The Rise And Fall Of Pittsburgh's Inclines

Aug 7, 2018

Giddy crowds of kids from a local summer camp recently gathered in the lobby of the Duquesne Incline’s upper station on Mount Washington. 

They lined up against the wood paneled walls, where dozens of framed black and white historic pictures of the incline hang. The group’s eyes were glued to the slow ascent of a vibrant red rail car until the ring of a bell signaled it’s time to climb aboard.

This incline and the Monongahela Incline to the east are the last two of their kind in Pittsburgh. On a recent weekend morning Good Question! listener Jason Ferrante, 19, of East Liberty, was scrolling through City of Pittsburgh Archives Twitter account.

The upper station of the Duquesne Incline houses a museum with tools and equipment once used to maintain the famous funicular.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“Something came up about an old incline that was torn down,” Ferrante said. “So it got me wondering about, well, we have the two famous inclines, but were there any others in the city of Pittsburgh?”

In their heyday, more than a dozen inclines were scattered throughout the region. Historian Donald Doherty wrote an entire book about the city’s funiculars, Pittsburgh’s Inclines.

He said miners had used inclines to move coal since the early 1800s. That was the case on Mount Washington, which used to be called Coal Hill.

“It was the best way to move heavy things up and down mountains or hillsides,” Doherty said. In the early days, inclines relied on gravity to move product down the hill and then employed mules, sometimes horses, to pull the cars back up the hill.

But it wasn’t until the construction of the Monongahela Incline that anyone considered using them to move people. As Pittsburgh grew in the late 19th century, a mass-transportation technology like the inclines took on a new purpose.

“All the land right down around the rivers [was] packed with industry and people trying to live and commerce,” Doherty said. “So, naturally, live on top of the hills.”

The Penn Incline and the Penn Incline Resort c. 1889. The incline was built to carry freight--primarily coal and produce--as well as people.
Credit Carnegie Library Archives

The hilltop was prime real estate for the expanding city. Temperanceville (now the West End), Allentown and St. Clair boroughs had recently been annexed by Pittsburgh and offered land and opportunity to workers. But there wasn’t an easy way to get there.

“It was not the most convenient thing to live on top of the hills and get goods and services up there,” Doherty said.

So some entrepreneurs had an idea: build an inclined plane to move people. Engineers took on the challenge and in 1870 hundreds of people rode the Monongahela Incline on opening day. Riding an incline, Doherty said, was an amazing experience for Pittsburghers. About 45 people at a time could travel the 375 feet between West Carson Street and the top of Mt. Washington.

The Mon Incline was built with strong cables, similar to those in the city’s bridges and the Ferris wheel, which had been newly invented in Pittsburgh. The inclines were typically wooden and run by steam engines with boilers at the top. Its four parallel tracks were initially made of iron, and later, steel. Engines power the cables that hoist the cars using a pulley system with huge wheels. The cars act as counterweights--that’s why they always pass each other in the middle of the ride.  

The Duquesne Incline, which began operating in 1877 and is now privately owned, offers behind-the-scenes tours to visitors. Beneath the lobby are relics and archival information about the old funicular, including tools and equipment used in maintenance.

Move the toggle back and forth to see what the Mount Oliver Incline lower station would have looked like and what its approximate location looks like now.

 

Doherty said much like how quickly technology and the information industry changes today, it was an exciting time to be an engineer back then. Samuel Diescher was a standout: He designed half a dozen of the city’s funiculars, including one of Doherty’s favorites, the Nunnery Hill Incline in Fineview. It operated from 1888 to 1895 near Federal and Henderson streets.

“Amazing thing,” Doherty said. “[It] almost looks like a rollercoaster or something. It actually had a big sweeping curve and then it also kind of curved up.”

Move the toggle back and forth to see what the Nunnery Hill Incline would have looked like and what its approximate location looks like now.

The Mount Oliver Incline opened a year after the original Mon Incline. It took passengers from the South Side Flats to the Slopes. Nearby, the Knoxville Incline became the second curved funicular, winding through the South Side from near 12th Street to the intersection of East Warrington and Arlington avenues.

Move the toggle back and forth to see what the Knoxville Incline would have looked like and what its approximate location looks like now.

The Fort Pitt Incline ran passengers from Second Avenue near the Armstrong Tunnel up to the Bluff. Now, there’s a set of stairs leading to Duquesne University’s campus.

Move the toggle back and forth to see what the Fort Pitt Incline would have looked like an what its approximate location looks like now. 

The largest was the Penn Incline that went from Liberty and 17th in the Strip District to the Hill District. It was originally a freight incline, so its cars were built to carry hundreds of tons. Doherty says around the time this funicular was constructed, the engineer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse struck natural gas on his land in Homewood, changing how Pittsburghers got their energy. The Penn Incline’s original purpose -- to move coal to the Hill -- disappeared. So Doherty said the funicular’s investors built a hotel near the upper station to offset their losses.

“It was really a big destination where people would go,” Doherty said. “You’d go to the top of the incline and party. They figured out new ways to make it worthwhile.”

The Norwood Incline in McKees Rocks was free for a while, Doherty said, taking people from the borough’s main riverside stretch, Island Avenue, to a property called Norwood Place. Now, it’s mostly overgrown woods.

Move the toggle back and forth to see what the Norwood Incline would have looked like and what its approximate location looks like now. 

By the end of World War II, Doherty said it was clear that inclines were on the way out and cars were the new, cool way to get around. Plus, commerce was changing and the coal industry no longer used them.

This map shows the approximate locations of the upper and lower stations of several of the Pittsburgh-area inclines. It's based on historical maps found here.

People tried to stop the closure of the city’s inclines by filing court injunctions and signing petitions, but ultimately it wasn’t enough. Doherty said watching the dismantling of the behemoth Penn Incline was especially interesting.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

“You see photos of people on the rails of that incline and they look like teeny ants,” Doherty said.

If you look closely, you can still see evidence of where some of the funiculars once stood. But the Monongahela and Duquesne inclines are the only ones to survive. The Mon is now owned by the Port Authority of Allegheny County and Duquesne is owned by the Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Incline. Both remain some of the city’s most iconic sites.

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