From left, state Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway, and state Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, stand near the site of the future visitor center/park office at Kinzua Bridge State Park near Mount Jewett. State and area officials and local residents turned out for a groundbreaking ceremony held on Thursday.

MOUNT JEWETT — Groundbreaking held on Thursday for a multimillion-dollar, long-awaited visitor center/park office at Kinzua Bridge State Park marks a new chapter in the attraction’s history.

The facility — on the drawing board for five years — will include two exhibit halls showcasing displays like a stylized excursion train car where people can watch a short video. 

The approximately $6.8 million construction project is expected to be finished in the fall of 2015.

“It has just been for me — and I think for all of us here today — a journey that began in a very tragic way with the bridge going down and culminating here today with a groundbreaking for something that I think was really the right vision,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway. “And the right vision was a year-round — all four seasons — usage and attraction to this great state park.”

The 2,800-square-foot facility will have two exhibit halls, a lobby, park administrative offices, public restrooms, and classroom space. The project also includes a maintenance building.

Scarnati called Kinzua Bridge State Park a crown jewel of Pennsylvania’s state park system. The state park comprises 329 acres and showcases the remnants of the 2,053-foot-long railroad structure that was rebuilt from steel in 1900. 

In 2003, a tornado toppled sections of the Kinzua Viaduct. In 2011, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) opened a pedestrian walkway with a glass bottom that allows people to see into the Kinzua Gorge. Now a visitor center will be located at the state park.

“Just as the first excursion train on the first viaduct welcomed thousands of visitors, the Kinzua visitors center will welcome a new generation of visitors from around the world,” said Steven Cottillion, president of the board for the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau.

Originally, the bridge was built as an alliterative of putting an additional eight miles of railroad over rough terrain leading to the county’s coal, timber and oil fields, according to information from the DCNR.

Thousands of people flocked to the area to see the viaduct, Cottillion said.

“It was the testament to the ambition, ingenuity, of a generation of dreamers with unshackled faith in the American dream. If you can dream it, you can do it,” he said. 

The can-do spirit is being celebrated today, Cottillion said.

“The state park plays a vital role in the county,” McKean County Commissioner chairman Joe DeMott said.

DeMott touted tourism in McKean County, saying that in 2012 that brought in $173.4 million in direct sales for businesses.

“About 158,000 visitors annually stop at Kinzua Bridge State Park to stroll out into the valley and peer through the glass bottom observation area on the remaining half of the railroad bridge impacted by the tornado,” said DCNR Secretary Ellen Ferretti. “This new center will welcome them and help them understand the history of the bridge and the area, as well as share some things to do in the park and the region.”

Ferretti said the state is happy to be breaking ground on the facility, understanding its importance for McKean County. The general contractor for the state capital project is JC Orr of Altoona.

“This is an investment in our state park,” said state Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint.

Causer said he is looking forward to the exhibits, which will provide education opportunities. People will learn about the area’s history — they’ll see “where we come from and where we’re heading,” Causer said.

Kinzua Bridge Foundation executive director Mary Ann Burggraf said the center will be one of a kind, like the Kinzua Viaduct.

At one point, the state park made Pennsylvania’s top-10 list of state parks eyed for closure.

This time, the center will be on the top-10 state parks to see in Pennsylvania, she said.

“The Kinzua Bridge Foundation is thrilled the construction will start soon for the Kinzua Bridge State Park,” Burggraf said. “This will be a real asset to the entire region and a significant positive impact with the visitors, marking another great moment in time for our Kinzua Bridge State Park.”

Officials expect interpretive exhibits for the facility to be completed at the same time as construction. The theme will include geography of the Allegheny Plateau; the viaduct as a symbol of the engineering industry advances that supported the Industrial Revolution, and as an inspiring reminder of the inventiveness, resourcefulness for experiencing natural beautify, observing wildlife and participating in recreational activities at the state park and the greater Pennsylvania Wilds. The bridge and the observation deck will remain open as the center is being constructed.

“We do what we can at the state level, working hard to try to get the money back into our local communities,” state Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, said. “But I know with Linda (Devlin, executive director of the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau), the Kinzua Bridge Foundation and all the other people in the community behind this project, it’s very exciting to see that this is finally going to come to fruition.”