Pittsburgh surprised me.
Not that I expected the city to live down to its insulting name tags – Ditchburgh, Pits-burgh – but I discovered during my five days there last week that the city doesn’t deserve them at all.
Maybe it did during the bad old days when soot-belching steel plants blackening the daytime skies, but those days haven’t been around for more than three decades.
But if the city has indeed transformed itself into a self-billed magnet for green, high-tech industry, there remain a few places where you can get a sense of what the place must have been like when its citizens lived and breathed among a smouldering mass of steel mills.
One of them is the Duquesne Incline (say doo-KANE.) It’s a short, sweet ride up the riverbank to a spot overlooking three major rivers, a football stadium, countless bridges and the downtown skyline.
As a railway fan, I loved it. Arriving at the lower station from across the street you climb a rickety, rusted-out stairway, cross an overpass, turn to enter the station, pay your four bucks to a man behind a cage sitting across from a pot-bellied stove, click through the turnstiles, turn the corner while taking in that familiar, comforting smell of musty wood and creosote, and enter the beautifully preserved wood-paneled car.
Except for a brief period in the early 1960s when the operators ran out of money, they’ve been hauling passengers and freight up and down this hill first under steam – and now under electric power – since 1877.
As we slowly climbed the 30-degree slope above layers of Pennsylvania coal, a woman riding with us mentioned that some days you can spot deer and wild turkey roaming the underbrush near the rail platform.
At the top you step into an unpretentious museum filled with icons and photos of Pittsburgh’s past. I especially liked reading the long and detailed first-hand accounts of what it was like to live in the neighbourhood and take the tram every day to work – 250 people still do today – and was astounded how the gritty photos taken from the same spot 70 years ago contrasted so starkly with the clean, post-industrial city just below the windows.
As I slowly walked around the displays, I was thankful that local residents cared enough to save this moving landmark, still holding out after 132 years on generous applications of time, money, and teak oil varnish.
But the highlight for me was the beast’s roiling underbelly, where for five dimes extra I spent an hour taking in the rumble, gong and clatter of the engine room’s bullwheels, cable drum and wooden-toothed drive gear.
Ever been in a museum and found yourself reading without taking anything in? I’m no engineer, but standing on the platform overlooking the incline’s working innards as clanging bells signaled the start of another trip, I couldn’t get enough of the displays.
From how they used carved blocks of Rock Maple as teeth for the main wheel to where they got the idea to place the original steam engine at a 90-degree angle to the tracks – a trick to save space on land, actually – I was fascinating by the technical ingenuity that went into its design and construction.
Back upstairs, I was in for another treat. Spread out over half a wall are two showcases crammed with old and fading visitors’ postcards of inclined railways and lifts from around the world.
Going over the display was like stumbling through my life history.
Not only were there depictions of Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain Skyride – both the old and the new – as well as Hong Kong’s Peak Tram, the Table Mountain cable car in Cape Town, and others in Lisbon, Paris, and Chamonix, but I was astounded to see a copy of a postcard I actually own from my three life-changing months of ski patrolling at Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, Israel in 1980-81.
I wish every road trip for work were like this. Time to walk around and focus, get some kind of feel for the place I’m in, instead of the usual fly-taxi-work-taxi-fly routine.