If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for more than one hot minute, you’ve been on either the Monongahela or Duquesne inclines. Chances are good that if you’ve entertained out-of-town guests visiting our fair city for the first time, you’ve taken them on an incline experience. Jaded Pittsburgh cynicism aside, they’re pretty cool.
But did you know that at various points in Pittsburgh’s history there have been 23 different inclines? Thanks to the excellent Brookline Connection website, there are short write-ups on all of them. Some of them were owned and operated by coal companies mining the ridges and sending the coal down to the awaiting barges on the rivers. But many were for the simple means of quickly transporting people from the hilltop communities to the places below to work and shop.
Two on the list caught my eye in particular — the Mount Oliver Incline (1872-1951) and Knoxville Incline (1890-1960). The Knoxville Incline was somewhat unique in that it was curvilinear, rather than just straight up and down the hill. And judging by the old-timey photos, the cars were very basic open-air cars meant to convey a large number of people at a time. The main access for these two adjoining neighborhoods on top of the hill is via Arlington Avenue off of East Carson Street. Today, both seem isolated, but back at the turn of the 20th century, there were two separate inclines to give them an aura of physical connectivity to the city below.
Using only the pictures from the Brookline Connection site, I tried to re-create where each incline started and stopped to get a feel for what they looked like in action. I started off with the Knoxville Incline by going to the park marked on Google Maps as Knoxville Incline Overlook Park. It’s off of a road called Brosville Street. When I stood on a little bridge spanning a ravine, I saw these stone retaining wall that looked like they were put there over 100 years ago for the purpose of protecting a rail bed:
From the site and the Wikipedia page, I knew the upper station was on Warrington Avenue, but I wasn’t exactly sure where on Warrington. The intersection of Warrington/Arlington/Brosville sure looked like the intersection from the old-timey photo. The building there is a Dairy Mart.
As I happened to be walking around the building to see any remnants of a bed or track, I saw this painted on the back of the Dairy Mart:
So this was the upper station location. Since I was up here, I wanted to look for the upper station of the Mount Oliver Incline. From my rudimentary research, this incline was a straight shot up the hill with a station on Warrington, too. I drove along Warrington until it crested, just before it reached its terminus at St. Thomas Street. I stood on an empty lot and looked over the hill towards the 10th Street Bridge in the distance. I knew that the Mount Oliver Incline ended on 12th Street in the South Side, so this made sense to me for the upper location.
I drove down Brosville towards the South Side and landed right on 12th Street, which is exactly where I wanted to be. Based on this captions in pictures and the Wikipedia entries, the lower station for the Mount Oliver Incline was near the intersection of Freyburg and 12th Street. And based on the picture showing the two inclines close to each other, the lower station for the Knoxville Incline would be pretty close by also. In looking at the picture, this house with the green trim sure looked the house in the background of this old picture, based on the windows and the cornices on the corner of the house. That would make the empty lot in the foreground of the new picture the old location of the lower station.
The Knoxville Incline station proved to be a little trickier for a couple of reasons. The Wikipedia entry site listed it as being on Bradford Street, but I couldn’t find any Bradford on Google Maps. After a few turns, though, I did find a Bradish near 11th Street. This picture below is from the track perspective coming into the lower platform. I almost gave up looking for it until I decided to try and match the houses in the background to the old picture. Eventually, I found these houses with windows and roof lines that seemed to match those from the old picture. Across the street was another empty lot, which indicated that I found the location of that lower station.
The two stations were located just one block apart from each other and primarily served two hilltop neighborhoods. That’s better service than what exists in 2015 with Port Authority bus service. Both of these stations let their passengers off just a few blocks walk away from the South Side Market House — that’s the building that you drive around, desperately looking for a parking spot while going to Jack’s or Club Cafe — which was an early form of Transit-Oriented Development, I suppose.
The idea of all the elevated tracks would probably not be aestethically pleased in the modern city, but I can’t help but feel that these inclines would still be well-used today. Maintenance on them is probably prohibitive, of course, but with so much emphasis on mass transit in cities now, maybe a visit to Pittsburgh’s past could serve as an inspiration to the future.