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A Simple System: Funiculars in American History

A Simple System: Funiculars in American History

Credit: S. Clery: Original digital image, Monongahela Incline, Pittsburgh, Nov 2006

By Luke Carothers

As early railroad technology developed, engineers grappled with the challenge of moving cars up and down inclines.  Early railroads were often constructed in the same way a canal would be, with large stretches of flat railway connected by specialized inclined systems to move cars up or down the elevation to another section of track.  As railroad technology developed, and standard cars were able to navigate greater inclines as a result of more powerful engines and better roadway engineering, many of these specialized inclined systems fell out of favor–being relegated for specialized tasks in mines and high elevation construction.

Notable among these specialized inclined railroad systems is the funicular, which bucked the trend and became a wildly popular option for American cities looking to provide their citizens with public transportation.  Compared to other inclined railway systems, the funicular is remarkably simple from a mechanical perspective.  Operating on a counterweight pulley system, funiculars rely on the kinetic energy of a descending car to raise an ascending car–requiring very little power to run the system.  The two cars operated on either a single- or double-track system, moving passengers from between stations at the top and bottom of the incline.  

Because of their simple design, funiculars were a cheap and efficient option for moving people up and down inclines in urban spaces.  During the latter half of the 19th century, funicular construction boomed across the United States.  Cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and many places in between recognized the value of the system, and funicular railroads began to pop up to connect neighborhoods in places with steep elevation.  During this time, the city of Pittsburgh constructed 17-passenger carrying funicular inclines, the oldest of which being the Monongahela Incline built in 1870.

Like many cities during the Industrial Revolution, Pittsburgh was quickly becoming home to a growing population of people immigrating to the United States.  As Pittsburgh’s population expanded, their newest residents made their homes on the steep inclines of Mt. Washington.  Also known as Coal Hill, these new neighborhoods were built on the only land available to Pittsburgh’s residents, as most of the flat land around the city’s rivers was occupied by industry.  This new neighborhood gave citizens a respite from the soot and smoke that clouded lower areas in the city and was geographically close to the center of industry.  However, the difference in elevation between these populations and industrial areas represented a problem when it came to staffing the factories, workshops, and foundries that crowded Pittsburgh’s riverfront. 

The solution was a funicular designed to carry passengers between the top and bottom of Mount Washington’s steep incline, and the Monongahela Incline was opened to public use in 1870.  The 635-foot long system was designed by Prussian-born engineer John Endres who watched as more than 5,000 people used the incline in its first two days of operation.

The Monongahela Incline still exists to this day, although it is currently closed to the public for renovations.  Following its construction and popularity, Pittsburgh would construct another 16 funiculars over the next several decades.  This trend would expand rapidly, and hundreds of funiculars were constructed during the latter half of the 19th century.  However, despite their simplicity and efficiency, funiculars fell out of favor just as quickly as they rose in prominence.  By the end of the 20th century, only a handful of funiculars remain in the United States, and fewer still remain in operation at anywhere near the capacity as a century prior.  Of the 17 funicular railroads built in Pittsburgh during this time, only two remain–the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines.  Despite falling from popularity, this simple system had a profound effect on the development of American cities, allowing for dense urban development in cities with steep inclines.