Every August, our Boy Scout troop spent a weekend at a camp in northern Pennsylvania, with other troops from all over the region. We’d do the usual Scout-type stuff: learn a little woodcraft, trade patches, play a few pranks on the new kids, play Uno by the light of a Coleman lantern. When an all-day hike to Kinzua Bridge was announced during the 1982 camp, I signed up immediately. Hey, Kinzua Bridge, right? One-time tallest railroad bridge in the world? You bet I’m going.
Getting back turned out to be a little complicated.
The hike was billed as a 13-mile one-way trip, with rides back to camp arranged from Kinzua Bridge State Park. We set out from camp mid-morning, and followed old logging trails through the woods to Ormsby. There were maybe two dozen of us scouts, accompanied by two adult leaders. Ormsby was little more than a crossroads with a few houses, surrounded by more forest. We crossed the road to the old tunnel under the BR&P embankment, and paused there for a while, before resuming the journey along the old Mt. Jewett Kinzua & Ritterville railroad grade in the valley. By mid-afternoon, we could see Kinzua Bridge looming through the trees. We arrived at the very foot of the bridge, and gazed upward in wonder, before climbing the north side of the valley, and crossing the bridge itself.
In 1982, the bridge hadn’t seen a train in over twenty years, but the rails were still in place. Substantial timber railings and foot planks had been added for safety, but otherwise, the bridge was unchanged from its construction in 1900. We leaned over the railing to look at the creek 301 feet below. We spit, and watched our gobs of spittle sail lazily downward, for what seemed like forever. We continued across the bridge to the overlook at the south abutment.
By the time I got to the parking lot, most of the party had already been picked up by a caravan of scout leaders in cars. There were just five of us Scouts left. The next car to arrive had room for four. The other four boys were all from the same troop, so they climbed in while the man in the car assured me that somebody else would be picking me up shortly. They drove off. I waited. And waited some more.
The only way to drive into Kinzua Bridge State Park is a mile-long access road. Since I had my Scout shirt on, it seemed reasonable that if I hiked to the end of the road, anyone looking for me would see me and stop. So I hiked. It took me twenty minutes. Nobody stopped.
At the park entrance, I had a dilemma. Anyone coming from camp for me (I was starting to question whether anyone was) would be coming from the north. The nearest town of any consequence, Mt. Jewett, was four miles to the south. All I really needed was access to a telephone, but there were no houses in sight. The shadows were getting longer. I chose north, towards camp, and started walking again.
I found no occupied houses along my way, just woods. After about a mile of this, a pickup truck pulled up from behind me and stopped. There were two men in the cab.
“You look lost. Need a ride somewhere?” For just a brief moment, I hesitated. Child-abduction paranoia hadn’t reached the levels it’s attained nowadays, but even then, teenagers were warned about the dangers of accepting rides from strange men. But what choice did I have? Besides, I was a country boy out in the country, far from the urban evils I’d been warned of. These guys looked trustworthy enough.
“Sure,” I said. “Can you give me a lift back to camp?” The passenger opened the door, and slid across the seat to make room. As I climbed in, I looked to see whether the door had an inside handle. I’d heard something about that somewhere. It did, so I slammed the door shut, and we drove off.
I described the location of the camp, they quickly figured out how to get there, and a long day’s hike was undone within minutes. They stopped close to where my troop’s campsite was located, and I hopped out.
“Tell them a couple of guys from Emporium brought you back,” they said. I thanked them profusely, waved them good-bye, and bounded though the trees to the troop’s dining fly, where my Scoutmaster was supervising dinner preparations. Just thirty minutes before, I’d been alone in the middle of nowhere. Now I was back in familiar surroundings, so what had been a dire situation had quickly transformed into an excellent adventure.
As I breathlessly told my Scoutmaster about how the day had gone, his face suggested that my day was anything but an excellent adventure in his estimation. He excused himself and strode off to camp HQ while I kicked off my hiking shoes and relaxed at the campfire.
Years later, when I became a leader in my son’s Cub pack, I used this story to enlighten junior leaders on just how important it is to keep careful tabs on their charges. Yes, everything turned out okay in the end, but it might not have.
You can’t cross the valley on Kinzua Bridge anymore. It was struck by a tornado in 2003, as it was in the midst of a restoration and stabilization project. The north half of the bridge, the half that hadn’t yet received repairs, collapsed. Its ruins remain on the valley floor to this day. The spot where we stood over Kinzua Creek, trying to spit into it, is just empty sky now.
Mom is still livid about the whole affair.
Photo credit: Historic American Engineering Record