PITTSBURGH — Located above the Smithfield Street Bridge and Station Square, the Monongahela Incline connects Mount Washington with downtown Pittsburgh. The incline opened to the public on May 28, 1870, and is the oldest continuously operating funicular railway in the U.S., transporting more than half a million passengers each year.
Known as Coal Hill at the time of the incline’s construction, Mount Washington was mostly home to German immigrants who used the elevation to escape the smoke and soot that plagued Pittsburgh at the end of the Civil War, as the flat riverbanks were too valuable as industrial land. The problem for residents was that the only means of commuting into the city was by a treacherous trail that was arduously steep, circuitous, and often muddy. Residents proposed that the city build a series of “seilbahns” (incline planes or funiculars) like the ones they were familiar with in their mountainous homeland.
In February 1854, the Mount Washington Inclined Plane Company was incorporated to benefit the landowners and business owners who wanted to make the hilltop a desirable neighborhood that could take advantage of its proximity to downtown, but the war and property disputes postponed the project.
A charter for the formation of the Monongahela Inclined Plane Company was granted after the war in April 1867. It would be the first incline built primarily for passengers instead of the usual coal and cargo planes.
Two sites were suggested in the original surveys for the project, made by J.S. Kirk. One was the current site of the Mon Incline and the other would eventually become the Duquesne Incline seven years later (and was the third built in Pittsburgh). The Mon Incline site was chosen first because it was closer to more residents.
Designed primarily by John Endres and Samuel Diescher, accounts also credit Endres’ daughter Caroline (an engineer educated in Europe) with contributing significantly to the project, which was considered quite unusual at the time and gawkers would go to the Endres’ home to watch her work. The close collaboration led to romance and Diescher eventually married Caroline and they went on to become leading designers of other incline planes in Pittsburgh and beyond.
Famed Pittsburgh engineer John Roebling was contacted to specify the main cable, which measures an inch and a half in diameter. A slightly smaller reserve cable serves as an emergency backup.
The incline’s 635 feet of track has a 35% grade, but it can’t compete with incline in Johnstown, which has a 71% grade and is the steepest in the world.
Originally powered by two steam engines located in a powerhouse across Grandview Avenue from the upper station, the engineer and conductors would manually control the cars from the upper station’s glass enclosure during their 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. shifts. Speed was regulated using a combination of hand throttles and a foot brake.
The Mon Incline carried 994 people on its first day of operation, at a fare of six cents each, starting at 3 p.m. and running until 8 p.m. Word got out fast, and the second day of operation saw 4,174 passengers. Eventually, 17 passenger inclines would be built around Pittsburgh, of which the Mon Incline and Duquesne Incline are the sole survivors.
In 1884, a new freight incline allowed staff at the Mon Incline to reduce their shifts to 12 hours from their normal 17 hours. The freight incline was adjacent to the Mon Incline but had larger cars that were 17 feet wide by 32 feet long.
The current lower station building was constructed in 1904.
P.J. McCardle Road was completed in 1928 and the increased accessibility led to a decline in demand for the inclines.
The steam engines were replaced in 1935 by electric ones manufactured by the Otis Elevator Company. The freight incline was also retired and dismantled, though its cement foundations are still visible on the hillside.
The Port Authority took over operation of the incline in 1964.
In 1994, the incline systems were overhauled again. The electrical and mechanical components were replaced with ones designed by Baker and Associates of Beaver, Pennsylvania. The incline’s original ten-foot diameter brake wheel, installed in 1882, was also replaced. The upper station received an addition and trackway lighting was added.
The incline’s cars were replaced in 1995.
The incline was closed for several months in 2015 as it underwent an even more extensive renovation. The $3.5 million project upgraded all the trackwork and lift components, with a complete refurbishment of the cars. A work car was built to make the removal of the passenger cars easier.
The Mon Incline remains a popular commuting route, with its easy connections to the Port Authority’s light rail system and downtown. It’s also immensely popular with tourists and visitors to Station Square who enjoy its spectacular views of the Pittsburgh skyline.
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