Pittsburgh is the king of inclines, but can it keep its crown? (2024)

Pittsburgh is the king of inclines. But its crown is in jeopardy.

More than a century ago, at least 15 funicular railways operated simultaneously in Pittsburgh — more than in any other U.S. city. They toiled as hard as the working-class residents they ferried up and down the steep hills above the three rivers.

Pittsburgh boasted the likes of the Castle Shannon Incline, the Mount Oliver, the Knoxville and the Nunnery Hill, now all but forgotten.

Not long after that golden time, inclined railways started going out of fashion, made obsolete by the advent of trolleys and, eventually, the automobile.

Pittsburgh held out for as long as it could, but it was a losing battle as, one by one, the inclines shut down.

Today, the only remnant of that bygone era is our current pair of funiculars, the 154-year-old Monongahela Incline and its slightly younger sibling, the Duquesne Incline.

It’s hard enough to find an American city with one public funicular. Pittsburgh is the only town with two.

Chris Walker, archives manager at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington County, noted that Pittsburgh’s two working inclines make the Steel City a standout.

“They definitely are really Pittsburgh unique,” Walker said. “They have basically become symbols of the city.”

Whether Pittsburgh can maintain its status as railway royalty remains to be seen.

Old age and wear and tear are grinding down the Mon Incline, which is becoming increasingly unreliable. Engineers have struggled to keep the incline open, even after an $8.2 million renovation project from August 2022 to the following March.

Shutdowns and disruptions have become so chronic that its operator, Pittsburgh Regional Transit, has floated the idea of replacing the icon.

Working-class inclines

There are funicular railways around the world, from Quebec City to the Swiss Alps, from Lisbon in Portugal to Haifa in Israel.

Valparaiso, Chile, is famed for its network of inclines.

While the U.S. is home to untold numbers of working inclines, the vast majority are tiny and on private property. One company, Minnesota-based Hill Hiker, has singlehandedly installed hundreds of inclines across the country, mostly to help homeowners navigate their hilly abodes.

Antiquated public conveyances such as the Mon Incline — with their steep tracks, slow glide and nod to olden days — are an increasing rarity in the U.S.

From coast to coast, fewer than a dozen inclines are open to the public. Some are technically considered inclined elevators, but they function similarly to tilted railways.

Funiculars like the Mon and Duquesne inclines have a cable attached to a pair of vehicles, which counterbalance each other as they ascend and descend.

Inclined elevators, like St. Regis Funicular in Park City, Utah, operate without the need of counterbalance.

Pennsylvania is the U.S. capital of inclined railways. The region from Pittsburgh to Altoona is home to four public-access funiculars.

Some might argue that California should reign supreme. The Golden State boasts five inclines, but only two are truly accessible to the public.

By contrast, Pennsylvania’s funiculars are accessible and working class.

While mostly functioning as tourist attractions, three of Pennsylvania’s inclines still are used by commuters.

In addition to the Mon and Duquesne inclines in Pittsburgh, Johnstown is home to a funicular that can carry pedestrians and even a vehicle up and down Yoder Hill just outside the city’s downtown.

Pittsburgh is the king of inclines, but can it keep its crown? (1)

Shane Dunlap | TribLive

The Mon Incline, built in 1870, is the oldest continually operating funicular in the U.S.

Long rebuild

The Mon Incline, built in 1870, is the oldest continually operating funicular in the country. Lately, though, it’s been continually operating less and less.

Repairs and upgrades forced it to close sporadically for 45 weeks over the last couple of years.

In April, it reopened, but the spate of closures prompted Pittsburgh Regional Transit to commission a third-party report to figure out why a relatively simple mechanical device keeps failing. That report is expected to be completed soon.

Walker, of the trolley museum, has unique insight into the incline’s difficulties. He used to run the Mon Incline for Pittsburgh Regional Transit when the agency was known as Port Authority of Allegheny County.

For about 100 years, Walker said, the funicular was made of mostly original parts. But starting in the 1960s, it began to break down regularly.

“It got so bad that they had to shut it down during the severe cold because they were worried about the structure becoming brittle and collapsing,” Walker said.

This almost led to the Mon Incline’s closure, but Port Authority took over ownership in 1964 from the Monongahela Inclined Plane Co.

