Johnstown Incline

by Joseph Brennan

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Topographic Map.
(click on images to enlarge)

Cambria works top left center. Prospect was worker's housing. Brownstown and Daisytown were post-flood residential neighborhoods. Westmont (center left) was the neighborhood developed in connection with the Johnstown Incline.

The Pennsylvania Railroad main line (called Penn Central here) followed the right bank of the Little Conemaugh (top right) and crossed over to the left bank on the bridge that survived the flood. The rectangle marked as Library is now the Johnstown Flood Museum.

The most well-known and most horrible event in the history of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was the flood of May 31, 1889. A badly maintained earthen dam fourteen miles upstream on the Little Conemaugh River failed after days of heavy rain. Twenty million tons of water rushed down the valley, destroying property and human lives as it went. The worst loss came when the flood hit Johnstown, a prosperous steel mill and coal mining town. More than 2,200 people were killed and most buildings in the town center were reduced to rubble.

At Johnstown, the flow of the Little Conemaugh takes a 90 degree turn to the right as the Stony Creek River (sic) joins from the left, the two forming the (big) Conemaugh River. The immense flood missed the turn, instead washing over the town and then slamming into the steep wall of Yoder Hill, 500 feet high. The impact pushed water to both sides, breaking the flood's momentum. The stone multi-arch Pennsylvania Railroad bridge over the Conemaugh, just two years old, was the first one the flood did not knock out, and it still stands today. But an enormous pile of debris formed against the upstream side of the bridge, and in one more terrible twist, somehow the pile caught fire, burning to death victims caught in it who had survived drowning. If there is any good to be told, it is that Clara Barton, age 68, arrived and took charge of the relief effort, earning for herself and her Red Cross staff the praise of all concerned for her dedication and organizational skills, forming the reputation that the Red Cross maintains to this day.

It is sometimes said that the poor suffer the most in a disaster. In the case of Johnstown it was not so. The working men's cottages were up on the hills, not in the downtown flood plain, and while it meant they had a weary walk up each night it also meant their homes escaped destruction. The main employer in town was the Cambria Iron Works, on the Conemaugh just downstream from the railroad bridge. The company's name is little known today because it was absorbed into Bethlehem Steel almost a hundred years ago. But from 1852 to 1992 the works in Johnstown was one of America's top sources of iron and steel products. The company proudly told people it was the only steel mill with a coal mine on premises. The hills here are full of coal. Cambria Iron was behind the creation of the Johnstown Incline.

Just two months after the flood, Cambria Iron announced a new town to be built on Yoder Hill, to be reached by an incline similar to those recently built on Coal Hill, now called Mount Washington, on the south side of Pittsburgh. The incline was designed by Samuel Diescher, who was responsible for several others including Pittsburgh's Duquesne Incline (still in use) and Castle Shannon Incline. The Johnstown Incline opened in 1891 and was operated until 1962. Later that same year it was renovated and reopened and ran until 1983 when it was sold to the Cambria County Transit Authority, now called Cam Tran. It was then totally rebuilt adhering to Diescher's original plans, supplied by one of his descendants. The exception was that his two-level cars were not re-created, but instead the single-deck cars from 1921 were renovated and put back on the line. The incline reopened in its present form in September 1984. The footbridge over the highway was built some time later, and the original 1890 bridge over the Stony Creek was renovated in 2000-2001.

The Johnstown Incline rises 502 feet at a 72 per cent grade, travelling 867 feet. The claim to fame is that it is the world's steepest vehicular inclined plane. Note the qualification. When we visited Johnstown in August 2016 I could not help asking the nice young man at the lower station whether he could name a steeper one that was not vehicular. He thought there might be one in Norway or some place like that. I didn't realize till later that I had ridden on a steeper one myself just a year earlier—the Monongahela Incline is 75 per cent*, but certainly it does not carry vehicles, and notably as well it travels only 365 feet. Yes, if the point is not clear, you can have your automobile taken up or down on the Johnstown Incline for six dollars one way.

(* The Monongahela's slope is given differently in various sources, ranging from 35 to 38 degrees, or 70 to 78 per cent. What I would consider an unbiased and professional report, that of the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record dated 1993, makes it 37 degrees, which is 75 per cent. The HAER report for Johnstown says 35 degrees, therefore "only" 70 per cent, but still, remember it is vehicular. And no wagering please.)

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View from the deck.

The view from the observation deck is breathtaking.

We're looking east. The Little Conemaugh comes down the valley at the top and runs off to the left, where it joins the Stony Creek, seen at the bottom. The flood burst out of the Little Conemaugh and across the city, stopped in its path by the mountainside at the bottom of this image. Both rivers are now within concrete lined channels but they can still flood after heavy spring rains.

Downtown Johnstown is contracting away from the incline, leaving in its wake a scattering of old and new buildings and fields of private parking lots. The Cambria works were a few blocks off frame to the left. Since the works closed the largest employer in town is the Conemaugh Health System, located in buildings right of center.

Pedestrians can reach the lower station, with its red roof, by using the footbridge over the highway and then joining automobile traffic (when there is any) on the original bridge over the Stony Creek River.

The other rail line in town is Amtrak, one train a day in each direction at the former Penn Station, seen at the center left edge of this image.

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Approaching the lower station.

