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The incline builders: Forgotten engineers of Pittsburgh

By Arthur B. Fox

During the early 20th century, Pittsburgh had more incline planes (16) operating than any city in the world. The Penn Incline (1883-1953), that operated between the Hill and Strip districts [at 17th Street] was possibly the largest incline ever constructed. The Knoxville Incline (1890), built on Pittsburgh's South Side and designed with an 18-degree curve, is the longest ever built in Pittsburgh. The still operative Monongahela Incline built in 1869 climbs a 35 percent grade, one of the steepest incline planes in the world.

Three men and one woman designed and built these remarkable engineering works. Samuel Diescher designed and built 10 of Pittsburgh's inclines, John Endres (Diescher's father-in-law), in collaboration with others, designed three inclines, and his daughter Caroline Endres Deischer assisted in designing the Monongahela and Mt. Oliver inclines. John M. McRoberts designed two incline planes in Pittsburgh. Diescher designed an additional 16 incline planes outside of Pittsburgh.

Samuel Diescher

Samuel Diescher was born in Budapest, Hungary, July 25, 1839. He received his education at the Carlsruhe Polytechnic College, Germany, and at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. For a number of years, he traveled throughout Europe working as a mechanical designer for various industrial concerns. In 1866, at the age of 27, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a year he worked as a designer at the Niles Tool Works, eventually assuming charge of construction of an incline plane in the city.

Diescher came to Pittsburgh in early 1870 and met John Endres. Through his association with Endres, Diescher began designing incline planes. Diescher eventually established an independent engineering practice opening an office in the Hamilton Building at Sixth Street and Penn Avenue Downtown.

Street railway construction gained his attention, and in the years 1881-1882, he completed the building of the Perrysville Avenue Electric Line, the old Squirrel Hill Electric Line and the South 13th and Mt. Oliver Line. The Perrysville Avenue Line was the first road to utilize an underground system for supplying electric current to the motors. The Pittsburgh, Knoxville and St. Clair railroad consisted of a rack railroad on its steeper grades, an innovation for the time.

Diescher's work included the designing and construction of a large number of coke plants, coal washing plants and special machinery. The majority of the heavy incline planes in use in the United States were designed by Diescher. Those in Pittsburgh included the Penn or 17th Street, Monongahela (reconstruction), Monongahela Freight, Duquesne, Fort Pitt, Nunnery Hill, both Castle Shannon Planes, the Troy Hill, Mt. Oliver, Clifton and Ridgewood incline planes.

Incline plane commissions outside Pittsburgh included: the Cambria Incline, Johnstown (1889-93, 1903); Duluth Incline Railroad, Minnesota (1889-90); East McKeesport (Allegheny County), Incline (1912); Girardot and Cambao Inclines, Columbia, South America (1897); Hamilton Mt. Park Incline, Canada (1913); Jumonville Incline, Uniontown (1901); Ligonier Incline (no date); Mozart Park Incline, Wheeling, W.Va. (1892-93); Ohio Street Incline, Cleveland (1894-95); Orange Mountain Incline, Orange, N.J. (1889); Seventh Avenue Incline, Duluth, Minn. (1890-91); Weehauken Incline, N.J. (no date).

The Cambria Incline, or "Johnstown Incline Plane," designed by Diescher in 1889-93, is still in service as are its Pittsburgh counterparts, the Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines; all three are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Johnstown's inclined plane consists of two cars running on a pair of sloped tracks. With a length of 896.5 feet and a slope of 35 degrees (71 percent grade), it is reputedly the steepest vehicular incline in the world.