Port Authority knew it had to reconstruct most of the incline to keep it running. By the 1980s, the agency had completely rebuilt its tracks and operating system, Walker said.

During the next decade, the incline’s control system was computerized, Walker said.

Its operating system was replaced in 1994 with a new, electronic system designed by Baker and Associates of Beaver. The two cabs — which can hold 23 passengers each — were rebuilt in 1995.

That’s in contrast to Mt. Washington’s other funicular, the Duquesne Incline, which has maintained an old-school mechanical operating system. And, according to the Duquesne’s Tom Reinheimer, the incline hasn’t had any major issues over the decades. It has continued to move hundreds of thousands of passengers a year, outpacing its nearby sibling on Grandview Avenue.

Commuters weigh in

These days, the Mon Incline is up and running again, but its recent breakdowns have caused headaches for Mt. Washington residents.

Kai Wilson, 24, moved to Mt. Washington about nine months ago and has been commuting via public transit to work in Oakland and to school at the Community College of Allegheny County on the North Side ever since.

On a recent weekday, after riding the incline up to Mt. Washington, Wilson said it’s been frustrating to have the funicular shut down during much of his time living in the neighborhood. Pittsburgh Regional Transit initially used buses to replace the out-of-commission incline, but Wilson said those were unreliable and took too long.

Things improved when the transit agency switched to vans for shuttling passengers up and down the hill, Wilson said. He noted that tourists can often cause long lines on the Mon Incline, a problem that never crops up with shuttle vans because only commuters use them.

Wilson understands the importance of the incline for Mt. Washington’s tourism economy, so he’s happy the funicular is running again. But he’s mostly just looking for a consistent ride without backups.

“I like this, but sometimes after work I would rather it just be the shuttle because I don’t really want to be backed up with tourists waiting to get on the incline,” he said.

Robert Timko, 26, of Mt. Washington works in Downtown and commutes via the incline — when it’s running. He said he could drive, but parking is expensive and it feels strange driving when he can see Downtown from his neighborhood.

The incline is faster and cheaper than any other commuting option, Timko said. He just hopes it doesn’t break down again.

“My biggest priority is just keeping it up and running,” he said.

Rough rides

The Mon Incline is hardly an outlier when it comes to maintenance issues. Other popular inclines have histories of breaking down regularly.

Most functioning funiculars in the nation, particularly those in public spaces, are more than 100 years old.

Angels Flight Railway — the iconic funicular in downtown Los Angeles shown in movies like “La La Land” and the 1956 sci-fi horror movie “Indestructible Man” with Lon Chaney Jr. — has had anything but a smooth ride.

Opening in 1901, it closed in 1969 to make way for development. It wouldn’t reopen for nearly three decades. Five years after that, the brakes failed on one of the cars, resulting in a crash that killed a passenger. From that point, Angels Flight closed several more times over the years because of maintenance, parts replacement and another accident in which firefighters had to rescue stranded passengers.

Closer to home, the Johnstown Inclined Plane, which carried more than 21,000 passengers in 2021, has faced its own struggles.

The 1891 funicular won’t open this year, according to its operator, Cambria County Transit Authority.

Local officials told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat in April that it would take too long to remanufacture components for the incline, which would then have to undergo six months of system testing, recertification and inspection before being allowed to carry passengers.

It’s been a challenge for the Johnstown incline to even begin its reconstruction project, as officials have had a hard time finding the correct parts to get the job started, let alone finished.

Jim Ritchie, a Pittsburgh Regional Transit spokesman, said other aging funiculars suffer similar problems as the Mon Incline.

That shared experience doesn’t translate to useful lessons for Pittsburgh, though, because each funicular is unique, Ritchie said.

Some inclines work just fine.

The Marvel Cave Funicular inside Silver Dollar City theme park outside of Branson, Mo., has been operational since 1957, said Dalton Fischer, a park spokesman.

The funicular down to a cave was there before any amusem*nt park was conceived, Fischer said. He noted that after the incline was built, tourism to the area exploded, as visitors could now avoid descending, and then walking back up, 800 steps into one of America’s biggest caves — roughly the same number of steps as in the Washington Monument.

