(Editor’s note: Lissa’s book, The Inclines of Cincinnati, was released in March 2009. It was published by Arcadia Publishing and is available at Greater Cincinnati bookstores and online at Amazon.com. Lissa researched and wrote the book while she was a full-time student in the journalism program at the University of Cincinnati. Her interest in Cincinnati’s inclines began when she lived in the East Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati, about a block from the site of the old Price Hill Incline, in the 1990s. She describes how her interest in the inclines developed in a 2009 interview with public radio station WVXU. Listen to the interview on this site at “Lissa on WVXU.” The article “A Bookish Inclination,” posted on this site as well, also discusses how Lissa developed her interest in inclines. The following is the introduction to her book.)
Introduction to The Inclines of Cincinnati
July 25, 2008, marked the 60th anniversary of the day the last streetcar, No. 2446, was pulled up the Mount Adams Incline to the top of the hill. The ride took two and a half minutes and lasted 72 years. Four resorts, the Lookout House, the Highland House, the Bellevue House, and the Price Hill House, clung to the city’s hillsides at the heights of four of the inclines, and riders seeking refreshments, relaxation, and fresh air had a respite from the tedium of factory work and the stench of the city.
The inclines, half railroad and half elevator, tamed the disobedient terrain of Cincinnati during a time when the smoky air was difficult to breathe. Tuberculosis was rampant, and the stench from the Erie Canal had become unbearable. Houses were clustered together. Chimneys and smokestacks from the furniture, meatpacking, and beer industries funneled clouds of black soot into the sky. Through the dark smog, city dwellers looked to the bare hilltops for relief. Beginning around 1850, omnibuses were used. It was not, however, an optimal solution. The trek was burdensome for the horses and the driver, who often had to jump out and block the wheels so the horses could stop and rest. These journeys were less than pleasant for the passengers as well, as the muddy roads were filled with deep ruts, and the carriage lurched along behind the tired horses.
The city was trapped against the surrounding hills, and an immediate solution was necessary. Joseph Stacy Hill, a local soap maker, traveled to Pittsburgh and realized that Cincinnati’s uncooperative topography, similar to Pittsburgh’s, could be conquered in the same way. Hill and his associate, George Smith, obtained a state charter, and on May 12, 1872, Cincinnati’s first inclined plane, the Main Street, or Mount Auburn Incline, began carrying passengers up Mount Auburn.
The business partners, fearing poor returns on their investment, decided that an attraction at the top would draw riders. The Lookout House, an entertainment complex, was built, and crowds of up to 10,000 regularly flocked to the hilltop by way of the Mount Auburn Incline. The proprietor never failed to draw people up the incline to his establishment. He even had a giant whale brought to the Lookout House in a specially made saltwater tank. Hot air balloons and fireworks entertained the guests as they sipped cold beer and savored the fresh air and the view from their new vantage point. However, a fatal accident in 1898 soon brought business at the Lookout House and the incline to a screeching halt.
The Mount Adams Incline, built in 1876, operated until 1948. It was the last incline to close. The idea of a hilltop resort was taken to a new level, and the thrill of riding the Mount Adams Incline was heightened when it was followed by a visit to the Highland House. The July 1883 issue of Harpers New Monthly described a nighttime ride on the incline:
“From the street below, the hill looks as if capped by some fortification all ablaze with military industry . . . The platform receives the streetcar with its horses . . . and it slowly ascends the incline. The city seems to sink beneath it, then expand into a great black chart illustrated with interminable lines of lamps radiating away in uneven lines into the distance . . . and disappearing into the outer darkness of the abyss of the river.”
The inclines had given birth to a new breed of entertainment that only Cincinnati could claim as its own. Sweeping views of the city from the famed Highland House, combined with legendary Cincinnati beer and world-class symphony orchestras, drew regular crowds of 8,000. So huge was the success that traveling salesmen at the dawn of the 20th century called Cincinnati “the Paris of America.” The Queen City of the West had made its mark on the cultural map.
Five inclines stretched from the valley to the hilltops of Cincinnati at Elm Street or Bellevue, Fairview, and Price Hill. Both the Bellevue House and the Price Hill House had facilities similar to the Highland House, and Cincinnati’s hills became an asset rather than a burden. Besides fresh air and entertainment, the inclines made development of the suburbs a reality. Thousands relied on them as an inexpensive, convenient way to travel to and from work every day. A ride on the incline was a cheap date and the number one tourist attraction until the end in 1947.
It begs the question – if the inclines and resorts were so popular, what happened to them? Oddly enough, the inclines hastened their own demise. In making the suburbs accessible, the inclines also created a demand for quick, cheap transportation to and from them. Eventually, the inclines were unable to compete with automobiles. Also, although they were extremely popular, they were not lucrative. Besides labor costs of a fairly large crew, the maintenance of the machinery, trestles, and tracks was expensive. The Cincinnati Street Railway Company that operated the Bellevue, Fairview, and Mount Adams inclines was a private corporation with stockholders who expected dividends. Pressure to simultaneously economize and modernize frustrated both the management and the owners. Buses were the way of the future, and automobiles were seen as more convenient. When inspections revealed defects, they were shut down. The owners, fearing financial ruin, saw the opportunity to abandon the venture.
Citizens who had developed a fondness for the inclines, particularly the Price Hill and Mount Adams, were devastated. Politicians under pressure from the city ordered the Cincinnati Street Railway Company to repair the Mount Adams Incline without offering a dime to help restore it. Because of the steep grade and narrow right-of-way, much of the work had to be done without heavy equipment. The bill came to $150,000 for repairs plus $45,000 per year to maintain it. Another option was for the city to take over operation. However, progress not preservation was the order of the day. Mayor Albert D. Cash, in a statement in the October 7, 1949, Cincinnati Enquirer, said, “Everyone feels nostalgia for this and other ‘old monuments,’” but he was “opposed to saddling the taxpayers with this much expense.” A similar situation in San Francisco occurred when the mayor tried to eliminate the cable cars. Citizens voted more than three to one for them to stay, and today cable cars are synonymous with San Francisco. Pittsburgh continues to operate two of its inclines. The Duquesne Incline was saved by a group of citizens, and today it operates on society memberships, donations, and proceeds from the museum. Historic preservation groups were nonexistent, however, during the deadlock in Cincinnati. John H. White Jr., in his book Cincinnati: City of Seven Hills and Five Inclines, said, “If this debate had taken place a decade or two later, it is likely that the city would have accepted these as a good investment in terms of tourism and public pride.” Letters to the editors of the city’s newspapers were evidence of the public’s desire to save the inclines, but there seemed to be no other recourse. In 1950, the property was sold. White laments the shameful situation when he says, “The incline was said to represent something priceless in the life of the city, something irreplaceable. Perhaps the best argument was that a community is only as big as its traditions; size and wealth mean nothing if a soul is lacking.”