During construction of the Penn Incline, Diescher introduced a new safety device installing a successful pneumatic bumper. He served as designing engineer of machinery for operating the giant Ferris wheel, invented by George Ferris of Pittsburgh, at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

Drawings of Diescher's projects under his name and later Samuel Diescher and Sons, Engineers include dozens of diverse industrial projects: The American Vanadium Co., office and alloy building, Bridgeville (1912); Beaver Roll Works, Beaver (1899); Chaleroi Water Company pump station (1898); Cochran Coal Company housing, Salina (1905); Crescent Steel Co. coal elevator, ash bin and lifting device, Pittsburgh (1898); Epping-Carpenter Co., (now the location of Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Consortium) machine shop and office, Lawrenceville (1898); Ferris wheel, Chicago World's Fair (1892-93); Franklin Silica Sand Co. sand crushing plant, Franklin (1906); Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. box factory, Aliquippa (1910); Keystone Coal and Coke Co. coal washing plant, Allsworth (1906); Lanyon Zinc Co. industrial plant, Iola, Kansas/LaHarre, Kan., (1902-03); Monongahela City Water Co. pump station, coal handling and sorting plant, Monongahela City (1896, 1900); Monongahela Water Co. pump station, coal trestle, misc. Pittsburgh (1895, 1908); Morgan Construction Co. foundry, Wooster, Mass. (1902); Penn Gass Coal Co. coal washing plant, Irwin (1903); Sterling White Lead Co., New Kensington (1893); U.S. Wave Power Co. wave motor installation, Atlantic City, N.J. (1912); Valley Falls Coal and Coke Co. coal washing plant, Valley Falls, W.Va. (1903); W.W. Lawrence Paint Co., Pittsburgh (1895, 1897).

The Samuel Diescher Collection in the CMU architecture archives consists primarily of ink-on-linen working drawings, ranging from entire incline right-of-ways to tiny machine parts. The records document 51 projects dating from 1889-1930, 21 of which were inclines. This collection was formerly stored at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation before being relocated to CMU. According to Albert M. Tannler, Historical Collections Director at PH&LF, a Diescher ancestor had donated the drawings to the foundation, although no personal papers accompanied the collection. Diescher authored several engineering papers, including "Incline Plane Railways," published in the 1896 "Proceedings of the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania.''

In 1901, Diescher admitted his sons to partnership in his business, and under the firm name of S. Diescher and Sons, the business continued for several years. Diescher retired from active participation in the firm in 1908 at the age of 69, although he visited the office daily until August 1915. He died Dec. 24, 1915.

Caroline Endres Diescher

Caroline Endres was born about 1846 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of John J. Endres. The first record of Caroline in Pittsburgh places her at the old Monongahela House on Water Street in downtown Pittsburgh during late summer 1869.

Signing "C. Endres, Pittsburgh," she acquired the hotel's best rooms on a permanent basis saying she might stay a year or more. Despite a French accent, it became clear Caroline was no actress, and the way that she snubbed would-be mashers attracted to the tall, attractive dark-haired 23-year-old woman, revealed she was a woman of class. When approached by a clerk for George H. Thurston's Pittsburgh City Directory concerning her plans in the city, she replied, "just say that I am boarding here." The directory for the next two years (1870-71) listed her as a "boarder."

Caroline's training in engineering apparently resulted from her father's tutorship and later her future husband, Samuel Diescher, since engineering schools excluded women during this era. Caroline is known to have worked on both the Monongahela and Mt. Oliver inclines in the early 1870s. She married Samuel Diescher, her father's partner, in 1872. The Dieschers lived first on Spring Street and later on Garden Street in the Mt. Washington neighborhood. Shortly after her marriage to Samuel Diescher, Caroline apparently "retired" from engineering and is not recorded as assisting her husband on additional projects.

John J. Endres

The Mt. Oliver Incline (1871) was designed by John and Caroline Endres. Two cars from the Knoxville Incline (1890), designed by John M. McRoberts, operated on an 18-degree curved track on Pittsburgh's South Side.

Aside from building the Monongahela and Mt. Oliver inclines in Pittsburgh, John Endres seems to have pursued his career elsewhere. He is referred to as "a famous Prussian engineer living in Cincinnati" when commissioned in 1869 to erect the Monongahela Incline. Endres drew plans for the Monongahela Incline between August 1869-May 1870, assisted by his daughter, Caroline.

