Out-of-towners might call it a funicular, a proper designation for cable-drawn, rail-mounted cars operating on a sloping hillside, but it’s the Incline to Pittsburghers, short for inclined plane railway. Such devices hauled coal locally at least as early as 1844, but when post-Civil War industrial expansion caused shortages of labor and real estate, a growing number of passenger versions helped by moving workers from expanding hilltop neighborhoods to the river and cliffside plants and mines where their jobs were. There have been sixteen of the passenger type, depending on how you count, in various of Pittsburgh’s hilltop neighborhoods on all sides of the rivers. Six survived into the 1950s, and two of these remain now. The Monongahela Incline of 1870, designed by engineer John Endres, was the first, and it still operates as part of Pittsburgh’s Port Authority Transit system, thanks to its proximity to Station Square, the Smithfield Street Bridge and the T.
The real poster child, though, is the Duquesne Incline of 1877, which makes a better picture and story. The quaint red cars look like repurposed horse-drawn trolleys, and they probably are. Even better, their upper station on Grandview Avenue is in perfect position to make Pittsburgh’s most popular postcard view, with the novelty transport on its precipitous track down a verdant hillside, showcasing the city’s heroic downtown skyline in the distance.
The Duquesne Incline was the work of Hungarian-born, Swiss-educated engineer Samuel Diescher, who built his first such device in Cincinnati in 1866 before moving to Pittsburgh to work with John Endres. He married Endres’s daughter Caroline, an engineer in her own right, and he set out to build inclines of his own, including eight more in Pittsburgh, and others in four additional states, Canada and Colombia. A versatile engineer, he worked on the mechanical drive of the first Ferris Wheel at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, among many other types of projects.
With a less-than-convenient lower station at 1197 West Carson Street, the Duquesne Incline operates thanks to a non-profit organization that purchased and restored it in 1963, transforming the upper station into a museum of Pittsburgh history. The power was converted from steam to electricity in the distant past, but the Duquesne incline claims to have original cars, along with a drive of wooden gears and drum, which are visible in their operation.
By Charles Rosenblum, Ph. D.
Samuel Diescher (1839-1915) was born in Budapest. He moved to Pittsburgh and lived in the neighborhood of Mount Washington in the late 1800s. He was a civil and mechanical engineer who is most known for creating the machinery for the Ferris wheel for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.