This is not foreshortened by a special camera lens. It really looks like this. I was there. It's not as much as 45 degrees, and yet it looks like it's straight up. You've used an elevator, haven't you? It's almost the same technology. A funicular car is counterbalanced by the other car; an elevator by a pile of weights you don't see in the shaft.

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Looking up from the back of the lower station.

When you're at the lower station, instead of riding on the incline, you can also choose to take a foot path to see the entrance to a coal mine in Yoder Hill. The path entrance is on the left side of the lower station building, and this is what you see when you come out of the building before going down the steps. The steel work is from the 1983-1984 reconstruction, but it was built to the same plans as the original.

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As you might have noticed in the previous picture, the path to the mine takes you to the right, under the incline. Here we are. I don't think you're allowed to go under the inclines in Pittsburgh so this is a treat.

We walked out here on our way back to the hotel and daylight was fading, so we did not follow the trail to the mine entrance and past eight colorful James Wolfe steel constructions along the way. It's almost a mile and a half one way, and they say it's "perfect for a leisurely stroll," but time was our enemy.

The Rolling Mill Mine was the scene of a terrible disaster in 1902 where 112 miners lost their lives in a gas and dust explosion. The mine was closed in 1931.

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From almost the same location as the previous views, here are closeups of an incline car standing at the lower station. I hope the second one makes you totally sure the car can't go any further down no matter what happens.

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This view is from the upper station. The cars are nearing the end of their trips.

Like other inclines the Johnstown Incline is a funicular. The cars are permanently attached to the ends of a wire rope, and they move together, so that the car going down acts as a counterweight to the car going up. The engine only has to lift the difference in weight. They pass at the halfway mark. An elevator works on the same principle, with hidden lead weights in the shaft as the counterweight that passes at the halfway mark.

The four people in the car on the left are in the vehicular compartment of the car. The narrower section is the passenger compartment. Most people like to ride on the vehicular side, like we did ourselves, because that wooden picket fence of a gate is all that separates you from the uphill track or the open space below on the downhill side

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The incline does not go all the way to the top. If you are determined to conquer the last 30 feet or so, you can walk up a stairway in a park, from which you get this view.

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Here is a good look at the inside of one of the cars. The wooden gates are part of the car. If any automobiles were being carried they would be in the larger righthand side and the chocks out there on the left would be placed against the down-side wheels.

Opportunity missed: The next day as we left Johnstown our route went up the same hill a little farther south, and I wonder now why I did not think of spending six bucks to use the incline to take the car up. What a picture that would have been. Should I go back just to do it?

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If you go to the Asiago restaurant at the top, you can get this view along the down-side of the upper station buildings. The incline car looks impossibly high above its track. Neither of the bottom images shown previously really capture the height of the car over the lowest wheel like this one does.

Does that look steep or what?

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Indulge me. One more look down, between the observation deck (left) and the upper station.

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Two views of the powerhouse. The first is from the station side and the other from the opposite side near the restaurant entrance. Most inclines have the powerhouse straight ahead at the top end of the rope, with the entrance to the car to one side. Probably because the Johnstown Incline was always intended to load vehicles, the car loads from the end, and the powerhouse is at a right angle to the incline. The wire rope has to turn 90 degrees between the incline and the winding wheel, adding wear every time it runs in and out.

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If you go to Johnstown, read David McCullough's book The Johnstown Flood before you go. We did. Travelling from New Jersey, we reached Johnstown at about 2 in the afternoon. That gave us enough time to see the Johnstown Flood Museum in town and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial at the remains of the dam. We got back to town and walked to the incline around 6, ate at the restaurant, and went back down to stay overnight at the Downtown Holiday Inn.

As we drove out of town the next morning, we decided that after our flood activities the previous day we would take a few minutes to pay our respects at Grand View Cemetery, not far from the top of the incline.

Here in the Unknown Plot are buried the remains of seven hundred flood victims who could not be identified. I find it looks smaller in the picture. Maybe you have to walk through it to appreciate the scale. The little headstones have of course no names but they serve to show what seven hundred graves look like—and these are just one-third of those who died that day. It has quite an impact. In surrounding sections of the cemetery we noticed other graves with names and the repeated death year of 1889.

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The monument in front of the Unknown Plot. On its base is the inscription, In Memory of the Unidentified Dead from the Flood of May 31, 1889. The scene of mother and child is particularly touching—so many children were left orphans and so many parents left childless. So many survivors lived with the memories.

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At the upper station you can get your Incline goodies which reportedly make up a significant source of income for the property. The green brochure has three panels of History inside, and the purple one has the technical Fact Sheet. Uphill All the Way is a 32 page book by Richard A. Burkert and Eileen Mountjoy Cooper published in 1985 by the Cambria County Tourist Council that is still the best monograph about the history of the incline. It was the main source for my historical ramblings in the first section above. The crude printing in brown ink almost put me off but I am glad I took a copy.

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One piece of Incline swag to consider is this cool cap. You know you want one. Adding cat hair is your own decision.

If you want to see more pictures Jon Bell captured some good images in 2003 that you can see at

See also the Historic American Engineering Record reports on the Johnstown Incline and the Stony Creek bridge. I like old bridges almost as much as old railways and I failed to appreciate this bridge when I was there.