In 1876, something remarkable happened at the intersection of Elm and W. McMicken. Suddenly, the world seemed much larger for the people living in those few blocks. The Cincinnati-Clifton Incline Plane—known simply as the Bellevue Incline or Elm Street Incline—began to operate. For members of the Best family at 205-07 W. McMicken, it sat right across the street from their home and business. Conveniently connecting Elm Street to Ohio Avenue in Clifton, it was a marvel. Claiming to be “the only direct route to Burnet Woods Park, Zoological Garden, and Clifton,” the incline passed over Clifton Avenue with the Elm Street steps running alongside it (up to Clifton Avenue). It was not the first or the last incline though. During the end of the 19th century, five were in operation near downtown; the last one stopped running just after World War II.[i]
The start of the inclines
Early settlers to Cincinnati liked its topography—that the growing urban core sat within a flat basin surrounded by hills. But as the city developed—and as it grew more crowded and polluted—people sought refuge, either to live or to play, on top of its hills. To facilitate this movement, different attempts were made to get people up the hillsides. In 1850, a horse-drawn omnibus (four horses pulling a bus) traveled up to Mt. Auburn. Cincinnatians preferred not to use steam-powered streetcars because their sparks startled nearby horses on the roads. From the center of the city, the omnibus went all the way up Sycamore Street in a total of two hours. The double team of horses had to stop often, due to the heavy load. Icy streets made the journey impossible in the winter. The trip cost 15 to 20 cents, expensive for that time.[ii]
In 1864, another attempt was made. The Mount Auburn Street Railroad decided to build a line from Fifth and Main Streets to Auburn Avenue. Amid some homeowners’ complaints, tracks were laid along the streets with the easiest grades. Two years after the Civil War, the tracks stretched to Orchard Street, then up Liberty Street, north on Highland, west to Ringgold, north on Josephine and then to Auburn Avenue. But the experience on the railroad cars was still long, cramped and uncomfortable.[iii]
But, in 1872, soap maker Joseph Stacy Hill and his partner George A. Smith, a wealthy engineer and contractor (he built the piers for the Roebling Suspension Bridge connecting Cincinnati and Covington and the railroad bridge between Cincinnati and Newport), had a new idea to solve the problem of slow and unreliable transportation up the hills. They took a cue from Pittsburgh and set up the first incline in Cincinnati. Hill, Smith and supervisor James M. Doherty got a charter from the Ohio State Legislature in the spring of 1871 using pre-existing organization papers for a steam railroad. This classification allowed them to bypass municipal street railway laws. The city approved the route and the Cincinnati Inclined Plane Railway Company (CIP) was born. The incline was finally ready in May 1872 (after a few angry property owners along the route tried to sue the incline company). It went from the northern part of Main Street at Mulberry and Main to Jackson Hill in Mt. Auburn (now Jackson Hill Park). 6000 people turned up to ride the 850-foot incline for its opening day. Parallel railroad tracks ran up the hillside to the powerhouse; there, large steam engines with windlasses (cylinders turned by cranking) pulled steel cables, raising and lowering trucks (that contained passengers/streetcars) along the tracks. Through a pulley system, one car went up; one went down. The top and bottom stations communicated through telegraphic bells. Two bells meant "ready;" one meant "alarm;" three signaled "start." At the top of this incline soon sat (by the fall of 1872) the Lookout House, a two-story resort with a deck and wonderful views. It had a wine and beer room on the 1st floor and a dance hall above. Particularly popular on Sunday, the House ignored the Blue Laws. It was most famous for, under Frank Harff’s management, importing a whale for spectacle and failing to keep it alive. Despite this tragedy, Harff invested much in the building, improving it with a theater and other amusements like a bowling alley over the years.[iv]
CIP also invested in a series of horsecar lines that stretched from Fountain Square up to Mulberry and Main Streets. Owners of CIP gained ownership of the older Mount Auburn Street Railroad by the winter of 1872, thus absorbing the older, competing lines. At the north end, too, infrastructure was laid so that omnibuses could take passengers from the Mt. Auburn incline station to Clifton, Avondale and Walnut Hills. Summer of1872 saw 600 passengers daily riding the incline; 1 million rode it over the year (just for a rough comparison: the present-day Cincinnati Bell Connector had about 156,000 riders from September 2016-April 2017). Tickets for the incline were still pricey but you could buy 20 for a dollar.[v]
While CIP was the first to own and operate an incline, other inclines were soon built: in Price Hill in 1875, in Mt. Adams in 1876, opposite 205 W. McMicken in 1876 and in Fairview in 1894.[vi]
The Price Hill one ran up from 8th and State; it had the steepest grade at 47%. It was also the only one that was family owned and operated (by William Price—who Price Hill is named after).[vii]
The Mt. Adams incline—considered the safest and best built—ran from Lock Street up to Ida (near the future site of Rookwood Pottery). The trip took 2 minutes and 20 seconds; it occurred 6 times per hour, in operation 19 hours per day, from 5:30am until 12:45 at night.[viii]
The Bellevue incline—officially the Cincinnati and Clifton Inclined Plane Railroad—ran from Elm and W. McMicken up to present-day Bellevue Park. By the 1890s, its depot opposite 205 W. McMicken had a turntable, allowing streetcars to move between tracks easily. It carried both streetcars and horsecars up the hill, many of them originating down at Fountain Square. Passengers also got on the incline after riding Bill Groff’s horsecar line that ran between Mohawk Place and Vine Street along McMicken. At the top of the incline, the streetcar turned north onto Elmont Avenue, then Ohio Avenue, east to McMillan and then onto Walnut Hills via Woodburn Avenue.[ix]
The Fairview or Crosstown incline—the shortest one—started at Browne and W. McMicken, went over Fairview Park and landed on Fairview Avenue; from there, the streetcar took passengers along Fairview Avenue, to Straight Street and then to Clifton Avenue and Burnet Woods and then back. It was built from older parts from the Bellevue Incline.[x]
All of the inclines except the Fairview one had hilltop entertainment: Highland House in Mt. Adams, the Bellevue House above 205 W. McMicken and the Price Hill House in Price Hill.