They also collaborated on plans for the Mt. Oliver Incline that operated from 12th Street to Warrington Avenue on Pittsburgh's South Side. In 1872 the Endres family moved to 69 Beech St. in Allegheny (Pittsburgh's North Side). John Endres apparently returned to Cincinnati in 1873 although he assisted Samuel Diescher in building the Monongahela Freight Incline in 1883.

John H. McRoberts

McRoberts was a Pittsburgh native, the son of John and Jane (McCutchen) McRoberts. His siblings included one brother and five sisters: William, a farmer; Nancy A. (Smith) McRoberts; Mary (Willock) McRoberts; Gussie (Nolan) McRoberts; Emily and Margaret McRoberts. His mother died in the 1850s and his father retired to Homestead in 1874.

McRoberts studied three years at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and started an engineering practice in Pittsburgh in 1868-69. In 1882, he is listed as a member of the Engineers Society of Pittsburgh at 150 Fourth Ave., Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh of Today notes that, "Mr. McRoberts has had a thorough experience in every branch of his profession; besides the large amount of work with which his name is associated, he has been the instructor of many of Pittsburgh's younger engineers who received their professional education under his mentorship, and no one man has had a greater or more important influence in the growth of the profession in Pittsburgh and vicinity. In municipal influence and borough work, he has successfully filled many important contracts and he has personally planned and supervised more important public and private work than any other man. It is a matter of local pride that the engineers who have planned and supervised most of the great local improvements here, and Mr. McRoberts is a most conspicuous representative of that influential class of men who have contributed more to Pittsburgh's progress than any other."

McRoberts became head engineer in construction of the St. Clair Incline on 22nd Street in 1886 and the Knoxville Incline in 1890 - the only two he designed in Pittsburgh. The Knoxville Incline on Pittsburgh's South Side is recorded as the longest incline built in Pittsburgh at 2,644 feet. McRoberts is listed in 1896 as a civil and mining engineer with an office at 400-402 Grant St., Pittsburgh.

McRoberts, as consulting engineer for the West Side Belt Railroad, originated the plan of building the road and developing the adjacent coal fields. He laid out the route and superintended the construction of the road. He also located and designed the coal properties.

The 1893-94 "History and Commerce of Pittsburgh and Environs'' reported, "During his practice here he has been associated with many noteworthy engineering achievements, and among important commissions executed by him are the inclined plane at Manayunk, Pa., all the coal work on the estate of James H. Hayes for the past 20 years (1873-93), the Munhall Coal Works, Allequippa Coal Works, and the Camden Coal Works, among many others. Mr. McRoberts is at all times prepared to engage in all classes of civil engineering work and will furnish plans and estimates at short notice. Local maps, city surveys and computations are made in the most careful and trustworthy manner, and landscape engineering of every description is promptly and reliably performed, while expert opinions are rendered as to physical condition of structures, contract works and mines are examined and reported upon, preliminaries for engineering and mining enterprises are arranged, estates are surveyed and properties subdivided. Mr. McRoberts is a member of the Western Pennsylvania Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Mining Engineers."

The "incline builders" constituted a small group of remarkable professional engineers who unfortunately were overshadowed by the exceptional technological innovations they developed. Aside from the Monongahela and Duquesne inclines that still operate, little evidence remains of the other inclines in Pittsburgh. However, an interesting historical site, the crumbling remains of the lower station Troy Hill incline (1887-98) still stands along Route 28 across from the 31st Street Bridge. According to Mary Wohleber, Troy Hill historian, no photograph or illustration exists of this once prominent incline. Thousands of motorists pass this location every morning, never realizing the historic significance of this now defunct mode of transportation.

No comprehensive volume exists documenting the many facets of inclines and their role in Pittsburgh's transportation history, although "Pittsburgh's Inclines'' (1970) by Samuel Ohler, and "A Century of Inclines'' (1976) by the Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline provide the reader with information.

Arthur B. Fox is a Pittsburgh free-lance writer.

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Last modified: 21-Jan-2012

Source document: Fox, Arthur B., "The incline builders: Forgotten engineers of Pittsburgh" appeared in the Tribune Review and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foudnation website