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Duluth History

Duluth's 7th Avenue West Incline

The Bygone Way of Topping the Hill

By: Rob Hedburg | September 18, 2018

Did you know that downtown Duluth used to be accessible by incline railway? From 1891 until 1939, an incline railcar offered service from Hilltop Park to Superior Street. The incline tracks ran along the hillside on the right-of-way of 7th Avenue West. The incline was owned and operated by the Duluth Street Railway Company (DSRC). This incline railway was constructed to help develop the Duluth Heights neighborhood. 

Photo via the Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

The rail service featured two cars which ran along two sets of separate tracks. This allowed for one car to load at the bottom of the hill, on West Superior Street, while the other could load at top at Hilltop Park. The cars weighed 29 tons each and were hoisted by a steam-powered engine system housed in a powerhouse at the top of the railway. The cars would serve as counterbalances to each other; as one would ascend, the other would descend with the two cars meeting in the middle of their trips up and down the hillside. The ride up and down the hillside offered spectacular views of Lake Superior, the downtown area, and the shipping canal.

Photo via UMD Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives

Because demand for regular service did not immediately materialize, the DSRC opened Beacon Hill Pavilion on July 4, 1902 to entice potential new riders. The pavilion, simply referred to as the Incline Pavilion, contained attractions including an amusement center, restaurants, and a 2,000-seat Pavilion Theatre. Entertainment options included family-friendly vaudeville acts and orchestral and military band performances.

On May 28, 1901, fire broke out in the powerhouse of the incline which engulfed the pavilion as well. The west car was at the bottom of the hill, safely away from the blaze. However, the east car was in close proximity to the powerhouse and also caught on fire. The fire burned so hot that the rail system’s steel cables melted. The untethered, burning eastern car shot down the tracks uncontrolled, smashing through the station on Superior Street and crashing to a halt in the railyards of the Union Depot. Amazingly, no one was injured or killed. The pavilion sustained heavy damage from the blaze and was never rebuilt. Following the fire, the incline operated with the still operational western car taking all passengers, now powered by an electric engine. It would take over a decade for the incline to return to two-car service, with operation of two cars resuming in 1912.

Following its closure on Labor Day, September 4, 1939, the incline railway and all its parts were dismantled and sold for scrap, signaling the end of railcar use in the city of Duluth. While the footprint of the incline railway way is largely gone from Duluth, there are some small reminders of what once stood there. The Incline Station Bowling Center stands near where the terminus of the historic incline ended on West Superior Street. Hilltop Park still exists as a city greenspace, grown in by trees. While there may be no site to visit related to the 7th Avenue Incline, its place in Duluth’s history is still remembered to this day. For more information, be sure to check out this article from Zenith City Online and this article from the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia page!

Until next time, happy travels!

Rob Hedburg

Administrative Assistant