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Johnstown's Inclined Plane

The Inclined Plane's Unique Story...

Out of catastrophe...

 

              Johnstown sits at the confluence of the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh rivers.  This union forms the Conemaugh River, which continues through the valley and eventually empties in to the Kiskiminetas.  At this confluence, the rivers are surrounded on all sides by steep hills which leave little flat ground for buildings.  Johnstown is well known for its catastrophic flood of 1889, but this city also has a positive claim to fame.  It is the home of the Johnstown Inclined Plane, the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world.  An inclined plane is a short railway that runs up the side of a steep hill and raises and lowers cars on cables.  The Johnstown Inclined Plane is a vehicular inclined plane because the cars are large enough for automobiles to be taken up and down the hill

              On May 31, 1889, a dam eleven miles up river from Johnstown broke.  The water rushed through the valley towards Johnstown.  It destroyed most of the town and killed more than 2,000 people.  Many people moved away from the town.  The people who chose to stay needed to rebuild everything, including their homes.  Many people were looking to rebuild their houses on higher ground out of fear of another flood.

   

          Cambria Iron Company owned the more than 600 acres of farmland on top of Yoder Hill.  After the May 31, 1889 flood, the company decided to create a community on top of Yoder Hill and began to sell lots.  With the horrors of the 1889 flood still vivid in people’s minds, the elevation was a fantastic selling feature. There was one very large problem.

             

              The farms on top of the hill were only accessible by one of three roads.  These roads were steep and windy and were often impassible when the weather was bad.  At this time, most traveling was done by horse and wagon or by walking on foot.  Johnstown receives an average annual rainfall of more than 40 inches and an average annual snowfall of 52 inches.  With this type of climate, the roads to reach the top of Yoder Hill were anything but good.

... a plan emerged ...

              Taking their lead from Pittsburgh, located 70 miles to the west, the Cambria Iron Company proposed to build an inclined plane.  The planning process went quickly.  By July of 1889, the inclined plane builders from Pittsburgh were already in Johnstown.  The Cambria Inclined Plane Company was chartered in September of 1889 with five directors.  These directors were also officials for Cambria Iron.  In mid-October of the same year, the Borough of Johnstown granted authority for the construction to begin.

              Samuel Diescher of Pittsburgh designed the proposed incline.  Born in Hungary in 1839, he emigrated to American in 1865.  By 1872, Diescher was an assistant city engineer.  He had previously designed the three inclines that were operating in Pittsburgh at this time: the Monongahela, the Duquesne, and the Fort Pitt inclined planes.

              Diescher designed an inclined plane with a double set of tracks.  The cars were permanently attached to steel cables and counterbalanced each other.  Power was only required to lift what was in the cars.  The rails were made in Johnstown at Cambria Iron.  The cars were built in Pittsburgh and had two floors.  The top floor was for wagons and horses, while the bottom floor was a cabin large enough for twelve people.  A steam engine at the summit provided power and it had a smokestack that rose 80 feet.  The cylinders inside the engine were the same size as those used in locomotives.

...to conquer the landscape.

              The engine was connected to a three ton gear wheel, which was connected to a drum.  The drum is 16 feet in diameter and 50 feet in circumference.  With the ability to rotate in both directions, the drum raises one car while lowering the second.  The original cables were made in Trenton, New Jersey by John A. Roebling, Sons & Co.  This was the same company that made the Brooklyn Bridge’s cables.

              Actual construction began on May 1, 1890.  Axmen cleared the trees from the hillside.  Boulders were pulled from the Stonycreek River.  These boulders were then cut by hand and used to build the foundations.  Laborers were paid $1 for working a ten-hour day.  Original construction of the Johnstown Inclined Plane cost $133,295.90 and was completed in just 13 months.

 

It began ...

              June 1, 1891 was opening day.  Making a trip every five minutes, the Inclined Plane transported 600 passengers plus 30 wagons and teams of horses on its first day of service.  Sales of lots on top of Yoder Hill increased rapidly now that people had an easy way up and down the hill.  With the bottom of the Inclined Plane close to Main Street and the top located in the middle of the new town, named Westmont, it was convenient transportation.  Until 1920, the Inclined Plane ran every 5 minutes around the clock.  During its peak year of 1919, it transported 1,356,293 people and 124,825 vehicles.

             Two changes were made to the Inclined Plane from its original design.  In 1911, the steam engine was replaced by a more efficient 300 horsepower electric engine.  Second, in 1921, the original double-decker cars were replaced by single-deck cars.  The new cars were larger and had a cabin for passengers along the side instead of underneath.  The Inclined Plane could now transport as many as 50 people or 3 Model T Fords in each of its cars.

             At the bottom the Inclined Plane, riders must cross a bridge over the Stonycreek River to reach Johnstown.  In 1929, the bridge was declared unsafe to vehicles and they were banned from riding the Inclined Plane.  By 1930, the Inclined Plane was declared insolvent.  Ridership had decreased with the ban on vehicles and the equipment had depreciated.  In 1935, the Cambria Inclined Plane Company sold the Inclined Plane to the Borough of Westmont for $1.  After the sale, Inclined Plane service remained the same with a small rate increase.

