Johnstown's Inclined Plane is steeped in history, tragedy

Here's a trip for the experienced traveler who's seen and done it all. Sure, you've flown around the world in a jumbo jet, sailed across the ocean on a cruise ship and seen the countryside by train. Maybe you've traveled by a horse and buggy, hot air balloon, monorail or even by camel. But have you ever traveled on a funicular?

A funicular, also known as an inclined plane, is a vertical railroad used to transport people or cargo up and down a mountain. Unlike a cable car or gondola that one might find at a ski resort, the cars on funiculars are pulled by cables along a railroad track instead of being suspended from a cable.

There are funiculars around the world - most are in Europe - and a few are scattered around the United States. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world is in Johnstown, Pa., just a three-hour drive from Baltimore.

So how did the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world wind up in a small, former industrial town like Johnstown?

Johnstown is the site of one of the nation's deadliest floods. In May 1889, a poorly constructed earth dam gave way to heavy rains, sending a 35-foot-high wall of water into town. The flood killed 2,209 people and destroyed more than 1,600 buildings. Debris from the devastation burned for days, and the town was almost destroyed.

Naturally, when people started to rebuild, many opted for higher ground in the new community of Westmont at the top of Johnstown's Yoder Hill. The problem was, with a steep grade of 70.9 percent and no easy roads up or around the mountain, construction was difficult. To carry supplies, people, horses and wagons up the mountain, the local Cambria Iron Co. built an inclined railway in 1890. The railway was designed by engineer Samuel Diescher, of Pittsburgh, who also designed the Monongahela, Duquesne, Fort Pitt, and Castle Shannon inclined railways, along with machinery used in the first Ferris wheel, unveiled in Chicago in 1893.

Nearly 600 people rode the train on the day it opened in May 1891. Not only was the inclined plane a convenience, it was also designed to save townspeople if another devastating flood should occur, as it did in 1936, when nearly 4,000 people used the railway to get to the safety of higher ground. When the town flooded again in 1977, the inclined plane was used to evacuate the town and carried boats, emergency personnel and equipment down to the valley to help in rescue operations.

With the construction of new roads and interstates over the years, the inclined plane is no longer the fastest and most practical way in and out of the valley of Johnstown. The railway nearly shut down in the early 1980s, but thanks to federal grant money and contributions from local philanthropists, the inclined plane was saved. Today, it's a main tourist attraction in the area that folks ride for fun, nostalgia and novelty.

Stephen Krenisky and Agnes Blank, both in their 70s, came from Conneaut, Ohio, to see Johnstown and ride the inclined plane.

"I wanted to see the church where my parents were married in 1916," Blank said. The church, Saint Columba, was built in 1888 and was one of the buildings that survived the 1889 flood. It served as a morgue and relief station.

"I was born here," Krenisky said. "I wanted to see how much the town changed." Krenisky said he remembers as a boy climbing up and down the mountain and walking along the trail that leads to an old mine.

Little has changed in the basic design of the inclined plane. Two rail cars attached to cables sit on a double track. The cars counterbalance each other, so the engine needs to provide only enough power to overcome friction and the difference in the weight of the two cars. Because the track rises at a 35-degree angle, it would be impossible for the rail cars to sit flat on the tracks. Instead, the trains sit cantilevered out from the tracks, with a supporting truss resting on the tracks. The train cars, 15 feet and 2 inches high, 15 and a half feet wide and 34 feet long, can carry only one automobile at a time. Except for a small observation room big enough for just a bench, the rail car is open to the elements, making it a chilly ride this time of the year.

The view from the observation deck is stunning. On a clear day, one can see the entire town and beyond. Maps show the area that was devastated during the flood. The upper train station has a gift shop that sells sodas, snacks and hot popcorn - a favorite among the local deer, rabbits and raccoons that feast on the morsels tourists drop from the trains. The gift shop also has an observation window where you can see the mechanism that drives the trains, including the 16-foot-wide drum that reels in the 2-inch-thick steel cable.

There are walking and hiking trails at both the upper and lower stations. If you're up for it, you can buy a one-way ticket and hike back up or down the mountain. The lower station has a sculpture trail with eight steel sculptures made of remnants from Johnstown's old Bethlehem Steel plant. The upper station's ice cream shop is open during summer. The restaurant and visitor's center at the mountaintop are currently closed for renovations, but both should be open by late winter or early spring. The restaurant will have large windows all around the building, guaranteeing a great view from wherever patrons sit.

You'll have to hurry if you want to ride the train this year. The inclined plane closes during January and February. It is open only till 6 p.m. now but closing time will be extended to 10 p.m. when the train reopens in March. The track and train are lit up at night, making a beautiful sight visible from all over town.

Johnstown Inclined Plane is at 711 Edgehill Drive, Johnstown, Pa. Call 814-536-1816 or visit www.inclinedplane.com. The Inclined Plane is open now until Dec. 31, from noon to 6 p.m. Tentative hours for the 2005 season are 9 a.m.-10 p.m. seven days a week, starting in March. Admission for adults is $4 round trip and $2.25 one way; admission for seniors 65 and over is free during off-peak hours; admission for children 2-12 is $2.50 round trip, $1.50 one way; children under 2 may ride for free. Automobiles are $6 one way, motorcycles are $4 one way and bicycles are free.

Getting there

Take Interstate 70 West to Interstate 76 West at Breezewood, Pa., to Route 220/Insterstate 99 North to 56 West.