Undoubtedly we’ve all seen articles in print or online with titles like “Three Perfect Days in [whatever city].” They highlight the virtues of a given place with all sorts of supposed insider tips that push beyond the usual tourist hangouts. This won’t be one of those articles. In fact I’m pretty sure this could be the worst city guide ever. Why would I even include Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a series of articles on the American Heartland? Even though the geographic footprint of the "Heartland" varied somewhat from person-to-person, undoubtedly little if anything in Pittsburgh met even the most generous definition.
That highlighted my situation. I never made Pittsburgh my destination. It always served as a waypoint on some other adventure, a perpetual bridesmaid of Twelve Mile Circle travels. That was a shame because it offered a lot. Nonetheless, I began to nibble around its edges on three separate visits in the last two years. Let’s take a closer look.
Great Allegheny Passage
It shouldn’t take much effort for someone living in the Washington, DC area like I do to visit Pittsburgh. I could get there in about four hours if traffic cooperated. Sure, I’ve connected to flights through its airport and clipped past it many times before on the Pennsylvania Turnpike although those didn’t count. Oddly, I’d never actually set foot within its city limits until April 2015. I didn’t stay there very long, either.
Pittsburgh’s historic Point State Park (map), a tip of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers joined together to form the Ohio River, marked the starting point of the Great Allegheny Passage. I hopped from of a shuttle with my bicycle and followed its path for the next 150 miles (240 kilometres) to Cumberland, Maryland. Leaving the park, we took surface streets through the city for about a mile, merged onto a dedicated trail, crossed the Hot Metal Bridge and pedaled past abandoned industrial sites too numerous to count, in a steady rain. Thus ended my first trip to Pittsburgh. It lasted as long as it took to bike beyond its city limits.
Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium
I returned to Pittsburgh about a year-and-a-half later. This time I stayed a bit longer, my first overnight trip to the city. My real purpose centered on capturing previously unvisited counties in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Pittsburgh put me close enough to my target to serve as a good staging ground. Plus I had my son with me and I needed to bribe him. He loved zoos so we spent a full morning at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium (map).
When my son visits a zoo he does it thoroughly. We saw every single animal and exhibit in excruciating detail. That seemed fair enough. I made him go to a brewery inside of a former church in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Then I dragged him around to increasingly obscure geo-oddities for the next couple of days.
Rivers and Hills
That brought me to the latest adventure. I wanted to capture a bunch of rural counties in Ohio so Pittsburgh, once again, served as a great launching point. I noted in that earlier Zoo article that I really wanted to visit the city’s famous inclines. It became my singular fixation this time around. I had to ride the inclines. Nothing else mattered.
That, geographically, placed me on the South Shore of Pittsburgh across the Monongahela River from downtown. Station Square provided the best access to the inclines. It had a little bit of history too, with roots as a terminal for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and as a freight yard well into the 20th Century. Unfortunately it declined over time along with many of the rust belt industries.
Developers turned Station Square into an entertainment district in the late 1970’s, focusing on the tourist market with plenty of chain restaurants and sightseer kitsch. The Pittsburgh skyline added some colorful scenery as a backdrop. However, Station Square still presented all the ambiance of a generic mall, a place where busloads of middle school kids on their first overnight field trip might enjoy. It certainly didn’t represent the essence of Pittsburgh although I’d made that decision knowingly so I could get closer to the inclines. We all make our choices.
I didn’t intend to ride the Ducks. Nonetheless, as we walked towards one of the inclines, I spotted a Duck filling-up and saw that the next tour started in only ten minutes. I guess I felt a little guilty for completely ignoring an entire city to climb a hill on a glorified escalator so it hit me at a vulnerable moment. Ducks, for those unfamiliar with them (photo), were used by the United States Army during the Second World War as amphibious landing vehicles. They could function either as trucks or as boats with the pull of a few levers. Various sightseeing companies purchased surplus Ducks and converted them for land/water tours. Pittsburgh had them too.
It was every bit as touristy as I imagined. Even so, it offered a decent orientation of the downtown area and I certainly enjoyed floating along the river for a unique perspective on the city. The inclines would still be waiting for us.
Only so many people could fit within a valley carved by the three rivers. Pittsburgh expanded greatly during the Industrial Revolution and pushed people onto the hills. Its mills and factories needed labor so many of the workers lived atop a ridge directly across from downtown called Coal Hill. Workers descended rickety stairways several hundred feet down to their jobs in the morning, and trudged back uphill again in the evenings. Many of them had immigrated from Germany and they remembered “steilbahns” (inclined railroads) from their homeland. Those would work great in Pittsburgh too. Nearly a score opened in the city during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Only two survived, the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline, opened in 1870 and 1877 respectively.
We took the Monongahela Incline on a slow, relaxing ride up the steep embankment. A man who rode the incline as part of his daily commute gave us a tip: a tourist could save a few bucks by purchasing a single ticket with a transfer rather than two individual tickets. Transfers lasted a couple of hours; more than enough time to ride up, look around and ride back down. Now you know too.
Mt. Washington Neighborhood
Coal Hill later got a more attractive name, Mount Washington, and a reputation for spectacular views of downtown Pittsburgh. We lucked out. It rained intermittently all day and then the clouds parted as we rode up the Monongahela Incline (map). From there we walked along the appropriately named Grandview Avenue. The path took us from the upper Monongahela station to the upper Duquesne station. I would recommend the same route for anyone visiting. It offered a nice scenic stroll of about eight-tenths of a mile (1.3 km).
The city placed frequent viewing platforms along the ridge too. We even stumbled upon a wedding taking place on one of the platforms. The best views of the city — the most iconic images — occurred at the upper Duquesne station. That station also offered a unusual opportunity, a chance to see the inner workings of the incline. Visitors could pop a couple of quarters into a turnstile and take a self-guided tour of the machinery beneath the station (photo). We watched ancient gears turn and cables roll as cars climbed and descended Mt. Washington.
So far my incomplete city guide to Pittsburgh includes:
- Point State Park
- Great Allegheny Passage Bicycle Trail
- Church Brew Works
- Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
- Station Square
- Just Ducky Tours
- Monongahela Incline
- Duquesne Incline
- Mt. Washington Neighborhood
Someday I would like to return and see the city properly, not as an afterthought. Twelve Mile Circle readers should feel free to suggest attractions I should visit when I come back in a few months or years from now. You know what I like.
Articles in the Heartland Series:
- Why, oh Why?
- How Not to See a City
- Foiled by Memorial Day
- Beyond Covered
- Not Just Farmland
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr