Mount Washington Transit Tunnel
History of the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel
The Mount Washington Transit Tunnel was bored through Mount Washington for the use of the Pittsburgh Railways Company and their new electrified trolley cars as a transportation link to the South Hills area. This region south of Pittsburgh was isolated from the city by the mountainous barrier of Coal Hill.
Extending from Carson Street and the Smithfield Bridge to the South Hills Junction, the 3,492 foot tunnel transformed the laborious one-hour transit trip over the hill from West Liberty Borough to downtown Pittsburgh into a quick ten-minute ride on a new electric trolley.
Opened in December of 1904, the advent of convenient travel was the key to bringing residential and commercial development to West Liberty Borough (Beechwood and Brookline) and to other emerging municipalities like Fairhaven, Beechview, Dormont, Castle Shannon and Mount Lebanon. Investors began flocking to the South Hills to make their fortune. What was once rural farmland soon took on a more urban look, and a new era of prosperity had begun.
Still in use today after well over a century, the transit tunnel is still an integral part of the transportation network for South Hills residents. Renovated in the 1970s to handle bus traffic, the tunnel is heavily traveled by the Port Authority's "T" light rail system cars and the buses that travel along the South Busway.
A Tunnel To The South Is Needed
As the city of Pittsburgh grew near the end of the 19th century, new ways were sought to overcome the barrier along the south shore, Mount Washington, that prohibited significant expansion to the south. Only two ways existed to get there, one being through the valley that began at the West End, or up and over the hill, both time consuming and impractical for large scale development.
At the urging of former State Legislator and future State Senator William Flinn, in 1889 the Pittsburgh Tunnel Company was chartered with the purpose of building a tunnel from Carson Street, near the Smithfield Street Bridge, to West Liberty Borough, near Warrington Avenue, on the other side of Mount Washington.
Working together with the Pittsburgh and Washington Electric Railway Company, the goal was to construct an electrified transit line south towards Charleroi and on to Washington, Pennsylvania. The line would then be extended to Wheeling, West Virginia.
By 1902, the dream of the southern railway was still a major priority, and the Mellon family had made a large capital investment in constructing the line to Charleroi. Much to the dismay of investors, the tunnel, however, was nowhere near completion. In fact, only 100 feet had been dug into the hillside a few years earlier from Carson Street before the company hit a solid rock barrier and work was halted.
In addition to the Charleroi/Washington short line, other tunnel-related opportunities were presenting themselves in the form of development in the farming and coal mining borough of West Liberty, which was nestled next to the southern slopes of Mount Washington.
Senator Flinn and other influential partners, many of whom had purchased large open land tracts in the Beechwood section of West Liberty, formed the Beechwood Improvement Company. They made significant investments in the future development of these properties. The key to all of their plans was the construction of the tunnel.
Another significant beneficiary of the tunnel were the residents of Mount Washington. The East Sycamore Electric Railway Company had been chartered to build a streetcar line through Mount Washington, beginning on right-of-way secured near the southern entrance to the tunnel. Again, the tunnel was the key to bringing that line into service.
A Series Of Complaints and Court Challenges
The year 1902 was a pivotal year in the history of the tunnel. A syndicate led by now former State Senator Flinn, who left the State House in March 1902, formed the rival Mount Washington Tunnel Company to build the long-awaited transit tunnel. Well funded and with plans in place, preparation work began on the Carson Street side.
On the other hand, the Pittsburgh Tunnel Company, at that time, had only $1000 in capital reserves. They hadn't done any work in over two years and had no real plan to proceed, but were unwilling to give up their tunnel rights. On April 25, Common Please Court Judge E. H. Stowe heard the first complaints brought by the competing interests regarding who would be granted the legal right to build the tunnel.
Faced with the prospect of losing their claim to the tunnel, the Pittsburgh Tunnel Company also brought crews to the site and began to work. Both company's tunnel north portal proposals were similarly placed, only six feet apart, and the tunnels would run parallel to each other. Now, while their cases dragged on in court, two independent crews were working side-by-side along the Carson Street hillside, less than a stone's throw from each other. Things soon got messy.
On June 21, testifying in regards to allegations brought by the Pittsburgh Company, "engineers for the Mount Washington Company claimed that the route they had chosen was the only practical one, and Jeremiah Hilliary, a foreman, declared that his workmen enter upon work in a peaceable manner and conduct themselves professionally, disputing claims that his crew was preventing the Pittsburgh Company from carrying on its work by threats and violence."
