Mac McGrew - Inclines
Pittsburgh’s Inclines

Mac McGrew was always interested in Pittsburgh’s inclined-plane railways, known locally simply as “the inclines.” Pittsburgh loves its inclines, but few Pittsburghers realize that Pittsburgh has had seventeen separate lines!

He researched them and was preparing a book to publish documenting their history, but the book wasn’t completed.

Here are some notes from the research of Mac McGrew.

© 1998 M. F. McGrew

Climbing Coal Hill

The Story of Pittsburgh’s Inclines
and Other Hillside Railways

By Mac McGrew



Pittsburgh’s two inclines have become well known tourist attractions after well over a century of operation. A few other inclines, now long gone, are remembered by some residents. But few people know just how many inclines the city once had, and fewer still know about the other forms of hillside transportation that once flourished here.
      To define the field of this book, we have used the term “hillside railways,” ruling out roadways and steps, however remarkable some of them may have been. We have also ruled out horsecars and other streetcars that sometimes struggled up remarkably steep hills in the course of their regular operation.
      Our area of interest is more than just the city of Pittsburgh, though洋ore accurately Allegheny County庸or some of the district inclines were outside the actual city. In fact, the two remaining inclines are in an area that was not part of the city at the time they were built.
      Our area of interest is further limited to public operations, both passenger and freight. We have not attempted to cover the earlier private inclines in detail, but some are mentioned in passing.

Pittsburgh in the middle of the nineteenth century was going through growing pains, along with many other cities. But the pains were worse than in some cities, because of the hills and rivers surrounding the downtown area. The city was expanding, making it more difficult for workmen to find homes within easy walking distance of their places of employment. Everyone walked to work容ven owners and presidents of companies. Although many homes were crowded around the mills, walks of two, three, or even four miles each way, every day, were not uncommon.
      Then, in 1857, “rapid transit” came to Pittsburgh in the form of horsecars. These made areas as distant as East Liberty, xx miles away, readily accessible to downtown Pittsburgh, and soon fanned out to Allegheny (now Pittsburgh’s North Side), Birmingham (South Side), and other places.
      But the rugged topography made some nearby areas inaccessible even to the horsecars, except by a route too circuitous to be practical. One of these areas was the new borough of Mount Washington, formerly known as Coal Hill. Overlooking the downtown city, and almost literally within a stone’s throw of Carson Street on the southern bank of the Monongahela River, the community was remote from the city because the precipitous bluff defied most attempts to climb it.
      Brownsville Road (now New Arlington Avenue) rose to the top by means of a very long diagonal, and Hemlock Street twisted and climbed very steeply through a break in the hillside葉oo steeply for horses to pull loaded wagons or cars. A flight of steps zig-zagged up the slope across the river from the Point葉he juncture of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers傭ut only the most hardy souls used it.
      British soldiers stationed at Fort Pitt had come across outcroppings of coal on that hillside as early as 1760 (hence the name Coal Hill), and had dug it up and tumbled it down the hillside to use for heating and cooking in their camp. Industrial coal mines were in operation on the hill before the end of that century.
      An 1852 city map shows what was called the “Kirk Lewis Coal Rail Road” at or near the site of the present Duquesne Incline, although not extending all the way to the brow of the hill. Apparently it was built only to haul coal down from the mines. That map also shows “Robert Bigham’s Coal Rail Road,” about halfway between the Duquesne and Monongahela Incline locations.
      Many immigrant workers had been attracted to Pittsburgh’s industrial expansion, and a predominantly German settlement had developed on Coal Hill. Having known inclines or “stielbahns” in their native land, these people urged the business and political leaders to construct a passenger incline to serve their area.
      In 1852, the Pennsylvania Legislature approved an act to incorporate the South Pittsburg* and Saw Mill Run Turnpike Road Company, which among other things was authorized to “construct one or more inclined planes to run cars from any point or points on the river bank between the Monongahela (Smithfield Street) bridge and the mouth of Saw Mill Run to the brow of Coal Hill, in the neighborhood of High Street (Grandview Avenue), and for all freight or packages carried on said incline plane to charge, for each passenger, not exceeding four cents per trip, and each one hundred pounds of freight not exceeding two cents. . . .” Apparently this was never accomplished. (*Footnote: explain Pittsburg / Pittsburgh.)
      In 1854, the Mount Washington Inclined Plane Company was incorporated under much the same terms as the South Pittsburg company. Probably this was the venture that was later described by a historian in these glowing words: “The plan, as drawn by Mr. J. S. Kirk, one of our most prominent engineers, is, to have the power at the foot of the plane. Two large columns, say one hundred and fifty feet high, are to contain weights that will ascend and descend with the motion of the car or elevator, giving additional power to a stationary engine, from which the main power is to be derived. The location of the plane has not yet been determined. The engineers have reported two routes. One starts at the base of the cliff near the end of the wire bridge, spanning the Pan Handle railroad, by an arch, and continuing thence to the brow of the bluff. The other begins at the foot of the ravine, under the trestle work of the same road, and strikes the brow of the hill, or High street, proportionately further up the river. The length of the plane will be from eight to sixteen hundred feet, varying according to the route chosen. The altitude will be from three hundred and fifty to four hundred feet.
      “That the project is practicable will not admit of a doubt. Many similar, only on a smaller scale, are in successful operation in the country, and, judging by the character and calibre of the parties who have it in hand, its speedy completion may confidently be anticipated. As a public enterprise it will rank with the most formidable and necessitous of the city.” From “Leisure Hours,” edited by J. Trainor King. Vol. 1, 1868.
      These plans proved to be unworkable, but new plans led to construction of the Monongahela Incline, as described later.
      This is the story of the inclines that were completed葉he two that have lasted well over a hundred years, those that served valiantly but didn’t last that long, and various other forms of public hillside railways, some of which lasted only a painfully short length of time.

On January 12, 1869, the Pittsburgh Gazette stated: “It may not be generally known that the once abandoned project of constructing an inclined passenger railway plane, starting at the base of Coal Hill and ending at the top in Mt. Washington borough, has again been revived. It will be operated by a stationary engine, located at the top of the hill. The company will commence work immediately.”
      On May 26, 1870, the same paper reported that: “The new and ingenious expedient for climbing the rugged hill which hitherto has obstructed the extension of city suburbs on the South Side, is so nearly completed that it is expected to be opened for public use on Saturday next. The machinery has been frequently operated during the past few days. Numerous passengers have made the round or rather oblique trips and report the passage easy and comfortable and without ever an idea of danger. The management delays its inauguration for public use only for the prudent purpose of having everything made perfect, and by frequent experimental tests ascertaining that nothing has been left undone that can be done to make assurance of safety doubly sure.”
      Two days later, on May 28, 1870, the first passenger incline in Pittsburgh was formally opened at 3 p.m., carrying 994 passengers the first day, and 5500 the second day, as the cars made 339 trips each.
      The two cars have a unique design with compartments on three levels. The two lower levels are enclosed and have two full-width wooden benches each. The upper compartment is open and has screened side windows and iron grillwork on the upper end; this section was originally intended for packages, from market baskets to barrels of flour. The original cars remained in service until 199x, when they were replaced with new cars of the same design. (Verify details)
      This plane was designed and built by John J. Endres, the original structure being of wood. In 1882 it was rebuilt, and the present iron structure, designed by Samuel Diescher, was then erected. The plane is 640 feet long, and is built on a grade of 71ス%, with a total rise of 375 feet. About 250 feet of the lower portion of the structure is built over the tracks of the Pan Handle railroad (later Pennsylvania Railroad, then Conrail), and this portion of the structure is built of 5-foot plate girders in spans of 60 feet. The remainder of the plane is constructed of 15-inch I beams, the supports being both piers and posts. The gauge is 5 feet, and the track is laid with 45-pound steel T rails. The original cost of construction was about $75,000, and rebuilding cost $30,000.
      Each car has a separate 1ス-inch woven steel hoisting cable, winding onto a cast iron drum 8 feet 10 inches in diameter, and there is also a 1シ-inch safety cable. The original steam engine was replaced by Otis electrical equipment on October 1, 1935, at a cost of $34,721.

