constructed that bridge in 94 days. Now it takes hundreds equipped with power tools and computers and they still can't bring a project in on budget or on time. I'm hearing the lyrics, "Where have all the good men gone?"

    What a great story about your uncle. I love reading about those bits of history.

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    1. No kidding, Lee, about the men!!! There is a video of archival footage that Penn State made of them working on the bridge and they were utterly fearless. Yep, I love Odo's story, too.

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  5. Odo is 102 and still telling stories? What an amazing mind for a person his age!
    You should sit with him, and a tape recorder and pick his brains. What a gold mine!
    Oh, and also raid that attic - who knows what other stories are hiding up there waiting to unfold...
    Writer In Transit

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    1. One of his pilot buddies has been making a documentary about him and I'm sure his family is cataloging that attic. He was in a documentary about our town a couple years back wearing a red cowboy hat and spinning yarns. He's quite a guy.

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  6. Wow. Good thing he did have it photographed. No one would have believed him. Someone was thinking ahead.

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    1. Apparently his father had good foresight!

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  7. What a fantastic character! And as for the bridge itself, such human endeavors never fail to amaze me. I have never been inventive or a risk taker. Thank you for sharing the great photos and stories!

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    1. Thank you for visiting. My dad's cousin Odo is something of a legend back home. He is the definition of a character.

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