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The Bigham Family and the Inclined Planes of Mt. Washington and Duquesne Heights
by Joe Hoesch, August 15, 2012


(I once lived in the 1849 Bigham Mansion (aka Woodlawn or Hill Home) from 1943 to 1965 and recently got involved in a research project on the family as part of Chatham Village's 75th anniversary.  Chatham Village was built on the Bigham estate in the late 1920s to the mid 1930s.  -- Joe Hoesch.)


The Bigham family owned much of Mt. Washington and Duquesne Heights in the mid-1800s.  Their holdings, including property now occupied by Chatham Village, was known as “Bigham’s Woods” from 1849 to 1931.

The Bigham Mansion, built in 1849 was known locally as “Woodlawn” and was a station on the Underground Railroad providing refuge for fugitive slaves in the 1850s and 1860s.  The Bigham Mansion still stands in Chatham Village and the historic home is now known as Chatham Hall.

Thomas Bigham (1810-1884) an attorney and his wife Maria Louisa Lewis Bigham (1819-1888) raised five children at Woodlawn.  Mr. Bigham’s sons, Joel (1847-1892) and Kirkpatrick (1851-1933) were also attorneys and were largely responsible for building Pittsburgh’s two remaining inclined planes.  Both inclines are functioning historic landmarks.

Mrs. Bigham was the granddaughter of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick.  Major Kirkpatrick was a Virginia officer in the Continental Army and was the paymaster at Fort Pitt.  He relocated to Pittsburgh permanently in 1794 and purchased 714 acres of hilltop property from the William Penn heirs that became Mt. Washington and Duquesne Heights, some of which Mrs. Bigham inherited.  Major Kirkpatrick and his brother-in-law, General John Neville upheld federal authority during the “Whiskey Insurrection” of 1794.


The Monongahela Inclined Plane Company (cir. 1867)

The Mt. Washington Incline Plane Company was incorporated in 1854, however it was unsuccessful in its goal, and another group was formed.  Under the skilled legal guidance of Joel Bigham, the Monongahela Inclined Plane Company came into existence in April, 1867 with James Bailey as chairman and Joel’s father, Thomas J. Bigham as secretary.  Stock certificates were issued totaling $50,000 to cover initial construction expenses.

Engineer John Enders was commissioned to design the incline in 1869 and his daughter Caroline Enders (1846-1930) assisted her father and supervised the incline’s construction.  A local newspaper article made much of the fact that an unmarried woman would travel from Cincinnati, Ohio and stay in a hotel unchaperoned and go to the incline and direct the workmen, since working as an engineer was considered an unusual occupation for a lady in those days.

Caroline Enders married fellow engineer Samuel Diescher (1839-1915) in 1872.  Mr. Diescher was an associate of Mr. Enders and is generally not credited with the design of the Monongahela (Passenger) Incline; however he did design the Monongahela Freight Incline that ran immediately beside the passenger incline and later designed the Duquesne Incline.  Mr. and Mrs. Diescher made their home on Mt Washington.  It’s safe to assume they often rode their creations when traveling to downtown Pittsburgh.

John Roebling, a prominent Pittsburgh engineer of Wheeling Suspension Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge fame, drew up specifications for the critical wire rope cable.

Originally powered by steam, the passenger incline was renovated and the power system was electrified in 1935.  The freight incline was considered obsolete in 1935.  By then, new roads were built and trucks replaced the horse and wagon for hauling goods.   The freight incline was removed during the renovation.

The original Monongahela Incline passenger cars were replaced in 1983.  Both the original and replacement cars were specifically built for the incline.

The Monongahela Incline made its first trip on May 28, 1870.  Today it is owned and operated by the Allegheny County Port Authority and is the steepest and oldest operating incline in the United States. 


