Most Cincinnatians know our hilly city once boasted five inclines to Price Hill, Fairview, Bellevue, Mt. Auburn, and Mt. Adams. Here are some lesser-known facts…
Cincinnati Stole the Idea From Pittsburgh
Our upstream neighbor installed its first inclined railway in 1864. Although that first incline carried nothing but coal for several years, it was soon adapted to passenger service. Pittsburgh had three functional inclines before Cincinnati’s first went into operation, and it still has two functioning inclines. The Monongahela Incline is 150 years old this year.
The Cincinnati Incline Era Lasted Nearly 76 Years
From May 12, 1872, when the Mt. Auburn Incline first went into service, until the last bus debarked from the Mt. Adams Incline on April 16, 1948, more than three-quarters of a century had passed. By the time the inclines ceased running, years of deferred maintenance had rendered them unsafe and in need of expensive renovation. Entranced by the automobile, Cincinnati demurred, to our historic loss.
Early Incline Trucks Had Names
The platforms that carried passengers, streetcars, and wagons up and down the inclined planes were known as “trucks.” On the Mt. Adams and Price Hill inclines, at least, the trucks had names. The Mt. Adams trucks were named for financier Nicholas Longworth and Martin Baum, an early Cincinnati mayor who built was it now the Taft Museum of Art. The Price Hill trucks were named after owner William Price’s daughters, “Highland Mary” and “Lily of the Valley.”
Cincinnati’s Inclines Suffered Only One Fatal Accident
They called it the Mt. Auburn Horror, the day when the passenger car of the city’s first incline rocketed downhill and shattered into flinders at the top of Main Street, ending six lives. It was noon on October 15, 1889, and the busy incline had just carried nine passengers to the top of the hill. The steam-powered lift engine squealed as the car neared the summit and the operator panicked as the brakes failed. He pulled on the lever with all his might, but the car slammed into the structure at the top of the hill. The cables snapped and the car shot downhill in free fall. At bottom, the car crashed through a pair of wrought iron gates with such violence that the roof was sent sailing down the street and bodies bounced in every direction. Of the nine passengers, six died of horrible injuries. The incline never recovered. Although it resumed service five months later, passengers sought alternative routes, and the Mt. Auburn incline closed in 1898.
Manure Saved a Man’s Life in One Incline Wreck
The Price Hill Incline was really two separate funiculars, one for passengers and one for freight. On October 2, 1906, Green Township farm boy Joe Strassel and his two-horse wagon got on at State Street, followed by a Price Hill coal merchant, Edward Brisker, with a two-horse wagon filled with sand. The cable snapped when the incline truck was six feet from the summit. The car plummeted earthward. Strassel somersaulted into his load of manure, while Brisker dove into his pile of sand. Miraculously, both survived the 800-foot fall. Unfortunately, the four horses had to be shot.
The Inclines Were Loud, Really Loud
The Bellevue Incline was located about 150 feet west of the old University of Cincinnati building on McMicken Street. Even at that distance, the incline trucks were so loud that professors had to pause their lectures every 10 minutes or so while noisy cars rattled up and down the slope.
UC’s Medical Students Got Revenge on the Noisy Incline
When UC’s medical college occupied the old building next to the Bellevue Incline, students would occasionally toss fingers and toes from cadavers they were dissecting onto the passing incline cars.
There’s a Detailed Scale Model of the Mt. Adams Incline
Just before the Mt. Adams Incline was demolished, the late Charles H. Lambert took exacting measurements and built a fully functional scale model in his basement. Lambert’s model has been displayed at the John Hauck House, Loveland Historical Museum, and other venues.
Cincinnati’s Inclines Led to Hilltop Resorts
Only the unsung Fairview Incline lacked a resort at its upper terminus. The Bellevue Incline ran up to Bellevue House, the Mt. Auburn Incline to the Lookout House, the Mt. Adams Incline to the Highland House and the Price Hill Incline to the Price Hill House.
One Hilltop Resort Refused to Serve Alcohol
To build his incline, William Price borrowed money from his father, Rees Price (for whom Price Hill is named). Father Price was a teetotaler and a vegetarian except for apples, because God forbade Adam and Eve to eat them. To keep Dad happy, Price the younger maintained a dry house, leading a saloon at the bottom of the incline to rename itself as the Last Chance Saloon. Price Hill earned the nickname “Buttermilk Mountain.”
The Incline Resorts Used All Sorts of Gimmicks to Attract Customers
Cincinnati’s hilltop resorts were huge, each able to entertain thousands of customers at a time. Some went high-class, with symphonic concerts, while others relied on fireworks and manned balloon launches. In 1877, the Lookout House imported a beluga whale from Labrador. The poor beast brought out the crowds but did not survive long.
Incline Fares Were Expensive
Around 1920, fares for the inclines ran between 20 cents and 30 cents. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s equivalent to $2.50 to $4 today. Some inclines could not accommodate trolley cars, so passengers had to pay a fare to the streetcar, pay the incline fare, then pay a fare when they got off the incline.
The Inclines’ First Competition Came From Cable Cars
It’s true, Cincinnati once had San Francisco-style cable cars. The local streetcar company, in an effort to avoid paying incline fares, brought a San Francisco engineer to Cincinnati to help design and build cable traction systems to pull cars up Gilbert Avenue and the Sycamore Street Hill.
Cincinnati Inclines Were Steam-Powered
In the 1920s, half a century into its lifespan, the Price Hill Incline converted to electrical power. No other incline made the switch. The incline steam engines were immense, and each incline burned through more than a ton of coal every day.
Some of The Inclines Were Replaced by Steps
Falling into disrepair these days, two stairways maintain the original route of two of Cincinnati’s inclines. Although its top has been lopped off, the Fairview Steps ascending from McMicken Avenue to the Scenic Drive in Fairview Park cover most of the old Fairview Incline. The Main Street Steps, built by WPA labor during the Great Depression, preserve the route of the Mt. Auburn Incline.
Inclines Had Stowaways
Among the most famous images of Cincinnati’s lost inclines is a 1905 large-format glass negative on file at the Library of Congress. An astute observer can see, on the uphill truck, a young boy sitting amid the framework.