  • RIDGEWOOD INCLINE At least by early 1889
  • CASTLE SHANNON INCLINE (Front / No. 1) 1890
  • CASTLE SHANNON INCLINE (Original Front熔n 1872 map)
  • CASTLE SHANNON INCLINE (Rear / No. 2) 1891 (being built)
  • PITTSBURGH, KNOXVILLE & ST. CLAIR STREET RAILWAY 1888 (Trolley locomotives pulling horsecars, steepest portion rack railway)
  • PERRYSVILLE AVENUE LINE, Federal Street & Pleasant Valley Co. 1889 (Trolley line, steepest portion rack railway)

Bellevue & Davis Island Incline

From the West Bellevue station (originally Bellevue station) on the Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago) Railroad to the main street of Bellevue was only a little over a half mile, but it was a grueling 230-foot vertical climb, nicknamed “cardiac hill.” So in 1882 the Bellevue Incline Plane Company was chartered to provide an easier means for commuters to get to their homes.
      But it was 1887 before construction started. Meanwhile, the company was reorganized (?) as the Bellevue and Davis Island Incline Plane Company. (Davis Island is in the Ohio River, opposite Bellevue. The Davis Island Dam ended near the West Bellevue station.)
      Instead of an inclined railway as built elsewhere in the Pittsburgh district, Bellevue decided on an elevator in a vertical tower 90 feet high, located near the railroad station, close to the western edge of the borough. From the top, a bridge extended to the bluff near James Street (now Riverview Avenue). From this point, an electric streetcar line was built via James, West, and Sherman Avenues (South Jackson Street) to New Brighton Road (now Lincoln Avenue).
      The elevator apparently stood in the ravine near where Ohio River Boulevard now bridges over it.
      In June 1887, the Street Railway Journal reported that “work has commenced on this new enterprise.” In August the Journal said: “The electric railway here will be operated with a 100-h.p. Westinghouse engine,” and two months later the same publication said, “The electric railway in Bellevue is completed and running successfully, with about one-half mile of track, operated by the Fisher system.”
      The Bellevue Centennial book, published in 1967, recounted, “The first electric streetcar to be tried out in Western Pennsylvania was successfully run in Bellevue. A short line was built commencing with the intersection of Sherman (South Jackson) and Lincoln Avenues. It ran down the slope to old Windsor Park on the bluff over the West Bellevue Station. . . . The first cars were the electric cars. . . . The grade and curves proved too much for the car and it was replaced by a cable system. This car did well except at the sharp curves where it too would stick.”
      No details have been found on just how this cable system was constructed, but as it was on public streets and involved at least two sharp curves, it was obviously not like typical inclines. Possibly it was similar to the cable cars of the period, which were pulled along by a cable running in a conduit under the center of the track. In fact, there are rumors that a large pulley for such a system is still buried under Lincoln Avenue near Sprague Street.
      However, it seems unlikely that a system as complicated as this would have replaced another system only a year or so old. The Fisher system used a slotted rail in the center of the track for its electrical contacts; perhaps some non-technical person thought this was the slotted rail of a cable railway system.
      But its troubles were not over. In March 1889 the Journal said, “The electric road in Bellevue does not seem to be patronized to any very great extent, and the cars have now been laid off for some time.” In April of that year it was sold at sheriff’s sale.
      Apparently the elevator itself continued to operate for a while, but in 1893 it was closed and dismantled.
      Epilogue: In 1893 a steel viaduct known as the High Bridge, spanning the deep Jack’s Run ravine on the eastern edge of Bellevue, was opened. It carried the tracks of the Pleasant Valley Street Railways Company, which provided a new means for commuters to travel between Bellevue and Pittsburgh.