Pittsburgh is the king of inclines, but can it keep its crown? (2)

“The only time it doesn’t run is when it rains and the cave is flooded,” Fischer said.

He said nearly 125,000 people visited the cave last year, with the vast majority riding the funicular.

Keeping it mechanical

While the Mon and Duquesne inclines are siblings, don’t mistake them for twins.

The Duquesne Incline is privately run and appears to be in better shape than the Mon.

That wasn’t true in the 1960s, though. The Duquesne Incline was set to close before a group of passionate residents in Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Heights neighborhood banded together to save it.

The Society for the Preservation of The Duquesne Heights Incline took over its operation in 1963 and has run it since.

The society, a historical nonprofit, leases the tracks and bottom station from Pittsburgh Regional Transit for $1 a year, said Reinheimer, who runs the incline’s marketing.

Since being taken over by the society, the Duquesne Incline has not suffered the same setbacks that have besieged the Mon.

Reinheimer said that could be because of the Duquesne Incline’s simplicity. It still runs on its original system — and a Westinghouse electrical motor from 1932.

If something is broken, he said, it is obvious what the problem is, and the incline’s mechanics at Lins Elevator Service in Pittsburgh know how to fix it.

“We want to keep it mechanical, so people can experience what it was like back then,” he said.

He acknowledged that might be part of the reason the Duquesne Incline has avoided some of the Mon’s struggles.

“Anybody that is familiar with mechanical systems knows you are gonna get the idea of what the parts do and how to fix them by looking at them,” Reinheimer said. “You need an electrical engineer to figure out what the Mon Incline does.”

Necessary conversation

Pittsburgh Regional Transit CEO Katharine Kelleman said in March the agency is committed to maintaining a route between Mt. Washington and Station Square, but it might be time to start asking what other, more modern solutions are possible, such as aerial trams.

“If the incline sits here as a museum next to something that is pretty, shiny and new, that should be on the table,” Kelleman said. “But we absolutely need to have the conversation because Mt. Washington and Pittsburgh deserve an incline that is running.”

There are reasons to keep the Mon Incline around, and not just for nostalgia.

Ridership information for many inclines is not widely available, as most operate privately, but the Mon and Duquesne are among the most used in the nation, according to public records.

At one of the Mon’s recent peaks, 619,000 riders rode the funicular in 2015. Pittsburgh Regional Transit actually made money off the incline that year.

Reinheimer said the Duquesne Incline hit a peak of 654,000 riders in 2017.

Reason for hope

There are reasons to be bullish about the Monongahela Incline.

Its ridership was recovering quickly from the pandemic before it was beset by closures.

About 338,000 passengers rode the incline in the 2022 fiscal year, a 66% jump from a year earlier. That was one of the fastest recoveries in the Pittsburgh Regional Transit system.

The incline is not only important for commuters, it’s also one of the region’s top tourist attractions, Ritchie said.

Pittsburgh Regional Transit is dedicated to making sure the route is maintained, he said.

Its efficiency, popularity and ability to rebound from the pandemic all weigh into whether Pittsburgh can maintain the iconic railway — and keep its position as the top town for inclines in the U.S.

Anthony Jump, a native Pittsburgher who now lives in Texas, is pulling for his hometown. He rode the Mon Incline during a visit home last month and said he hopes it never goes away.

“The Mon Incline,” Jump said, “is part of Pittsburgh’s identity.”

Ryan Deto is a TribLive reporter covering politics, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County news. A native of California’s Bay Area, he joined the Trib in 2022 after spending more than six years covering Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh City Paper, including serving as managing editor. He can be reached at rdeto@triblive.com.

Categories:Business | Editor's Picks | Local | Local stories | Pittsburgh | Top Stories

Pittsburgh is the king of inclines, but can it keep its crown? (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Golda Nolan II

Last Updated:

Views: 5581

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (58 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Golda Nolan II

Birthday: 1998-05-14

Address: Suite 369 9754 Roberts Pines, West Benitaburgh, NM 69180-7958

Phone: +522993866487

Job: Sales Executive

Hobby: Worldbuilding, Shopping, Quilting, Cooking, Homebrewing, Leather crafting, Pet

Introduction: My name is Golda Nolan II, I am a thoughtful, clever, cute, jolly, brave, powerful, splendid person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.