On September 6 the Pittsburgh Tunnel Company filed another in a series of complaints, this one stating that "on August 30 the workmen of the Mount Washington Company set off a blast that shattered the formation for timbers of their heading. John Nicholson, a contractor for the Pittsburgh Company, reported that when he and his men complained that he was threatened with arrest and his men forced to withdraw. Witnesses for the Mount Washington Company declared that there had been no interference at all."
The court battles continued until October, when Judge Stowe ruled that the Pittsburgh Tunnel Company had not finished their project in the time specified in their initial charter proposals and he refused to grant them a time extension. Their charter was annulled and the Mount Washington Tunnel Company awarded exclusive rights to build the tunnel.
Pittsburgh Railways Company
Another party that watched the tunnel dispute closely with an eye towards southern expansion was The Pittsburgh Railways Company, which was also formed in 1902 as a consolidation of the many independent trolley companies in the city. The emerging South Hills communities represented an entire new market for the transit firm, and work was already underway on those expansionist desires.
The southern tunnel was a key part of their plans, and in anticipation of its completion the Pittsburgh Railways Company had acquired a long-term lease on the right-of-way belonging to the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad, a route that included Overbrook, Castle Shannon and points further south towards Charleroi and Washington.
They purchased rights along West Liberty Avenue to emerging communities like Mount Lebanon, Dormont and Brookline. In addition, the company made arrangements to acquire the Mount Washington Electric Railway Company's Beechwood line and the East Sycamore Electric Railway Company's Grandview line. By a twist of fate, in June 1903 they also acquired the tunnel itself.
Tunnel Construction Begins
With $1.5 million to work with, the Pittsburgh and Washington Electric Railway Company began work in earnest on the 2 1/2 mile trolley line to the Beechwood area on October 6, 1902. At the same time the Mount Washington Tunnel Company began boring through Mount Washington.
The prime contractor for both projects was Booth and Flinn, Ltd., a company partly owned by none other than former Senator William Flinn. The Superintendant Engineer for the project was A. G. Neeld, who would rise to prominence again two decades later as superintendent of the Liberty Tunnels project.
Tunnel excavation began at both the north and south end at the same time. Working two day and two night shifts of thirty men each, six days a week, workers averaged 300 feet per month through solid rock. The fill from the southern side was used to level off the tunnel route towards Beechwood through what would become the South Hills Junction complex.
It was difficult and increasingly costly work. In addition, work on the Beechwood rail line, including the construction of three steel bridges (the 1200 foot Palm Garden Trestle and bridges over Beechwood 'Brookside' and Cape May Avenues), was running over budget.
The Human Toll
Construction of the tunnel was not without accidents, some of which caused loss of life. The Pittsburgh Daily Post, on April 15, 1903, reported that two men were killed and two injured by a delayed explosion inside the tunnel.
"When a heavy charge of dynamite was placed yesterday in a wall of rock near the city end of the Mount Washington Tunnel which the Mount Washington Tunnel Company is constructing, and the signal was given for the application of the fuse, the workmen hurried away at a safe distance awaiting the explosion. But no report followed and the men slowly crept back to the supposedly 'dead' charge."
"Suddenly a terrific explosion shook the earth and the panic-stricken men rushed pellmell toward the mouth of the tunnel."
"Four of their number were found to be missing. Back through the heaps of fallen rock the searchers made their way and came upon the mangled bodies of Ludwig Mason, the foreman, and P. Stabagaroni. Two others who are unknown were found unconscious and carried out into the open to be revived. The leg of one was broken."
"The foreman had met with the full force of the explosion. His body was torn into fragments. Huge rocks had to be removed in order to recover his body."
There were other accidents during the two year project. By the time the tunnel was completed there were two other fatalities, bringing the total to four. Considering the nature of the tunnel work and conditions faced by the workers, this was a actually a relatively low number in comparison with similar undertakings at that time.
Investment Capital Needed
By June 5, 1903, crews had penetrated 2,100 feet, with another 1,400 to go. Unfortunately, financing became a problem. Total costs were now forecast to be $500,000 over the original estimate. A quick solution was found when Senator Flinn arranged for The Philadelphia Company to purchase both the Mount Washington Electric Railway Company and the Mount Washington Tunnel Company for $2 million, providing the necessary capital to complete the project.
