The Monongahela Incline

The Monongahela Incline

The hills around Pittsburgh were once strewn with inclines of various sizes and shapes. These were once the most convenient way to get from the top of the surrounding hills to the city, and back up. There were passenger inclines for pedestrian traffic and larger ones for wagons, automobiles and freight.

Today, only two of these 19th century inclines remain, both along the north slope of Mount Washington overlooking the City of Pittsburgh. These are the Monongahela Incline, near the Smithfield Street Bridge, and the Duquesne Incline, a bit further down river in Duquesne Heights.

The Monongahela Incline - 1888
The Monongahela Freight and Passenger Inclines descend from atop Mount Washington to Carson Street in 1888.

As early as 1854, Pennsylvania legislature approved "An Act to Incorporate the Mount Washington Inclined Plane Company" which empowered the company to construct one or more inclined planes along Coal Hill from the Monongahela (Smithfield) Bridge to the Jone's Ferry near the West End. The company began the early groundwork but their work was delayed by land disputes and then the Civil War.

Following the war, in April 1867, a charter was granted for the formation of the Monongahela Inclined Plane Company, which had plans in place to build a passenger incline along Mount Washington. Stock certificates were issued totaling $50,000 to cover the initial construction expenses.

The Monongahela Incline - late 1800s
Looking up at the Monongahela Freight and Passenger Inclines from Carson Street in the late-1800s.

Design plans were submitted by engineers from around the country. The accepted plan came from John J. Endres. Surveyor J.S. Kirk plotted the course and construction began in 1869. Endres worked with Pittsburgh steel manufacturer Jones & Laughlin to create the iron "T" rail tracks which were supported along a wooden trestle. The Iron City Bridge Company built an iron bridge to support the incline as it passed over the railroad tracks near the lower station.

The original upper and lower stations were built by a local carpenter, R.J. Smith. The custom inclined plane cars were manufactured by Price & Long of Philadelphia at a cost of $3,057. The wire rope cable was designed by John A. Roebling.

The Monongahela Incline - 1905
The Monongahela Freight and Passenger Inclines scaling the Mount Washington slope in 1905.

Spanning 642 feet from Carson Street to Grandview Avenue, the Monongahela Incline was the first passenger incline in the city, opening on May 28, 1870. On the first day 994 people paid the six cent fare for a ride, and on the second day, 4,174 people paid for a ride.

The incline was originally powered by steam, generated in a two-story brick power house located across the street from the upper passenger station. A twenty-two foot high iron truss spanned Grandview Avenue between the upper passenger station and the double-stacked power house.

The Monongahela Inclines - 1908
A customer with a wagon moves into position to ride the freight incline down the Carson Street in June 1908.
Also visible is the steel truss across Grandview Avenue between the power and passenger stations.

The wheel at the center of the truss supported two cables stretching from the steam engine over and through two portals placed in the facade of the passenger station. These were the very cables that were each attached to the incline cars. One pulled a car up the hill while the other let a car down.

The operator of the incline sat in a glass enclosure overlooking the incline tracks, using hand throttles and a foot brake to control the cars. The first engineer was George Naysmith, and his assistant was Campbell K. Smith.

The Monongahela Inclines - 1926
Three inclines stand in line along Mount Washington in 1926. The Monongahela Freight Incline, The Monongahela Passenger
Incline and a temporary service incline built to haul materials during
McArdle Roadway construction.

The incline was a huge success, and helped spur the development of the Mount Washington community. To capitalize on the growing volume of heavy cargo being hauled up the hill, the company constructed an additional freight incline adjacent to the passenger incline. The freight incline opened on March 31, 1884.

In 1881, Samuel Diescher rebuilt several portions of the incline using an iron trestle with steel rails to replace the wooden structure. The power system was also upgraded, adding a "steam chest" to provide reserve power in case of a system failure.

The Monongahela Incline       The Monongahela Incline       The Monongahela Incline

The lower station was rebuilt in 1904, and the incline operated for the next thirty years without any changes. Then, in 1935, due to a decline in use, the freight incline was closed and dismantled. The cement foundations are still visible along the hillside. The passenger incline was electrified using a motor drive system designed and manufactured by Otis Elevator Company, and housed in the upper station.

The power system was again replaced in 1994, and the original Monongahela Incline passenger cars were replaced in 1995. As with the original cars, the replacements were specifically built for the incline. In 2015, the incline underwent a $3.5 million renovation, this time by Mosites Construction Company, with upgrades made to the rails, ties, cable and other lift components. The cars were also refurbished.

The Monongahela Incline - 1908
The Monongahela Passenger and Freight Incline scaling the Mount Washington slope in 1908.

The incline is now operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County and, as well as being a world-renowned tourist attraction, it is still a much utilized method of pedestrian transportation from Grandview Avenue atop Mount Washington to Carson Street and Station Square below.

The Monongahela Incline has the distinction of being the steepest and the oldest operating incline in the United States. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Wikipedia: Monongahela Incline.

The Monongahela Incline - 1928
The Monongahela Passenger and Freight Incline in 1928. Also visible are the newly-completed Liberty Bridge
in the foreground and McCardle Roadway running along the face of Mount Washington.

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