Originally posted 2016-01-27 13:03:52. Republished by Blog Post Promoter
Pittsburgh’s most persistent myth may be that the transit tunnel under Mount Washington was once a coal mine. It never was.
That errant community memory stems from an otherwise long-forgotten tunnel nearby.
It doesn’t help when people who should know better repeat the transit tunnel legend as fact. Pittsburgh Magazine just did it in a piece on Pittsburgh tunnels:
“The one-time coal-mine-turned-tunnel was upgraded in 1904 and used by as many as 600 streetcars a day at its peak”
Sorry, as much as we all like the idea of repurposing old things, the transit tunnel started out as a tunnel. It never has been anything else.
How We Forgot
Perhaps, we should explain the origins of the myth.
Back when Mount Washington was just a hill, it had a less marketable name, Coal Hill.
It got the name soon after Fort Pitt was built at the Point. Fort dwellers and those living in shanties around the fort dug coal out of the hillside for subsistence heating.
The trees were already gone, stripped away and burned. Coal was carried across the Monongahela River in canoes and later ferried in flat boats.
But, they didn’t just walk to the base of the hill and start digging. That would have been too convenient.
They had to climb three-quarters of the way up the steep hillside to find and excavate coal. Then, they slid it down.
The coal — compressed remains of ancient swamps — was in a layer that was very large, but not particularly thick. It ranged from a few feet to not much more than the height of a miner.
But the Pittsburgh Coal Seam, as it came to be known, enabled a community to grow around the fort, and then flame into an industrial power.
It lay about 100 feet down from the top of Coal Hill. There was no coal at the level of today’s transit tunnel.
That tunnel, now used by the “T” light rail system and buses, was dug to replace a train tunnel that indeed had been a coal mine.
That mine was far up the northern slope, or downtown side, of the hill. On the southern side, the valley floor is much higher. So, the mine was only about half way up that side.
Now let’s explore the business of carrying coal and people through or over Mount Washington. It required so many contraptions to operate, and so much patience to use, that it is hard for modern minds to fathom.