The deal was consummated by the Mount Washington Tunnel Company issuing $2 million in bonds for the completion of the work, all of which were taken by the Philadelphia Company interests and floated by Brown Brothers Company of Philadelphia. With the bonds came the stock. The contract called for the retention of contractors Booth and Flinn, Ltd. The Philadelphia Company was, incidentally, the parent company of the Pittsburgh Railways Company, giving the local transit firm ownership of the tunnel.
The Two Ends Meet
On October 6, 1903, The Pittsburgh Daily Post reported that "the solid rock of Mount Washington was pierced last evening at 5:50 o'clock. The climax of the engineering feat was reached when it was found that the two headings driven at opposite ends of the mountainous pile nearly three-quarters of a mile apart had met exactly in the heart of Mount Washington."
"About three o'clock in the afternoon the drill pierced the wall in the center of the tunnel, but blasting was necessary before a hole large enough for a man to pass through could be made."
"When the last blast was discharged the eight people within the tunnel on the north side waited fifteen minutes, and then cautiously pushed their way through the dense smoke that followed the blast. Faintly on the other side could be heard the voice of George Hamilton Flinn, son of Senator Flinn and the general manager of the contracting firm Booth and Flinn, as he spoke to chief engineer A. G. Neeld."
"A few minutes of conversation followed and it was agreed that the passage through the head would be delayed for half an hour to enable those on the south side to discharge their final blast, which soon followed that of the one on the north side."
"Engineer Neeld, some of the workmen and a 'Post' reporter were within 100 yards of the point where the last blast was about to be discharged. When it was announced that all was ready the group sought safety behind the benches. The electrician swung the electric lever that touched off the blast that was to complete the opening."
"An instant later a roar followed and down the tunnel came a gust of wind that lifted hats from heads. The rush of wind was so powerful that several who had not hidden behind the bench were knocked off their feet and almost stunned. The oil torches used by the workmen were extinguished."
"After a fifteen minute wait for loose rock to fall the party proceeded. The progress was slow and the farther the party advanced the denser the smoke became. The gas and smoke became so thick that handkerchiefs covered mouths and noses. The torches almost went out several times and several of the party were nearly overcome."
"But Engineer Neeld pushed forward and finally reached the head, where he greeted Mr. Flinn on the other side. The party then made the return trip to the mouth of the tunnel for fresh air, and none too soon, for several were almost in a fainting condition. When the party emerged they were greeted with cheers from the little groups of men gathered there."
It was a momentous occasion, but several more months were needed before the tunnel would be ready for service. The tunnel was thirty-one feet in width at the bottom of the arched entrances, which were approximately fourteen feet high at center. Another eleven feet of earth and rock needed to be removed. Steam shovels completed this benchworking.
The Transit Tunnel Is Completed
The benchwork was completed on October 7, 1904. The arched concrete walls were then constructed and lined by stone masons with a total of 12,000,000 bricks. Installation of electric lines, double-track rails and clusters of incandescent lighting completed the project. The finished tunnel was 24 feet wide and 21 feet high with a six percent downhill grade from the West Liberty end to Carson Street. The total cost of the tunnel itself was $875,000.
The tunnel was inspected by officers of the Beechwood Improvement Company and Pittsburgh Railways on October 31, 1904. The formal opening of the tunnel was a month later, on November 30, when dignitaries passed through in a ceremonial car. The guests were taken through the tunnel to the junction, where bands played and politicians made speeches.
The dignitaries then boarded the trolley car and proceeded on a loop through the Mount Washington route, with a stop along Grandview Avenue for more music and more speeches. The following day, on December 1, 1904, trolley traffic to the southern regions officially began.
An executive of the Philadelphia Company called it "one of the greatest works ever undertaken in the street railway business." William Weiss, a member of the Beechwood Improvement Company, said, "This project will be the making of the South Hills."
The opening of the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel occurred on the same day as the long-awaited reopening of the Point Bridge, which had been closed since May for extensive repairs. On that first day of December, 1904, the new electrified Pittsburgh Railways southern trolley network burst forth onto the downtown Pittsburgh streets like a wave of prosperity.
Property Valuations In The Tunnel Lands
Although development of the area began two years before the grand opening, the day the first passenger trolley passed through the Mount Washington Trolley Tunnel could well be considered, as William Weiss implied on dedication day, the "birth of the South Hills." Called "Tunnel Lands," property values immediately increased all along the electrified trolley routes soon installed by the Pittsburgh Railways Company.
With the transit tunnel as the catalyst, in a span of just one year, three farms in Brookline increased in valuation from $68,000 to $1.3 million. Within five years, the total cost of houses being built in the West Liberty, Beechview, Brookline, Dormont and Mount Lebanon areas immediately adjacent to the transit lines amounted to over $1.5 million.
Note: The proposed electrified route extending all the way to Wheeling, West Virginia, as envisioned by Senator William Flinn, never materialized. However, an interurban route to Washington PA existed from 1905 through 1953.
Advertisement Blitz For Investors
Beginning in April 1903 the Beechwood Improvement Company began an advertisement blitz in the four main local newspapers, the Press, Gazette Times, Daily Post and Sun-Telegraph. The ads showcased the stunning investment deals and low prices on property lots. They also detailed the progress of the construction of the tunnel and the Beechwood rail line. Freehold Real Estate joined in the ad campaign touting the Lebanon Heights Plans in nearby Mount Lebanon.
The full page ads often showed actual photos of the construction. The same thing happened with Brookline developments like Paul Place, King Place and the West Liberty Improvement Company housing plans in 1904/1905. These Freehold Real Estate ads also touted the importance of the transit tunnel itself and the time saved in the commute to downtown Pittsburgh. Brookline was labeled as the "15 Minute Suburb."
Tunnel Walkers, Errant Motorists and Landslides
Although the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel is not for pedestrian traffic, the dark, dimly lit passage has seen it's share of tunnel walkers. These rare occasions occurred during transit strikes, when the trolley system was shut down and there was no one present to stop commuters on foot from utilizing the tunnel as a convenient way to beat the traffic to work and back.
One such occurrence was on May 10, 1924, when pedestrians flocked through the tunnels while the trolleys stood idle in the barn yard. Another was a 35-day transit strike in 1954. Another 1973 union action grounded the transit fleet for over a week. The longest outage was a 56-day transit stoppage in the fall of 1957.
Despite warning signs at the tunnel entrances many pedestrians braved the dank, dimly lit passage during that two-month crisis. The four women shown above made the best of the shortcut on October 14, 1957, hoofing their way from the South Hills Junction to Smithfield Street. As the ladies emerged from the north portal they commented that it was much quicker walking than driving that morning.
Another more frequent happening was errant motorists who drove their trucks or cars into the tunnel, only to find that it was not for vehicles when they hit upon the exposed rail ties and tracks. One humorous incident that involved a Roadway Express Company truck came on May 31, 1949, when the driver drove a third of the way through the tunnel before noticing his mistake.
The Pittsburgh Press reported that "when asked by police why he had gone so far into the tunnel, the driver explained that the bumping and lurching over the thick wood ties did not seem too much different from his experience over other Pittsburgh streets."
Another issue that from time to time caused disruption and hardship along the tunnel route was landslides at the north portal along Sycamore Street. On numerous occasions the hillside let loose tons of earth and rock that settled at the entrance to the tunnel.
When the tunnel was renovated in the 1970s during the South Busway project, the hillside above the north portal was covered in a thick concrete coating to help prevent further landslides. What were once regular occurrences are now rare, but they do still happen. On January 8, 2020, rail and bus traffic was detoured around the tunnel due to a small mudslide at the north end that covered the tracks.
Transit Tragedies - Runaway Streetcars
Over the past century the transit tunnel has been in almost continuous operation, and although the safety record during that long length of time has been good, the tunnel has experienced its share of accidents.
Most involved minor bumps and bruises, like an instance reported in the June 12, 1937, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, were two women suffered minor injuries when a Dormont trolley ran into the rear of a Brookline trolley. Another such accident was reported in the December 21, 1943, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, when a Mount Washington car ran into a Castle Shannon car at the north end of the tunnel, injuring ten passengers.
These minor cow-catcher benders paled in comparison to two frightening occurrences that have been etched into the history of mass transportation in the city of Pittsburgh.
The first such incident occurred on December 24, 1917, when a runaway Knoxville streetcar lost its brakes and roared through the tunnel. Inbound trolleys descend 240 feet from south to north at a six percent grade. The Knoxville car exited the tunnel travelling at a high rate of speed. It jumped the tracks and overturned, sliding head-on into the crowded Carson Street intersection.
