Written by the Genealogy & Local History Department, Downtown Main Library
Take a metaphorical journey up the hills of Cincinnati and into the past with CHPL's latest online exhibit "Cincinnati's Inclined Plane Railroads." The interactive experience features high resolution images, maps, rare books, and news articles from our collections tells the story of each incline, and explores how the inclines offered expanded horizons to the residents of Cincinnati, a nineteenth century metropolis straining to spread out beyond its crowded basin.
Scaling the Heights
The inclines were both a technological marvel, and a practical way to ascend the mighty hills that surrounded the city. Before the first incline was built, these hilltops were accessible only to those who could afford an expensive carriage ride or were willing to walk. Between 1872 and 1894, a total of five inclined plane railroads were built. Over the decades, they carried foot passengers, horse-drawn cars, and electric streetcars to the burgeoning neighborhoods above.
The Mount Auburn Incline was the first to be built. The image below, which dates to 1890, is from our Cincinnati History Lantern Slides Collection. CHPL has digitized nearly 1,000 of these fragile glass slides, which were once loaned to the public and viewed with the aid of an early slide projector known as the "magic lantern."
The inclines, built and operated by competing rail companies, ensured a steady stream of passengers that would assemble at the elegant resorts constructed atop the hills. Cincinnatians flocked to these pleasure palaces to take in the view, drink beer, roller skate, and listen to German bands or light opera. These resorts competed for customers, and each had its own distinctive flair.
Of the four hilltop resorts, the Bellevue House was perhaps the grandest. Situated on the edge of a cliff at the head of the Cincinnati and Clifton Inclined-plane Railway, it sat on a 12-acre site, and its massive octagonal dance hall could accommodate 10,000 people. Available on our Digital Library, "Cincinnati's Inclined Plane Railroads" explores the history, heyday, and eventual decline of these beloved hilltop playgrounds.
Gathering Together the Fragments of History
CHPL's Genealogy & Local History Department has pieced together the history of the inclines using photographs, lantern slides, postcards, maps, and rare publications from our collection. Since 2007, the Library has been digitizing these rare materials and making them available for free on the Digital Library. These archival materials are remnants from the past, some fragments of which few remain and are rarely seen, such as this Mt. Adams & Eden Park Inclined Railway ticket.
Other items serve to tell the stories of those who lived through this era. This Cincinnati Enquirer article recounts the story of a heroic watchdog who raised the alarm when a fire broke out in the Price Hill Incline's power house in the early hours of July 19, 1895.
Making Local History Accessible to You
The medium of these online digital exhibits allows us to assemble the many unique and rare materials we have housed here in the CHPL collection - photographs, letters, diaries, slides, and postcards – to tell the compelling stories of Cincinnati’s rich history in an engaging way. Stay tuned for additional upcoming exhibits on the History of the Home and the story of the Downtown Main Library.