The best view of downtown Pittsburgh with its rivers and bridges has to be from atop the Duquesne Incline, a nineteenth-century inclined plane railroad or funicular.
The incline is one of the city's most distinctive features and a popular attraction for visitors, although some locals still find it one of the best ways to get from downtown Pittsburgh to the neighborhoods atop Mount Washington.
The incline's tracks closely follow the trail of an early coal hoist, which appeared on Mount Washington (a.k.a. "Coal Mountain") as early as 1854 to transport coal from the mountain to residents in the neighborhood atop the hill.
Industrial Pittsburgh rapidly expanded during the 1860s, with more and more residents settling atop the mountain as businesses settled on the flat land in the river valleys.
People tired of taking footpaths up and down the steep hill, so Samuel Diescher, a civil and mechanical engineer, designed the incline. He went on to construct the majority of inclined planes in the United States, and the Duquesne Incline became one of four serving Mount Washington at one time.
The Duquesne Incline opened on May 20, 1877, and it carried people, as well as freight, horses and cars to neighborhoods in the hills during its earliest decades.
The incline cost $47,000 to construct and passengers during the early years paid a base fare of five cents.
Today the base price for a one-way fare is $2.25, which is still a pretty economical price for a popular tourist attraction. Better yet, there is a free parking lot at the foot of the hill for the visitors taking the incline.
The Duquense Incline is just west of the Fort Pitt Bridge and faces the Ohio River. It is just under 800 feet long and 400 feet high, traversing a 58-percent grade at an average speed of 4 to 6 miles per hour.
Two cars, one going up and one going down, attached to the opposite ends of a cable, counterbalance each other while an operator in at the top of the hill drives the engine. The engine needs only enough power to overcome friction and the weight difference between the passengers in each car. A diesel auxiliary generator operates the incline in case of a power failure.
Inclines became popular during the late-nineteenth century, with 17 appearing on the hills of Pittsburgh in the quarter century following construction of the Monongahela Incline in 1870.
One incline could transport several thousand people each day, but better roads and improvement of other means of transportation like cars led to closing of most inclines during the early twentieth century.
Today, only the Duquense and Monongahela Inclines remain in operation.
The Duquense Incline nearly closed entirely during the early 1960s. The owners closed it in 1962 for repairs, and then decided it was too expensive to do the repairs needed in order to re-open it.
Residents of the Duquense Heights neighborhood atop Mt. Washington rallied to save the incline, raising $15,000 and forming a non-profit group to help fund its operation and re-open it in 1963.
Pittsburgh's Port Authority purchased the incline the next year, leasing it back to the Society for the Preservation of the Duquense Incline for one dollar and returning the dollar to the society as a donation.
Major improvements since the preservation society took over the incline include stripping grey paint from the interior of the 25-passenger incline cars to reveal original cherry wood panels with oak and Birdseye maple trim and constructing an observation deck on top of the cable room.
The day we visited, a college orientation group visited deck, and we learned a lot about the city and the incline by listening to the group's guide!
There is also a small gift shop at the top where I bought a cute wooden incline ornament for my Christmas tree.
The Duquense Incline operates year round, seven days a week.
Check out Aaron's story, Pittsburgh: Duquense Incline and Mt. Washington, and Shannon's story, Pit-Stop At Pittsburgh's Duquesne Incline for other takes on visiting the incline (See? I told you it was a must-do for Pittsburgh visitors!).
Read my other Pittsburgh stories, Catching a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game, Roberto Clemente (Sixth Street) Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and A walk across the Smithfield Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Want to learn more? Check out Pittsburgh's South Side (Images of America) by Stuart P. Boehmig to read more about inclines in Pittsburgh and The Inclines of Cincinnati (Images of America) by Melissa Kramer to learn about that Ohio city's historic inclines and their eventual disappearance.
© Dominique King 2012 All rights reserved