© 1998 M. F. McGrew

A Chronology of the Pittsburgh Inclines
from 1852 to 1962

Following is some further material from the research of Mac McGrew:

1852/02/13S Pg & Saw Mill Run Tpk Rd Co charteredケ
1854/02/22Mt Washington Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1863/07/01Duquesne Incline reopened
1867/04/12Monongahela Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1870/末/末Monongahela incline completedイ
1870/03/23Mt Oliver Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1870/04/05Central Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1870/05/28Monongahela Incline (psgr) opened
1871/末/末Mt Oliver incline completedイ
1871/05/19W Pg Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1873/04/05Pittsburg & Castle Shannon RR Co charteredケ
1876/01/20Duquesne Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1877/末/末Duquesne Hts incline work begunイ
1877/05/21“The New Incline,” Pgh Post story
1881/02/26Penn Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1881/06/06Fort Pitt Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1881/08/24Allegheny Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1881/11/17Bailey Ave Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1882/末/末Monon Incline rebuilt with steelウ
1882/末/末Fort Pitt incline completedイ
1882/09/04Bellevue Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1883/末/末Penn (17th St) incline completedイ
1883/07/23Local Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1884/末/末Duquesne Hts incline completedイ
1884/03/31Monon vehicular incline opened
1884/末/末Mon Frt & Psgr incline completedイ
1884/05/21Troy Hill Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1885/09/09St Clair Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1886/末/末St Clair incline completedイ
1886/07/末Ridgewood Incline Rwy Co charteredケ
1886/08/27Troy Hill Incline Plane Rwy Co charteredケ
1886/09/24Nunnery Hill Inclined Plane Co charteredケ
1887/末/末Troy Hill incline completedイ
1887/末/末Nunnery Hill incline completedイ
1888/06/07Pgh & Mt Oliver Inclined Plane Rwy charteredケ
1888/06/25Clifton Ave Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1889/末/末Perrysvl Av cog incline completedイ
1889/末/末Ridgewood incline completedイ
1889/末/末Pgh Knoxvl & St cog incline completedイ
1889/04/29Pgh Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1890/末/末Castle Shannon north incline completedイ
1890/末/末Pgh (with curve) incline completedイ
1890/末/末Knoxville (aka Pgh) Incline builtイ
1890/02/09Arlington Ave Incline Plane charteredケ
1890/03/31Aliquippa Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1891/末/末Castle Shannon south incline completedイ
1891/08/21Spring Hill Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1892/06/10Park Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1893/末/末Tenth St Inclined Plane charteredケ
1893/08/11Peoples Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1893/08/14Citizens Inclined Plane Co of Pgh Pa charteredケ
1894/12/10Washington Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1895/末/末Clifton incline completedイ
1895/01/14Grandview Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1895/12/09City Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1902/12/31Peoples Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1910/06/07Mt Washington Incline Plane Co charteredケ
1935/10/01Monon orig steam engine replaced by Otis elec eqptウ
1935/10/11Monon vehicular incline closed
1953/11/28Penn (17th St) Incline closed 6 pm
1961/末/末Knoxville (aka Pgh) Incline dismantledイ
1962/11/22Duquesne Incline closed


  1. W Pa Historical Mag 10–63: “All Cos Authorized by Commonwealth of Pa to Operate Inclines in Allegheny County,” by Margaret Bothwell
  2. 100 Year Pittsburgh History of Inclines, 1863 to 1963; info culled from the records of Mon Inclined Plane, by P. G. Eizenhafer
  3. Pgh’s Inclines, by C. J. Benjamin, ERA Headlights 4–56
© 1998 M. F. McGrew