Let it Be Known: Transit Tunnel Was Never a Coal Mine
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.
Things Got Complicated
It was fairly simple when Jacob Beltzhoover got started in 1825.
He owned a mine that had been dug by hand clear though Coal Hill. Side channels off the main line supplied coal that was carted out on tracks to a dock on the downtown side of the hill.
They didn’t slide it down anymore. An incline lowered the coal to a tipple along Carson Street. That’s where it was dumped into trains or wagons.
Then, things got really complicated. Investors bought out Beltzhoover in 1871 and formed the Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon Railroad.
Those investors also bought land in the South Hills, which also was laced with the Pittsburgh Coal Seam. They wanted to move that coal to the city and its rivers in trains running through Coal Hill, which had pretty much given up all of its coal by then.
They also desired people to move out of the city, buy home lots around the mines, and work the mines.
For a couple of years, lot buyers even got free passes to transport themselves and whatever they needed to build their homes.
It was not a straight forward trip. The narrow-gauge railroad, first built by Beltzhoover, moved coal from along Saw Mill Run and under what is now Brookline to the South Hills junction.
It did not go to the base of Coal Hill where the transit tunnel is today. Steam locomotives went up along Warrington Avenue, did a tight U-turn and looped back climbing across the southern face of the hill until it reached the expanded coal mine half way up. There it turned right and entered the dark, unventilated tube.
Above the City, but Not the Smoke
Once through the 1,700-foot tunnel, you would have gotten a scenic view of . . . smoke.
The train ride ended at an incline well above Carson Street. The train had to go through a series of backing maneuvers to get turned around on the narrow ledge overlooking the city. Passengers were let off amid the black dust at the coal transfer incline.
Coal was headed for factories spread out below or downtown buildings, all belching smoke.
Passengers rode the incline to the foot of the hill where they could catch a horse-drawn trolley or walk from there. Coal could take a train or wagon to where it was going.
That arrangement lasted only about two years.
Passengers, many of them knowledgeable miners, did not think the mine-turned-tunnel was safe.
So, the rail company decided to send people over the hill rather than through it. It had building lots to sell, after all.
It built two additional inclines, starting in 1889. One went up and down the downtown side between Carson Street and Bailey Avenue. The other traveled the south side between Bailey and Warrington avenues.
Coal was still taken through the old mine, despite an occasional collapse.
Meanwhile, technology was changing the city.
Everyone saw the future was in electric trollies not commuter trains, particularly steam-powered ones.
More than 200 separate streetcar lines operated in and around Pittsburgh before 1900. But, they were never very profitable. At the turn of the century, they were consolidated under the Pittsburgh Railways Company. So, now we’re getting to the construction of the transit tunnel.
The consolidated streetcar company leased passenger-related property from the Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon, and began construction of a ground level tunnel. It took two years. That is our transit tunnel.
It’s a Downhill Battle
No doubt it is much safer than the forgotten tunnel, but it has a significant problem.
The difference in the height of the valley floors at either end means the tunnel travels downhill quite a bit as it heads downtown.
The effects of tunnel vision render the slope almost unnoticeable to passengers. Inbound operators, however, are well aware of the need to keep applying brakes.
On a couple of occasions the brakes have not worked.
In 1917, on Christmas Eve, of course, 21 shoppers and children were killed and many more injured after a Knoxville trolley lost its brakes in the tunnel.
The streetcar raced out, left the tracks as it crossed Carson Street, overturned and slid into a crowd outside what is now Station Square.
The incline between Warrington Avenue and the top of Mount Washington was dismantled in 1914. Traces of it are still evident in the odd layout of two narrow parallel streets now running up and down the hill.
The passenger incline on the downtown side continued operating until 1964. The tunnel that used to be a mine was boarded up in 1912. Rail tracks leading to it were removed shortly thereafter.
People got old and died. Memory of the tunnel went with them.
The footage above comes from 1926, but it is too good not to include in this post. It shows people riding freight (fright) inclines in Pittsburgh, which often entailed sharing space with horses. It comes from the University of California at San Diego by way of John Schalcosky who has 70 old Pittsburgh film clips posted on his site (see link below). He says they come from libraries all over the globe. The Monongahela and curved Knoxville inclines are featured here. Both are gone. Passenger Monongahela Incline service survives.
Mount Washington’s Name
Interestingly, I’ve not found a specific year for Mount Washington’s name change. Some sources only say it happened by 1876. Others say the 1880s. Apparently, it never formally happened.
The city annexed Coal Hill borough in 1872. After that, it was officially Pittsburgh.
If anyone can clear up who renamed it, why and when, please leave a comment.
It may have been a desire by residents to put coal behind them, and forget it was beneath them. It couldn’t have been easy. One of the mines caught fire and burned for 16 years.
One visitor, the Rev. Charles Beatty, described his experience on the hill in 1865 or 1866:
“The earth in some places is so warm, that we could hardly bear to stand upon it; as one place where the smoke came up we opened a hole in the earth till it was so hot as to burn paper thrown into it; the steam that came out was so strong of sulpher that we could scarcely bear it.”
Yeah, that would have been a good reason to change the name.
- The Pittsburgh Magazine story on tunnels is here.
- A wistful 1912 news article on the closing of the coal tunnel and incline is here.
- John Schalcosky’s posted Pittsburgh film clips are here.
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher