The Bellevue Incline and Elm Street Steps
The Cincinnati-Clifton Incline Plane, better known as the Bellevue Incline, connected Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine to Ohio Avenue in Clifton Heights. It was touted as “the only direct route to Burnet Woods Park, Zoological Garden, and Clifton.” The Elm Street steps used to run adjacent to the incline from McMicken to Clifton avenues where the steps would terminate and the incline would bridge Clifton Avenue on its way to the summit at what is now Bellevue Hill Park. For many years, the Bellevue House stood at the top of the incline and was a popular destination for dancing and leisure.
Map showing routes of Elm Street steps (red) and Bellevue Incline (blue):
Unless otherwise note, the following images are a credit to CincinnatiViews.net (a wonderful historical resource)
The land next to the Incline was owned by Charles McMicken, a prominent real estate speculator and businessman. He lived in the house seen in the first photograph above. Although having very little education himself, when he died in 1858, he bequeathed $1 million to the city to found a university. From 1875 to 1895 this building was McMicken Hall, University of Cincinnati’s Academic Department. From 1896 to 1917 it became the University’s first medical college, and from 1920 to 1925 it became the Law School. This building can be seen in these cards next to the incline. Commuters often complained about the medical students habit of waving dismembered arms & legs out the windows at the female passengers as the trolleys passed. Next to the school was the Schoenling Brewery where the freezer was used for both cadavers and beer.
Up the Incline: 1905 via Shorpy.com
More about the Bellevue House via Melissa Kramer’s Cincinnati and the incline’s crossing over Clifton Avenue:
This ornate resort that once was perched on the edge of the hill at the end of Ohio Avenue, in what is now Bellevue Hill Park, had a 400-foot-high rotunda, a wrap-around veranda and a crow’s nest view of the city. It is memorialized today with a small bronze plaque and a lovely patch of flowers. Likewise, the stone pier that stands near the sidewalk on Clifton Avenue halfway between the park and the bottom of the hill has been forgotten. Its twin, which stood across the street, is long gone. The two piers once formed a bridge of the Bellevue Incline over Clifton Avenue. The only signage nearby says, “Welcome to Clifton Heights.”
Incline support at W. Clifton Avenue:
So Inclined: 1904 via Shorpy.com:
The image below shows the Ransohoff Overlook at Bellevue Hill Park via The Hillside Trust. The overlook is named after Daniel Ransohoff, a great Cincinnatian. He passed away in June, 1993 and his obituary appeared in the New York Times. OTR-based blog CityKin has a post about him here and read more about him here.
Street view from Bellevue Park with Ransohoff plaque in view:
According to Melissa Kramer’s Cincinnati, the Uptown Parks Revitalization Plan has imagined ways to connect and revivify the hillside parks in the CUF neighborhood. Here’s the plan for Bellevue Park:
The Bellevue Incline was one of five inclines radiating out of the basin and into the hills of Cincinnati. The Elm Street steps are long abandoned but part of a large network of hundreds of steps around the city. Spring in Our Steps is a volunteer driven community effort to reclaim these picturesque and pedestrian-friendly public assets.
In a recent article from the Enquirer, the importance of Spring in Our Steps was made clear:
All this new activity on behalf of the public stairways is good because some of them need help. Cincinnati has cut general maintenance for them out of the budget, and this year has ceased its annual commitment of $225,000-$250,000 in capital improvements toward rebuilding/reopening closed ones.
Sunday from 10am-2pm you can join Spring in Our Steps at its next cleanup. More information available at the facebook event page here.
But what does all this matter? For one thing, Cincinnati’s hills are a major asset to the city. They are interesting, romantic, beautiful, fun to climb, etc. Few cities have such assets. Only San Francisco has more steps than Cincinnati and while Pittsburgh still has two inclines (the Duquesne and the Monogahela), they are separated from downtown by the Steel City’s rivers. No American city can claim a more picturesque settlement than the Queen City. Cincinnati is, after all, the “City on Seven Hills“.
A recent letter to the editor from University of Cincinnati graduate school alumnus Russ Roach of Tulsa, Oklahoma is worth considering:
One of the most exciting discoveries of graduate school was seeing the old prints of the streetcar inclines going up the hills from Downtown. I have never seen anything remotely comparable in any city. They were amazing and breathtaking. If they had the technology 130 years ago, you should use our advancements of today to do similar inclines to the surrounding hilltops. Nothing would better reinvigorate the surrounding neighborhoods and create an eye-opening, state-of-the-art image for Cincinnati.
Sound fanciful? I am sure there were cranky old pessimists in 1870 who thought the same. You either have imagination and thus a future, or you do not.
An article in this week’s Soapbox Cincinnati highlights the strengths of Cincinnati’s park system. The parks became the focus of the article because The New York Times failed to mention the parks in its recent piece about Cincinnati’s growing riverfront. To revisit the Soapbox article with the hillside parks, overlooks and steps in mind is quite remarkable. Today, the city is waking up to the river as development creeps down to the water’s edge. People are surprised that the city spent decades disengaged from the magic of the water. Someday, Cincinnatians will wonder why our backs were turned to the hills too.