Ask Pittsburghers where to go for the best view of the Steel City and I’ll bet you a buck the answer is always Mt. Washington. Locals also will tell you the quintessential way to get there is via the Duquesne Incline.
Opened in 1877, the Duquesne Incline is the oldest continuously operating vehicle for transportation in the country, and one of Pittsburgh’s most recognized and visited landmarks.
An incline, or funicular, is a steeply graded railway that uses a cable system to haul tram-like vehicles on rails up and down precipitously steep slopes. The Duquesne Incline shuttles you from Carson Street on the South Side up 400 feet to Grandview Avenue atop Mt. Washington. USA Today enhanced the Duquesne Incline’s status when it named the feature one of the “top 10 sites in the world for viewing a cityscape.”
When Bill and I lived in the ‘Burgh for 13 years, we began our tours for guests at this very spot. Why, then, did we never ride the incline to get here, opting instead to drive our cars up the still-dramatic, but less iconic McCardle Roadway?
When we travel to a new city, we scout out standard must-see sites and hidden gems that might not fly as high on the radar, but still contribute mightily to its identity and character.
On the other hand, I sheepishly admit that sometimes I’m not the best traveler within my own city. For no reason other than maybe I took it too much for granted, riding the Duquesne Incline was a never-seized opportunity.
Conversations with friends and family who confess they, too, often don’t explore their own back yards tells me the tendency is commonplace. I know it also happens abroad.
During our recent stay in Amsterdam, Anne Frank House was #1 on my itinerary. Post-tour I interviewed the communications director. She acknowledged that while Amsterdammers are immensely proud of the museum devoted to the life of teenage diarist Anne Frank, many have yet to visit. To encourage attendance, the museum offers free admittance to locals once a year.
On board at last
It took a return trip to Pittsburgh to lose my virginal status regarding the Duquesne Incline. I paid the $5 fare for a round-trip ticket, and boarded one of the distinctive red, black, and yellow cars. It seemed like a step back in time.
We began our ascent – at a speed of six miles per hour, along the 794 feet of track, and at a grade of 30.5 degrees. Watching Pittsburgh’s familiar Golden Triangle and The Point, Heinz Field (home of the Steelers), PNC Park (home of the Pirates), Carnegie Science Center, three rivers (Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio), and rolling hills beyond unfold from an ever-increasing height was breathtaking.
Tom Reinheimer, director of marketing and group tours, told me the twin cast iron cars used today are the original cars from 1877. Actually designed to be horse-drawn trolley cars, they were shipped from Philadelphia, and assembled and installed on the black triangular platforms where they still reside. The teeth on the pinion gear are made of wood.
Tourism, he said, is the lifeblood of the Duquesne Incline. The incline also serves as a reliable transport for commuters.
In the machine room visitors can observe the original 1877 and still-in-use hoisting equipment that propels cars up and down the hill. The upper station also includes a pictorial history of Pittsburgh’s industry, inclines, sports venues, and natural disasters.
Of course, the return trip down the hill was just as exciting.
A tribute to immigrants
I rectified that oversight as well.
Pittsburgh is a renowned melting pot. Each of the 30 Nationality Rooms represents a country and culture of one of the various ethnic groups that settled in Allegheny County. Countries range from Armenia, Japan, Turkey, and Ireland, to Israel, Norway, Romania, and Switzerland. The rooms serve both as active classrooms for the university and microcosms of the region’s diversity.
The Nationality Rooms are situated on the first and third floors of the Cathedral of Learning, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Leading my private tour of the Nationality Rooms was the colorful and passionate 91-year-old E. Maxine Bruhns, accompanied by docent Jerry Frankovich. Maxine is still going strong after 50 years as director of the Nationality Rooms, and her background is as multicultural as the rooms themselves. Calling herself a West Virginia hillbilly (she has a penchant for the Early American Room), Maxine has lived in Austria, Lebanon, Jordan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Germany, Greece and Gabon. She takes rascally pride in her ability to swear in multiple languages.
In the 1920s, as the 42-story Gothic Revival-style Cathedral of Learning was under construction, the university began inviting nationality communities and clubs in Pittsburgh to create classrooms to represent prominent periods or aspects of their heritage. The groups formed committees, often with support of their motherland governments, to fund, design, construct, and decorate the rooms – “rooms that show the good things immigrants have brought to America,” Maxine said.
We walked through a select few of the rooms. Each is a work of art, generally some 10 years in the making and at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Per Maxine, the upcoming Iranian Room will cost $1 million.
The Syria-Lebanon room, the smallest and only original room, was actually the library of a home in Damascus dating from 1782. The Greek Room conveys the classical architecture (Ionic columns, painted coffered ceilings) that flourished in Athens during the 5th century B.C. A mural in the Italian Room honors the first woman in the world, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, to earn a university degree (both a Master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Padua in 1678). In the Chinese Room we followed tradition and patted the heads of the lion statues and made wishes. The elegant Austrian Room showcases chandeliers, ceiling paintings, and royal red tapestry walls.
With some of my ancestors hailing from Scotland, I felt the closest affinity with the Scottish Room. Here the thistle is prominent in the cornerstone and the woodwork, for its sharp prickles once repelled the advance of invading foot soldiers and helped save the country. A portrait of poet Robert Burns dominates the mantel.
Despite each room’s unique appearance, all share some common elements:
· The period presented predates 1787, the date of the U.S. Constitution and the founding of the University of Pittsburgh.
· A place for students to sit, a place for professors to stand, a chalkboard, and a waste can because eating and drinking are prohibited.
· No living person depicted.
· No political symbols.
And my regret is eased. Even though I live in Charlotte now, I feel more like a ‘Burgher with the Duquesne Incline and Nationality Rooms under my belt.