The Duquesne Inclined Plane Company (cir. 1874)

Kirkpatrick Q. Bigham and his associates contracted Samuel Diescher in 1874 to design and build the Duquesne Incline.  Stock certificates were issued for $47,000 to cover construction costs to 61 original stock holders, including Mr. Bigham.  The incline opened for business on May 20, 1877.  Mr. Bigham served as secretary of the company for 50 years, until 1927 when he was 76 years old.

The Duquesne Incline was built on property formerly occupied by a coal lift that was in existence since 1854 and was owned by Abraham Kirkpatrick Lewis (Mr. Bigham’s uncle) and connected High Street, later known as Grandview Avenue, with Carson Street.  Mr. Lewis (1815-1860) was an attorney but abandoned a professional career and devoted his whole energy to the coal business.

The labor intensive construction of the Duquesne Incline began in 1874 and included building both stations, installing hillside piers, track, a steam engine and mechanical lift equipment in the upper station, wire rope cables and the cars.  The effort took between 2 and 3 years to complete.

The supplier of the original Duquesne Incline passenger cars is unknown.  The cars were in service for a period of only 12 years, from 1877 to 1889.  The J.G. Brill Company of Philadelphia furnished the replacement cars in 1889.  The cars are still in use today and closely resemble the small horse-drawn trolley cars that Brill built and sold in those days.  The interior of each incline car is very ornate with hand-carved cherry panels trimmed with oak and birdseye maple.

The Duquesne Incline gave the workers of the growing hilltop community of Union Borough, later Duquesne Heights, easy access to downtown Pittsburgh and Andrew Carnegie’s Painter’s Steel Mill; Clinton Iron Furnace and other industries that occupied the southern shore of the Monongahela River in the mid 1800s.  Prior to the opening of the incline, the workers had to walk the mile long “Indian Path” and wooden steps from High Street to Carson Street.

The Duquesne Incline’s power system was extensively renovated in 1932.  The original Corliss steam engine was removed and replaced by a safer and more reliable electrical system including a DC drive motor, controls and safety equipment.  In 1972, the electrical equipment was updated when Westinghouse rectifiers replaced the motor-generator that supplied electric power to the DC drive motor.      

The Duquesne Inclined Plane Co. operated from 1877 until 1962 when it closed due to financial hardship.  The Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline stepped in and saved the incline.  They raised funds for the needed equipment repairs and the incline reopened for business on July 1, 1963.  The Allegheny County Port Authority was required by law to purchase the incline shortly after reopening and entered into a lease agreement with the Society on January 7, 1965 that allowed the incline’s rescuers to continue to operate the incline for one dollar a year.

Today, the Duquesne Incline functions as a working historic landmark that continues to fulfill its original purpose of providing daily transportation for commuters traveling to downtown Pittsburgh.  It’s become a tourist attraction over the years for those who come to see the spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh from the Incline’s observation deck and to dine at the various excellent restaurants on Grandview Avenue.

Both inclines are 19th century engineering marvels and a tribute to the engineering skills of the designers and the wisdom of the Bigham family to recognize that the hilltop communities of Union Borough and Mt. Washington needed a form of transportation that provided convenient access to Pittsburgh’s center of business, banking and industry in order to grow and prosper.

The Society has carefully restored and maintained the Duquesne Incline while keeping it as original as possible.  The upper station has a distinct historic flavor with old photographs and antique memorabilia on display.  A tour is available of the room where the DC motor, controls and lift mechanism that powers the incline are located.  It is an opportunity to view electrical and mechanical technology from the late 19th and early 20th century that still functions perfectly today.  The tender loving care provided by the Society insures the Duquesne Incline will continue to function with no end in sight and serve the community as it has for more than 130 years.  

The following quote is from Mr. Bigham’s niece, Mary Gibson of Upper St. Clair in 2007: “I knew of the Duquesne Incline with Uncle K.Q.  In my childhood during the 1940s, there was a sign in each car that was reputed to be his doing.  The sign read: ‘Do Not Smoke Here, Do Not Spit. Try To Be Clean.” 

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