Sitting six-hundred feet above the city of Pittsburgh and south of the banks of the Monongahela River stands Mount Washington. Well known for its overlook of the Pittsburgh skyline, tourists from around the world come to Mount Washington to gaze at the river valley that surrounds the city and to ride two of the world’s oldest operating inclines. Mount Washington’s history, like many of its surrounding neighborhoods, is closely tied to Pittsburgh’s rich history of coal and steel industry.
Mount Washington was named after General George Washington, who was commissioned by the British army to survey the area during the French and Indian War. Following the war, the mountain was referred to as Coal Hill, due to its large coal deposits. Coal Hill became a vitally important local mineral deposit, providing coal to early settlers at the Point, to garrisons at Fort Pitt, and first to the glass industry and then to the steel industry on the Monongahela River. The Penn family began selling rights on Mount Washington beginning in 1784, and by that point Pittsburgh was already being referred to as the smoky city due to its use of coal. Coal Hill’s coal was unusually accessible, and according to some accounts at one point people could simply loosen coal from the surface of the Mountain and toss it down the hillside. Later on, men mined Mount Washington for this valuable commodity.
By the 1860s, industry in Pittsburgh was exponentially expanding, resulting in a lack of housing for industry workers and their families. This is when people began turning to Mount Washington as a source of land. German and Eastern European immigrants mainly settled on the Mount, the majority working in plants on the south banks of the Monongahela. In 1872, the Borough of Mount Washington was annexed into the City of Pittsburgh.
The main way early inhabitants traversed Mount Washington was the Indian trail step, which was a mile long switchback running the entire length of the mountain’s face from Grandview Avenue to the base of the Mountain at Carson Street. This changed with the introduction of inclines in the 1870s. By the 1950s, the face of Mount Washington was completely deforested, due to over a century of mining and industrialization. Rebuilding and re-foresting efforts thus ensued and today Mount Washington has gained back most of its former beauty.
In addition to its view of the Pittsburgh skyline, Mount Washington is known for its funiculars, which is French for the inclined railways that run up the side of the Mountain. Though around the 1890s there were over 17 inclines in Pittsburgh, only the Duquesne and Monongahela inclines exist today and are two of the oldest continuously running inclines in the world. Inspired by the steilbahns in their native country, German settlers thought of the idea of inclines as a way to more easily get up and down Mount Washington.
The Monongahela incline, the oldest operating funicular in the U.S., opened in 1870. The Duquesne incline, originally built for cargo and wagons, opened up to passenger travel in 1877. Its cable cars were designed by Samuel Diescher to run at six miles per hour. The Castle Shannon incline serviced the Mount Washington community until 1964, when it was tore down. Today the two remaining inclines give tourists a breathtaking view of Pittsburgh as well as give transportation to several thousand of Mount Washington’s inhabitants.
Today, Mount Washington is one of Pittsburgh’s most desirable neighborhoods and is home to some of the city’s most sought after real estate. The community is home to young professionals, families, and retirees. It contains a solid number of restaurants, coffee shops, taverns, and bakeries. Though hilly, the community is walker-friendly and pleasant to explore. An excellent half day trip to Mount Washington should include a ride on the Duquesne Incline, a leisurely walk along Grandview Avenue, from which you can see the city skyline, and brunch at the Micro Diner. You are sure to run into locals at this affordable, cozy diner. On one of my trips, I conversed over a bacon omelet with an elderly woman who lived in Mount Washington, golfed at Sewickley country club, and currently sits on the board of Duquesne University. We bonded over our shared love for Pittsburgh and she recommend that I try La Tavola, one of Mount Washington’s oldest Italian restaurants that is owned by her friends Joe and Pam Tavola.
By Clara Limback