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The Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines are Iconic Features of the Pittsburgh Skyline
For over 130 years the Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines have operated between Mount Washington and the river below. No longer a principal means of transportation, they continue to serve commuters while increasingly delighting visitors from near and far.
Inclined railways, more commonly known around the world as funiculars, are 18th-century forms of mass transit that persist into the 21st century. They are used to move people and goods up or down heights in a relatively short distance.
At one time there were 17 passenger inclines in service in the Pittsburgh area. Today, only 2 remain: the Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines.
Next time you are in Pittsburgh, if you are so inclined, step back in time and ride a funicular just for the fun of it.
How They Work
The inclines are basically 2 passenger cars connected by a cable and on separate tracks that operate to counterbalance each other. Like a see-saw, as one car travels up its track, the other car travels down its own. If it were not for friction and the difference in weight of the passengers in the 2 cars, the motors would not have to generate much force to move the cars up and down.
The rails of each track are 5 feet apart. Initially steam-driven, and now electric, large motors pull 1.5-inch thick multi-strand cables through and around a collection of pulleys to move the cars up and down their tracks. A second safety cable is also attached.
The operators, like the motors, are located in the upper stations and not the passenger cars.
While the accompanying picture does not accurately depict depth, you can see that one car is moving down its tract toward the lower station while the other car moves up toward the upper station (not in the view). Up and down, down and up, the 2 cars move, passing each other at the midpoint of every trip.
Operating since 1877, the Duquesne Incline has ferried passengers and freight between its lower station on West Carson Street to its upper station on Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington (formally known as High Street on Coal Hill). It follows closely the tracks of an old coal hoist. To save real estate, its design is unique in that the hoisting motors are off to the side rather than inline with the track.
Originally owned and operated by The Duquesne Inclined Plane Company, since 1964 it has been owned by the Port Authority of Allegheny County and operated by the non-profit Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline.
Rising 400 feet and traveling approximately 3.6 miles per hour over the almost 800 feet of track, the journey lasts about 2.5 minutes. Each of the 2 cars has a single large passenger compartment that can hold up to 25 passengers. Open in the middle, benches encircle the outer walls. Despite following an almost 60 degree grade up the face of Mount Washington, each car is designed to keep the passenger compartment level.
Situated on the west bank of the Ohio River, the ride provides panoramic views of the North Shore and stadiums, the Allegheny River, The Point with its fountain, the Pittsburgh skyline, and the final portion of the Monongahela River.
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Free parking is available at the lower station, but it does require a climb of several levels of stairs to get into the station. At the upper station, parking is limited to metered parking and ramps.
At the Upper Station there is a small gift shop and a self-guided tour (costing 50 cents) of the mechanical areas. Several fine dining establishments surround the Upper Station. The biggest attraction at the Upper Station is the panoramic view from the observation deck.
The Monongahela Incline Upper Station is approximately 1 mile away with several observation platforms interspersed along the way.
In operation since 1870, the Monongahela Incline is the oldest continuously operating incline in the United States. As the population expanded beyond the river shore and up on to Coal Hill (now Mount Washington), walking to work involved traveling up and down steep narrow footpaths. With the incline, people could now live up on the hill and be quickly and easily transported to the river shore below. If not employed on the river front, an easy walk across a bridge would put them in downtown Pittsburgh.
As more commonly known in Pittsburgh, the Mon Incline covers its 640 feet of track at a speed of 6 miles per hour and rises up almost 370 feet. A one-way trip takes approximately 75 seconds.
Each Mon Incline passenger car transports up to 23 passengers in 3 stair-stepped compartments; 2 closed and one open. Like the design of the Duquesne Incline cars, these cars also keep their passengers level during their ride.
Since 1964 the Monongahela Incline has been owned and operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County.
At the Upper Station on Grandview Avenue is the Grand View Scenic Byway Park with several observation platforms. There are also a few retail shops and food outlets (ice cream and coffee) nearby.
The Lower Station is just across Carson Street from Station Square, a shopping, retail and office complex anchored by a grand old train station. A parking ramp is available here.
Comparison of the Inclines
|Monongahela Incline||Duquesne Incline|
Gauge of Track
Degree of Incline Angle
Type of Car
3 Compartments (1 open)
Port Authority of Alleghany County
Port Authority of Alleghany County and leased to the Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline
There are several funiculars around the world. The closest to Pittsburgh would be the Johnstown Incline Plane in Johnstown, PA. Billed as the "world's steepest vehicular incline plane" it can transport cars in addition to passengers.
The closest foreign incline would be the Falls Incline Railway or Horseshoe Falls Incline in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. It links the Horseshoe Fall's Table Rock Centre to the Fallsview Tourist area above.
Modern funiculars, such as the Hobashira Cable in Japan pictured here, don't have the quaint or quirkiness, let alone the historical significance, of the Pittsburgh inclines.
Similar to inclines, cog railways travel greater distances up and down a mountain. Unlike a funicular, there are no electric motors or cables. A train engine pushes the car up the mountainside and gravity usually brings it down.
In the United States, the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire is probably the most recognized. While the Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines scale heights of as much as 400 feet on up to 800 feet of track, the Mount Washington Cog Railway travels along "3 miles trestle and the steepest railroad tracks in North America" to the highest peak (6,288 feet) on the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Compared to the less than 2-minute one-way trips of the Pittsburgh inclines, the one-way trip from the Marshfield Station at the base of Mount Washington to the Mount Washington Observatory on the summit takes approximately 1 hour!
In the first picture to the right, the coal-fired locomotive can be seen pushing the passenger car at the start of its journey up Mount Washington. Since 2009, the coal-fired locomotives are being replaced with biodiesel-fueled engines. Notice that, unlike the passengers on the Pittsburgh inclines, the passengers in this rail car would not remain level. They would be tilted with the slope of the land.
In the second picture, between the outside rails for the wheels is a middle rail to accept the cog of the locomotive. With the cog engaging this middle rail and providing traction, the engine can move up the steep incline and propel the passenger car with it. The third picture depicts the cogwheel in between the two wheels. You can imagine a powerful engine turning these wheels and the axle as the locomotive moves up the mountain.
If you ever get the chance, take the Mount Washington Cog Railway. It is an experience; the scenery, the cold weather and wind at the top, and the smoke of the engine are all experiences you'll never forget.
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the cost to ride one of these interesting funiculars? Do you know if they are in operation all year long? I am mainly interested in the one in Pittsburgh.
Answer: For the inclines in Pittsburgh, the cost is $2.50 one way and $5.00 round trip for an adult, Half price for children age 6-11. They operate 365 days a year. Originally, and still, for many, they are a means of public transportation rather than a tourist attraction.
© 2012 Mark Shulkosky