Another look at Duluth's beloved incline railway

It was barely 25 years since the end of the Civil War and the city of Duluth was already a hub in the industrial development of the United States. The largest iron ore docks in the world, located right here in the Duluth/Superior harbor, were shi...

The Crystal Palace
The pavilion and incline railway (left side) at the summit. The pavilion burned to the ground in May 1901. Photograph Northeast Minnesota Historical Society, photographer Eclipse View Company S241.1

It was barely 25 years since the end of the Civil War and the city of Duluth was already a hub in the industrial development of the United States.

The largest iron ore docks in the world, located right here in the Duluth/Superior harbor, were shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of natural red iron ore annually.

In addition to bringing prosperity to Duluth, this activity also brought fresh new ideas from its eastern business partners located in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and any other city with interests in making steel. Many futuristic and cutting-edge developments, plans and ideas were coming in from the older, more established cities back east.

One such idea was the incline railroad. Pittsburgh alone had 21 incline railroads in operation, giving access to its river-bank hillside communities. It was the same up and down the major rivers in both Pennsylvania and Ohio. (Cincinnati had 10 operating incline railroads.) With the industrial developers visiting Duluth to establish offices and residences, it wasn't long before the possibilities of putting to use ideas from eastern cities began to take shape.

In 1885, the land development at the "top of the hill, up behind the city" began to take shape.


The Duluth Heights Land Company was incorporated with capital stock of $300,000. Names that would become household words, such as G.G. Hartley, L. Mendenhall, C. Markel and C.P. Craig, were some of the original directors. Long before the advent of automobiles, street cars and inclined-plane conveyances were providing access from the central business district to hilltop areas in other cities; answering the question, "How do we get there?"

The "moneyed interests" of Duluth had long-standing contacts with eastern developers and access to the best minds who had successfully developed land using inclines. This led to the hiring of bright young engineer Samuel Diescher, who had designed and built many of the eastern incline railroads -- nine in Pittsburgh alone.

Once the plan for Duluth's Seventh Avenue incline was set in place and construction began, steel came from Cleveland by railroad through St. Paul.

Later, the larger lengths of steel came by barge; in all, 1,300 tons of rolled steel plate were used. At a cost of $250,000, the Keystone Bridge Company of Pittsburgh constructed the 2,700-foot elevated trestle from Superior Street to Skyline. There was so much steel that, due to heating and cooling during hot weather, the trestle expanded or contracted as much as 30 inches; for this reason it was necessary to attach the trestle at only one point, the bottom, while all other supports were "floating."

This wonderful, "stupendous" feat began to provide passenger and freight service on a cold December day in 1891.

A year later the pavilion at the top of the incline opened. Much has been written about the incline and its connecting streetcar line that continued on to the Duluth Heights neighborhoods along Highland Avenue and then Orange Street.

The success of the incline was marred by the sad powerhouse fire only 10 years after service began.

The fire destroyed the pavilion, which had become a focal point of entertainment and civic pride with the huge, 1,600-person seating capacity of its well-lit dining hall. The dozen 36-inch chandeliers gave the pavilion the name the "Crystal Palace," but it wasn't destined for a long life, burning to the ground in 90 minutes on the morning of May 28, 1901, never to be rebuilt. The stone foundation of the pavilion was removed and nothing indicating its location exists today -- only photographs.


The tragic fire ended the use of the first-generation incline cars which were built 16 feet wide and 40 feet long at a weight of 20 tons, riding on a 10-foot-gauge track system.

The travel of the original cars had only two stops: the bottom at Superior Street and the top a block above the Skyline Drive at Ninth Street.

They were replaced with a single modified "street car," hurriedly put into use in the fall of 1901 and used until the new 11-by-22-foot "passenger cars" were put into use in 1911.

The new cars made five stops, at Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh streets and the top at Ninth Street. These new cars lasted until the demise of the incline in 1939.

When the Duluth Transit Company took over the assets of the former Street Railway Company (which had been operating the Incline Railroad), they were faced with making a decision on how to proceed operating a barely "break-even" incline conveyance on which ridership had dropped and maintenance has increased. The straw that broke the camel's back was when the company discovered the main cable would have to be replaced -- at the exorbitant cost of $4,000.

Then the transit company tried to find a new owner. They offered it to the city of Duluth. After the Duluth City Council considered the proposition on three occasions, they finally decided to decline the incline gift.

This came over outcries from many Duluth citizens who said it would be the biggest mistake Duluth would ever make if the city allowed the incline operation to end.

These sentiments are still shared by many today, myself included.


Scrap metal prices were at a high in 1939, and ultimately the Transit Company made a huge profit when they sold the trestle to West End Scrap Company. The two cars were the only remaining assets; these were sold to private citizens. The west car was taken to Lake Alora to be used as a cabin; the east car -- which was at the top of the hill -- was taken a short distance to Duluth heights to be used as a storage shed/work shop and, ironically, burned to the ground in the 1970s.

The frame of the west car is now in my possession along with the original blueprints.

In Mayor Gary Doty's 1990 mayoral campaign, he showed interest in rebuilding the incline railway either on the original location or another suitable site. I had the distinct honor of presiding over his blue ribbon "feasibility study" committee, most of whose members have since passed away.

In the end, the prevailing feelings/findings were that the incline rebuilding would not at the time be a "paying proposition," due to lack of tourism to provide the ridership revenue.

The committee disbanded after passing on its finding to the mayor, who promised to do "something" with the old west car and other artifacts in the way of an interpretative display, but money for this were never forthcoming and the promise was forgotten.

That was not the end of the incline however: Today there remain 40 concrete foundations along the Seventh Avenue right-of-way between Mesabi Avenue and Ninth Street (above Skyline). These can be seen during the spring and fall when undergrowth doesn't hide them from view.

The climb up the stairs that parallel the incline route is exhilarating exercise -- a step back in time and a lot of fun.

Writer Joseph Martin is an expert on the history of the Seventh Avenue Incline Railway. Contact him at 724-1826 or via e-mail at .

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