You may remember the Patty Duke Show, which debuted on television in the 1960s and still attracts new viewers decades later in syndication. The program detailed the antics of identical cousins, Patty and Cathy Lane, and how, though they may have looked alike, their personalities, styles, and tastes were different. If Pittsburgh had a Patty and Cathy Lane, they’d be the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines.
While members of the same “incline family,” this pair of inclines may appear to be alike, but they have evolved over the decades to acquire different personalities. Both were built in the 1800s. The Monongahela Incline, with stations located at 73 West Carson Street and 5 Grandview Avenue, is the elder of the pair, opening on May 28, 1870. It is the oldest continuously operating funicular railway in the country. The Duquesne Incline, with stations at 1197 West Carson Street and 1220 Grandview Avenue, opened nearly seven years to the day after the Mon Incline, debuting on May 20, 1877. Both are owned by the Port Authority of Pittsburgh. However, the Port Authority only operates the Mon Incline; the Duquesne Incline is operated by the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline.
Both inclines were built for the same reasons, but over the decades their functions have shifted somewhat. Today, the Duquesne Incline, which overlooks The Point, still transports riders in the original wooden cable cars but also houses a Pittsburgh history museum and gift shop. It has become more of a historical tourist attraction. For more about the Duquesne Incline, click here.
The Mon Incline has become the workhorse of the two. Its proximity to the touristy Station Square and swinging nightlife of nearby South Side also makes it a destination for visitors, but to a lesser extent than the Duquesne.
Engineering Seilbahns or Inclines
As Pittsburgh’s three rivers attracted settlers, the steep hills in the area became more of a problem for commuters because cars were far in the future and most people walked to work. There were no safe roads. Steep pathways were the only means for ascending and descending the hills, especially the Coal Hill area, which was Mt. Washington’s previous name.
Enter German engineering. Many of those living on Coal Hill were German immigrants, and they proposed that the city build a series of seilbahns (cable cars) or incline planes for transportation like they were accustomed to in their mountainous homeland.
By the mid-1800s, a movement was afoot to build inclines, but with the outbreak of the Civil War, the plans stalled. When war ceased, many of the area’s most noted industrialists took up the idea. Names such as Westinghouse, Carnegie, Mellon, and Jones lent their imprimatur to the project.
Civil engineer J.S. Kirk selected two desirable sites for constructing this new form of transportation: the Southern near the Smithfield Street Bridge (which became the Mon Incline) and the Western near the confluence of the rivers (which became the Duquesne Incline). The Southern site was ultimately selected for the city’s first of 17 inclines because it was felt that that it offered more access to the entire city.
The Monongahela Incline
J. J. Endres, a native of Prussia, was the engineer in charge of the Mon Incline project. He was assisted by the young engineer Samuel Diescher, who was born in Budapest and educated in Germany and Switzerland. Endres had a daughter, Caroline, who herself was highly educated in Europe and who also helped assist with the Mon Incline’s construction. When word got out that a female engineer, which was a highly unusual occupation for a woman in those days, was assisting with the project, it was the talk of the town. The curious traveled to the Endres home to gawk and suitors flocked to court Caroline. Eventually, Diescher won her hand, and with her help, he became one of Pittsburgh’s most successful engineers, designing many of the city’s other inclines and ones all over the United States as well.
The Monongahela Incline is 635 feet long and rises 367.39 feet with a grade of 35 degrees, 35 minutes. Each car holds 23 passengers and travels at a rate of 6 miles per hour. It cost $50,000 to build, and opened the Mt. Washington area to greater development. In 1964, the Port Authority took over the Mon Incline, and in 1970 it was declared a historic structure by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Over the decades, the Mon Incline has had four renovations, including one to make it wheelchair accessible.
Kirk’s selection of the area where the Mon Incline was built has proven to be quite prophetic. His reasoning that building the first incline near the end of the Smithfield Street Bridge would offer access to more people was correct, and that is still the case today. More than 1,500 commuters use this unusual form of mass transportation on weekdays, and that ridership doubles on weekends with sightseers. It is estimated that after 100 years of operation, nearly a half million riders have taken the Mon Incline. With the incline nearing its 150th birthday, that number will continue to soar and solidify the Monongahela Incline as an integral part of Pittsburgh’s transportation system and history.
The Monongahela Incline operates seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Cash, Port Authority passes and tickets are accepted as payment for fares on the incline.
By Jan Palko