Johnstown Inclined Plane
Johnstown, Pennsylvania

Text and photos by Brad E. Smith (Franklin,Wisconsin)

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The city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania is in the western, central part of the state of Pennsylvania, in a valley between three high hills. Rivers run in each of the valleys. The abundance of iron ore and coal made Johnstown an early producer of iron. The Cambria Iron Company employed most of the town's inhabitants. Life was good in Johnstown, and the town sported one of the earliest electric trolley systems and electricity for the homes. But on land that was 122 m. above the level of the city and 22 km. away, several wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists built a fishing hunting and recreation area, with a lake, 4 km. long. They paid little heed to the warnings from engineers that the dam was of a faulty design. Modifications to the dam made the unsafe conditions worse. One emergency spillway was removed completely and the other modified to keep their fish in their lake. After heavy rains on May 31, 1889, and with an inadequate spillway to relieve the pressure, the dam burst, sending a wall of water through the narrow valley that destroyed Johnstown and killed more than 2,200 people.

During the rebuilding of the city, Cambria Iron works purchased the land on one of the hills, Yoder Hill, to locate the new homes, so that only businesses would be in the valley. Cambria Iron built the incline railway (called an incline plane) to transport the people to and from work. The incline was designed by Samuel Diescher. Of Pittsburgh, who was a well known designer of incline railways. He had designed the seven incline railways of Pittsburgh, in addition to others. He had also designed the machinery to operate the world's first ferris wheel at the Chicago world's Columbian Exposition. Each of the two sets of tracks had an 244 cm. gauge. The difference in elevation between the bottom and top levels is 153 m., and the tracks are set at a 72% grade. The incline opened in 1891, using a steam engine for power. The power plant was located at the top of the incline and to conserve space, was placed at a 90 degree angle to the railway. A 4.9 m. diameter drum wound two, 5.1 cm. diameter hoisting cables, one connected to each car. In addition, a third cable connected the two cars, passing through an emergency brake at the top. The original cars had an open deck on the top level for horses and wagons and a passenger compartment below for humans. This arrangement proved to be unpopular and in 1921, two new, larger cars were built with the passenger and vehicles on the same level. These cars could hold three Model T Fords or 50 passengers on the deck area. The deck of each new car was 4.7 m. wide and 10.4 m. long and each car weighed 42 tons. These are the incline cars that are still in use today. In 1911, the steam engine was replaced with a 400 horsepower electric motor, but other than this change, the original machinery is still in use. There are 750 light bulbs, including 114 along the tracks. A trolley wire between the rails carries the electricity to the cars. In the past years, metal tokens were used as fare, but now paper tickets are used.

In the 1960's, the incline was no longer profitable, but had saved many lives during two spring floods. The incline provided the only access for emergency vehicles when the rivers rose to flood stage. The city had been operating the incline for several years and although no longer profitable, it's value in a flood was too important to let it close. In 1984, the incline was completely refurbished with volunteer help. This project took one year and eight months to complete. Today it is a major tourist attraction. It is the only funicular in the United States that still transports automobiles and trucks up and down the hill.

Type of funicular
Type of tracks
Diff. of levels153 m
Gradient72 %
Gauge2,24 m

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Copyright 1997 by Michel Azéma, Paris (France)
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