The Bellevue House, designed by James W. McLaughlin (he also designed the Cincinnati Art Museum), opened in 1876. It was considered the gem of all the hilltop houses—probably frequented by the Best family. As you took the incline up, near the top, a large esplanade greeted you where you could see men and women peering over the wall to watch you as you approached. You went through a brief dark tunnel, going under the esplanade, before the incline plane emerged at the top for disembarking. The Bellevue House had a long entrance hallway with a bar that exclusively served Christian Moerlein beer. Further inside was an eight-sided dance hall with 90-foot ceilings. There was an orchestra platform in its middle. On every side bay windows and doors opened onto verandas. There was even bowling in the basement.[xi]
Sadly, Blue Laws (no alcohol/sales on Sundays) enforced during the Progressive Era (turn of the 20th century) badly hurt business at the Bellevue House—to the point that it became under- and then unused by the early 1900s.
Cincinnati Street Railway Company and the Kilgour brothers
Rivalries entangled and complicated the history of these inclines, much like the larger history of Cincinnati's early transit. While CIP emerged early on the scene, it was the Cincinnati Street Railway Company (CSR) that would dominate incline operations. Founded by the wealthy Kilgour brothers out of a series of older transit companies and lines, CSR, under John and Charles Kilgour, effectively controlled transportation in Cincinnati by 1890 except for CIP.[xii]
Fortunately for CSR, CIP's Mt. Auburn incline had earned a reputation for unimpressive frugality compared to all other inclines. Passengers commented that the ride was expensive but unpleasant. The operators were young—notably rude—boys hired to save costs. In fact, after a competing Mt. Auburn cable railway was installed in the late 1880s, CIP feared its end. Some thought the Kilgour brothers would buy it—and it seems they intended to—but instead a syndicate company from Louisville, headed by Hardin H. Littell and backed by Fidelity Trust Company of Louisville, purchased a controlling interest in 1888. Modernization of the old horsecar line soon followed: it was equipped with electric cars that carried people from downtown to the zoo by early summer of 1889. It was Cincinnati's first large-scale electric trolley operation.
The Kilgour brothers were less than pleased. In 1873, Charles had formed the City and Suburban Telegraph Association and by 1877 he added telephone operations to this telegraph company. When his company began to receive complaints about telephone interference (a strange buzzing noise), the Kilgours blamed CIP's new electric lines. The legal battle wound up in Cincinnati's Supreme Court. Presiding judge William Howard Taft (later our president)—who admitted he did not know too much about this issue—ordered the CIP to stop using its single-wire system within six months and replace it with a double-wire one. People balked. Trollies across the U.S. were almost all using a single-overheard-wire system. Adding a second overhead wire would have bankrupted CIP. Its attorney appealed and eventually Taft's decision was overturned.
Perhaps out of obstinacy, though, the Kilgour brothers insisted on using a double-overhead system for its CSR lines. It made for a mess of wires, as out-of-towners noted. Despite rivalries though, modernization on all fronts continued. By fall of 1895, Cincinnati's transit system was electrified and the horsecars stopped running.[xiii]
Occasional accidents happened. The worst was in 1889. On October 15th, 1889, operating engineer Charles Goble of the Mt. Auburn incline excessively greased its machinery when he noticed the parts acting up. At noon, the car had ascended to the top of its track but did not stop. It ran into the station but with the engines still running, the cables pulled free and the car fell to the bottom of the incline. The streetcar roof blew off as it collided into a grocery store at the base on Mulberry. Six of eight passengers were killed.[xiv]
In the summer of 1892, an accident occurred on the Bellevue incline—though it was more humorous than serious. Incline motorman George Byer put a carriage on the truck to go up the incline. But when two additional vehicles joined, he moved the carriage forward and it broke through the front metal gate that held everybody on the platform. The rear end of the truck bed lifted into the air as people and cars fell to the opposite end. Passengers, wise to the problem, rushed to the rear end as to balance out the truck.[xv]
The more serious and lethal Mt. Auburn accident precipitated the closure of that incline for improvements and repairs. It reopened in 1890. New northern lines were installed, allowing passengers to go all the way to St. Bernard. In 1894, CIP encountered its next hiccup. The city—with the Kilgour brothers' blessing—insisted that CIP had to abide by the street railway ordinances and car license taxes it had evaded for so long. Operations were halted as a lawsuit transpired; then the Panic of 1893 further hurt the company (it could not pay interest on its mortgage). Eventually, the city ordered CIP to remove its poles and tracks from the streets. CSR purchased CIP in April 1898, effectively controlling CIP’s city lines. CSR closed the Mt. Auburn incline and sadly never reopened it. CSR rebuilt those lines with the double-overhead system. Many of these lines were eventually absorbed by the Cincinnati Traction Company, and then by the second iteration of the Cincinnati Street Railway in 1925 (which ran until the early 1950s).[xvi]
In the fall of 1906, a similar incident to that of the Mt. Auburn incline occurred in Price Hill. At the top of the incline, the car lurched forward; the cable swished back and forth and soon passengers found themselves at the bottom of the incline. No people died this time but several horses perished.[xvii]
The end of inclines
For sure, these accidents did not help the longevity of the inclines. But the occasional crash or mishap was not the sole reason for their demise.
