“Funiculì, Funiculà, ‘ncoppa, jamme jà”
So goes the song written in 1880 to celebrate the opening of the funicular railroad up the side of Mount Vesuvius. There aren’t that many funiculars – or “inclines” – still open to the public in the U.S., but Pittsburgh is home to two of them – the Monongahela, built in 1870, and the oldest still-operational in the country; and, just up the river and seven years younger, the Duquesne.
A funicular is a small railway used to climb up and down the side of a steep hill. They generally have two cars which are counter-balanced, so one car goes up by the force of gravity pulling on the other car going down. And the up-car returns the favor by controlling the weight of the down-car. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, efficiently moving both people and materials with their simple cable-pulley system, and many urban versions were built all over the United States in the second half of the 19th century.
There are lots of funiculars still around in many other parts of the world (Quebec has a famous one – Norway, Hong Kong, Spain – anywhere people need to get up and down steep hills), and the two in Pittsburgh have fueled decades of debates about which is better. With both still open to the public, and only about a mile apart, you can ride up one and down the other and decide for yourself.