... and then the water came.

              On March 17, 1936, the Stonycreek and Little Conemaugh Rivers flooded and downtown Johnstown was under 18 feet of water.  Boats were brought down the Inclined Plane from Westmont and nearly 4,000 people were taken up to safety.  Due to its rescue work, many people demanded federal money to make much needed repairs to the Inclined Plane.

              In 1937, the Federal Works Project Administration funded a four month repair to the bridge at the bottom of the Inclined Plane.  The original wooden cribbing was replaced with concrete retaining walls.  In February of 1938, the Inclined Plane was reopened to vehicular traffic.  As part of the traffic, the Inclined Plane began hoisting transit busses as well.  Just in case of an emergency, 900 steps run down the hill between the tracks in case the cars would ever have to be evacuated.

 

              World War II affected the entire nation, but some effects were particular only to the Inclined Plane.  Bethlehem Steel, once Cambria Iron, held defense contracts.  Because of this, picture taking from the top of the Inclined Plane, with its perfect view of the sprawling mills, was banned.  When gasoline became scarce and rationing began, more people starting riding the Inclined Plane again.  Ridership numbers were higher than they had been for 15 years.

Just after World War II...

              In 1953, Pennsylvania state highway 271 opened.  This highway connected Johnstown and Westmont.  Locally known as the “easy grade,” 271 soon was carrying the bus traffic instead of the Inclined Plane.  More families owned a car, and with better roads available, Inclined Plane ridership numbers dropped again.  Operation costs for Westmont were rising.  By 1957, just four years after 271 opened, 21% of Westmont’s income went to operate the Inclined Plane.  In 1961, Westmont decided to close it.  The Inclined Plane made its last run at midnight on January 31, 1962.

              However, like any true champion, the Inclined Plane was not down for long.  Support from the public and from the Cambria County Tourist Council started almost as soon as Westmont closed it.  The Tourist Council offered to take over operation of the Inclined Plane with the purpose of increasing tourism to the Johnstown area.

              The Council spearheaded a program to renovate the incline cars and the station with a brand new coat of paint.  With help from local labor unions and the steel industry, an observation platform was built at the summit in April of 1962.  The next month, volunteers installed 750 electric lights along the tracks from top to bottom.  The entire program had an estimated value of $40,000 in donated time, materials and equipment.  The Tourist Council agreed to lease the Inclined Plane from Westmont for $10 and it reopened on July 4, 1962.

              The Cambria County Tourist Council worked hard to promote tourism at the Inclined Plane.  For several years, their efforts paid off with strong ridership numbers.  However, 1968 was a hard year.  Roosevelt Boulevard construction at the bottom of the Inclined Plane ramp blocked traffic for 11 months.  This construction, combined with an economic slump drastically reduced numbers.  Numbers continued to drop over the next few years.

Struggles and triumphs

              In 1964, old troubles began to return for the Inclined Plane.  Vehicular traffic was once again suspended because the ramp to bottom was in disrepair.  A Johnstown representative to the state legislature was able to come to the bridge’s rescue.  Finding an old executive privilege, he convinced the governor to declare the ramp and bridge a “spur” of a state highway (the highway being PA route 56).  Having been declared the state’s responsibility, the ramp and bridge were completely renovated at the cost of $12,000.  Again, the Inclined Plane was pulled back from the brink of disaster.

              A repeat performance was on the way.  The Inclined Plane rescued Johnstowners in 1977 from another flood.  Due to extremely high rainfall, several local dams failed and Johnstown was under water again.  With many roads into the area washed out and impassable, the Inclined Plane transported rescuers into the area, as well as food, boats, and other supplies.  Immediately after the flood, ridership numbers increased dramatically while local roads were being rebuilt.

              Again, the numbers did not remain high for long.  By the end of the 1970s, the Inclined Plane was in trouble again, despite the best efforts of the Cambria County Tourist Council.  To save the Inclined Plane, the Cambria County Transit Authority purchased it for $1.  This was the second time the Inclined Plane was sold for $1.  The Transit Authority secured money for reconstruction work that was desperately needed.

Restoration of the original

              Contracts for reconstruction of the national historic landmark began in August of 1983.  This reconstruction involved many aspects.  The stone foundations were replaced with concrete piers.  The steel girders and the wood ties that support the tracks were replaced, as were the rails.  Both incline cars were rehabilitated.  New cables and cable pulleys were installed.  Both the upper and the lower stations were restored to their 1891 appearances and were made handicapped accessible.  By late summer 1984, the Johnstown Inclined Plane was reopened. 

              Although the Inclined Plane continues to operate today, the struggle to keep this historic landmark open is far from over.  Still under the ownership of the Cambria Country Transit Authority, for fiscal year 2005-2006, ridership was 109,000.  This is a far cry from the 1,356,293 people who rode the Inclined Plane in 1919.  The Johnstown Inclined Plane is still a famous landmark and it is the first thing that many people see as they come into the valley and enter Johnstown.  But for it to remain open and operational, people must continue to ride.

 

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