The inclines brought people up to the earliest suburbs and in doing so hastened Cincinnatians’ desire to travel further out from the city. But as transportation routes grew and as streetcars, buses and then automobiles began to proliferate into the early 20th century, incline passengers complained of multiple ailments: of the inconvenience of having to transfer lines, the comparative slowness of the inclines and the expense of riding them. Other transit means were just easier. In Price Hill, for example, when the 8th Street viaduct was constructed, traffic could easily pass over the Mill Creek Bottoms. The 8th Street line of the Cincinnati Street Railway Company began to run up Warsaw Avenue, making the incline obsolete.
Among the incline owners, operational costs proved to be cumbersome. Maintaining all that machinery was pricey work. Even CSR struggled to give its investors attractive dividends. Inclines began to close. A 1921 inspection of the Fairview incline exposed faults that would have cost $55,000 to fix. Instead of fixing it, the incline was shut down on Christmas Eve, 1923; McMillan Street was extended down to Central Parkway (it used to end up in Clifton at Fairview Avenue). When the city took over operations of the street railways in 1925, it did not include the Bellevue Incline and the following year, it closed. Its top station, used during the 1937 flood to house obsolete streetcars, caught fire thereafter (in a similar fate, the Bellevue House had also been used to house wooden streetcars and it caught fire and burnt to the ground in the spring of 1901).[xviii]
Indeed, by the 1940s, after three inclines had already stopped running (Mt. Auburn in 1898; Fairview in 1923; Bellevue in 1927), the city pressured the remaining incline companies to upgrade or sell. For sure, the local papers witnessed concerned citizens writing in, trying to save the inclines. But alas, the Price Hill one stopped running in 1943. The Mt. Adams one ended in 1948. In 1950, the properties were sold, and streetcar service in the city ended in 1951. Existing hilltop resorts, created to greet incline riders, were torn down. What is left now are steps and structural traces of these inclines.[xix]
[i] "Bellevue Park," Cincinnati Parks, accessed January 8, 2018, http://www.cincinnatiparks.com/central/bellevue-park/.
[ii] Jeff Suess, Lost Cincinnati (Charleston: The History Press, 2015), 41; John H. White, Jr., “The Cincinnati Inclined Plane Railway Company: The Mount Auburn Incline and the Lookout House,” 7, accessed December 21, 2017, http://library.cincymuseum.org/topics/i/files/inclines/chsbull-v27-n1-cin-007.pdf.
[iii] White, Jr., “The Cincinnati Inclined Plane Railway Company,” 7-8.
[iv] Suess, Lost Cincinnati, 42; White, Jr., “The Cincinnati Inclined Plane Railway Company,” 8-12.
[v] White, Jr., “The Cincinnati Inclined Plane Railway Company,” 9, 11; "Streetcar Performance Report: April 2017," accessed January 12, 2018, http://www.cincinnatibellconnector.com/uploads/KPIs/Ridership%20Performance%20Report%20-%20Streetcar%20April%202017.pdf
[vi] Suess, Lost Cincinnati, 44-45.
[vii] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 57-61.
[viii] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 17, 23.
[ix] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 42, 44.
[x] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 51, 53.
[xi] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 80-81.
[xii] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 18.
[xiii] White, Jr., “The Cincinnati Inclined Plane Railway Company,” 14-15; John H. White, "War of the Wires: A Curious Chapter in Street Railway History," Technology and Culture Vol. 46, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), 377-383.
[xiv] Ibid; Steven J. Rolfes, Cincinnati Landmarks (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 56.
[xv] “Plunged: Through the Heavy Iron Gates And Hung on the Edge of the Huge Track,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 1, 1892, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
[xvi] White, Jr., “The Cincinnati Inclined Plane Railway Company,” 18-22; White, "War of the Wires," 383-384.
[xvii] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 63; White, "War of the Wires," 377.
[xviii] Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 64, 66, 50, 56.
[xix] Suess, Lost Cincinnati, 45-46; Kramer, The Inclines of Cincinnati, 8.