There is a lot about Pittsburgh, PA, that no one would guess is true. Who could imagine that a city in southwestern Pennsylvania would be such a key to the waterways of the nation? Or that Pittsburgh is home to the oldest cable car operation, even predating San Francisco’s famous cable cars? Yet both of these pieces of Pittsburgh trivia are true!
Pittsburgh holds the key to the waterways of the United States by operating 23 locks and dams along the Allegheny River, the Monongahela River, and the Ohio River. The Port of Pittsburgh is the second busiest inland port and the 17th busiest port of any kind in the country. It boasts 41 million tons of cargo shipped and received each year in the Pittsburgh Port, giving the area a significant annual benefit.
The Allegheny River has 72 miles of water navigation and includes eight locks and dams reaching from Pittsburgh to East Brady, PA. The Monongahela River navigates 128.7 miles and has nine locks and dams reaching to Fairmont, WV. And lastly, the Ohio River navigates 127.2 miles of river downstream to New Martinsville, WV, with six locks and dams along the way.
Water navigation is a prime use for cargo shipping because of the low cost associated with it. Shipping for raw materials average 0.97 cents per ton mile by barge compared with 2.53 cents per ton mile by rail or 5.35 cents per ton mile by truck. The primary cargo in the Port of Pittsburgh is coal, but millions of tons of raw products such as sand, gravel, and iron ore, as well as manufactured goods, petroleum and petroleum products, and various chemicals are shipped.
In addition to cargo shipments, Pittsburgh’s waterways can be used for personal fun! There are nearly 30,000 recreational boats that use the water locks without even knowing the economic advantages they bestow upon the region. Water sports continue to increase in popularity, along with game fishing.
Pittsburgh’s Dam and Lock System
The locks and dams system is necessary for year-round transportation because it maintains a constant channel in which the river depth is maintained at nine feet. The natural river bed changes throughout the year and can be uneven or shallow at points due to rainfall and dry periods. The dams create an ‘aquatic staircase’ to prevent this from happening. Each step on the slope of the riverbed is a pool of water. The normal flow of the river runs through these pools and the excess flows over the dam into the next pool and on down the river.
Each dam on a navigable river has at least one lock chamber to enable river traffic to go safely from one pool level to the next. The lock chamber is essentially a concrete box with two matching gates at each end that can open or close only when the water level is the same on both sides. This system of water navigation has made transportation along the water a vital part of Pittsburgh’s economy.
While Pittsburgh’s location at the juncture of three rivers makes water transportation easy, land transportation in the region has always been difficult. The terrain is defined by hills that made it difficult for engineers in the late 19th century to create transportation systems. People and industries needed a way for the hilltop communities to commute to the downtown area near the river. The solution became inclined plane railways, otherwise known as Pittsburgh’s inclines.
The first incline built in Pittsburgh came in 1870 and was called the Monongahela Incline. This was a full three years before San Francisco’s first successful cable car line went into operation. It was located near the south end of the Smithfield Street Bridge on Carson Street. The popularity and success of the Mon led to an incline boom. Following came inclines located in Mount Oliver in 1871, Duquesne in 1877, Fort Pitt in1882, Penn (17th Street) in 1883, Monongahela Freight in 1884, St. Clair in 1886, Nunnery Hill in 1887, Troy Hill in 1887, Bellevue in 1887, Ridgewood in 1889, Knoxville in 1890, Castle Shannon in 1890, Castle Shannon South in 1892, Clifton in 1895, and Norwood in 1901.
One incline could transport several thousand people on any given day and for over 30 years Pittsburgh’s inclines were the marvel of the nation. However, the Twentieth Century brought with it increased engineering might, the rise of the automobile, and air travel.
Even competition provided by the electric street car began to erode the ridership of Pittsburgh’s inclines. Even more competition came when roadways improved and tunnels were created, making it easier to travel through the city. In time, inclines were no longer the main form of commuting for Pittsburghers.
The Mon Incline
Today, only two inclines remain: the Mon and the Duquesne Incline. These inclines act more as a tourist attraction than a form of transportation. It is like taking a step back in time as you ride on the nostalgic cable cars atop the hills of Pittsburgh. Both inclines offer observation platforms for visitors to view and photograph the downtown area known as the ‘Golden Triangle.’
Today Pittsburgh’s Monongahela Incline is the oldest and the steepest incline in the United States. It is 635ft long and 367ft high with an angle of 35 degrees. The incline was purchased in 1964 by the Port Authority of Allegheny County. One reason for its success is its ideal location in the heart of Station Square.
The Duquesne Incline
The other surviving incline is the Duquesne Incline, which was built in 1877. It has a length of 793ft, a height of 400ft and a grade of 30 degrees. The Duquesne Incline travels six miles per hour and can carry 23 passengers per car at a time. It is located near the Fort Pitt Bridge at 1220 Grandview Avenue. In 1962 the Duquesne incline was closed for repairs, but the repairs were greater than expected and it could not reopen. The local community joined together and raised enough funds to reopen the incline in 1963. One year later it was purchased by the Port Authority who leases it for $1 to the Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Incline, the same community group that worked so hard to save the incline.
The Duquesne incline is different from the Mon Incline. It is a nostalgic view that offers original Victorian cars with ornate wooden panels, brass fittings, and amber glass windows. The Duquesne Incline’s upper station houses a museum of Pittsburgh history and a storehouse of information on inclines around the world.