Twenty-one people were killed and scores of others were injured. This was the worst accident in the city's mass transit history, and settling the injury claims led to the first bankruptcy of the Pittsburgh Railways Company.
Another similar brake failure on October 28, 1987, caused an inbound trolley to jump the tracks at the north portal. During the morning rush hour, the car slid across the crowded Carson Street intersection, sideswiping a bus and a PAT Transit truck before slamming into the landmark P&LERR terminal building along Smithfield Street.
Although thirty-three passengers were injured in the crash, no lives were lost due to the quick thinking of the motorman, John Stromple, who calmly moved everyone to the rear of the car and shielded them. Stromple, along with seven other Port Authority employees, also suffered injuries in the accident.
Tunnel Upgrades And Bus Traffic
The Mount Washington Transit Tunnel was pretty much in constant service for seventy years without any major upgrades. It was there during the hey-dey of the Pittsburgh Railways Trolley empire in the 1920s and it was there during the gradual decline of the 1950s. The 1960s saw the Port Authority take control of the company and begin the dismemberment of the vast network of trolley lines and routes in favor of buses.
With the exception of the loss of the Brookline route in 1966, the South Hills managed to retain the majority of it's light rail routes, such as Beechview, Dormont, Mount Lebanon, Overbrook, Castle Shannon and Library, although there were many cutbacks in service. By the early 1970s, the only trolley routes left in the city of Pittsburgh were in the South Hills, with the transit tunnel as their gateway to suburbia.
In 1974, as part of the South Busway project, the tunnel was renovated. The Port Authority temporarily reduced the tunnel to a single track, limiting trolley service to one way travel thru the tunnel, in the predominant direction of rush hour travel.
The tunnel floor was paved, new and brighter lighting installed and a ventilation system added to allow for bus and trolley/light rail traffic to share the tunnel. On Sunday, October 26, 1975, trolley service in both directions was restored through the tunnel.
South Busway And The "T" Light Rail System
In 1977, the South Busway opened, with the transit tunnel as it's main gateway. Bus traffic through the tunnel increased dramatically, and trolleys continued to pass through as always. Then, in the 1980s, things really changed with the beginning of the transformation from the old PCC cars to the modern light-rail 'T' cars and the construction of the downtown subway.
The Mount Lebanon/Beechview line was closed in April 1984, along with the Castle Shannon lines, and ground broken for complete reconstruction of the rail line and the South Hills Junction. The tunnel ventilation and electrical systems were modernized and the roadway completely rebuilt at a cost of $4.8 million. The entire project took slightly over three years to complete. The downtown subway segment of the project was completed in July 3, 1985.
The modern light rail lines to the south reopened on May 22, 1987. The old Overbrook and Library lines, which still used upgraded PCC cars, was closed indefinitely in 1993 due to safety concerns with the three aging bridges (McKinley, Reflectorville and Whited). These routes were the final ones to be renovated, including new bridges, opening as completely refurbished light rail lines eleven years later in June of 2004.
The Mount Washington Transit Tunnel, still heavily used today, turned 115 years old on December 1, 2019. The venerable tunnel is in good shape structurally and positioned to remain the prefered gateway for mass transit traffic to the South Hills for years to come.
Debunking An Urban Myth
One urban myth surrounding the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel is that is was once an old coal mine. Although the abundance of coal mining deep inside Mount Washington gave it the name Coal Hill, the transit tunnel had nothing to do with that enterprise. The trolley tunnel is being confused with another railroad tunnel that is at a much higher elevation, was once a coal mine and runs roughly parallel to the transit tunnel from the north to south face of Coal Hill.
In 1825 Jacob Beltzhoover opened a coal mining operation. Over the years the mine passed hands until being bought by the Pittsburgh Coal Company. Eventually the mine ran from the north face to the south face. When the coal was cleared, the mine was expanded in size and used as a railroad tunnel to transport coal from southern mines along Saw Mill Run to an incline along the north hillside.
This 1,741 foot tunnel was purchased by the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad in 1871. It was used until 1912 when the railroad went out of business. The tunnel entrances were sealed and have remained that way for over a century.
Great-Great Grandfather Louie Smith
This photo shows my great-great grandfather Louie Smith, his wife Sophie and their four kids, Anne, Etta, Mae and Clyde. Shown here in 1903, Louie worked as a laborer for over a year on the excavation of the tunnel. It's interesting to think that some of my families blood, sweat and toil went into the pivotal project that led to the birth of my community, Brookline.
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