The one and only time he met (then) Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl, this future citizen-journalist knew it was a prime opportunity. “What are you doing to save the Rising Main Way steps?” was the sum total of my interrogation. (There was a rumor at the time that Rising Main was slated for demolition.) I got a non-committal response: “I thought those were getting fixed-up?”
Sure: public education and jobs and keeping crime down and paving the streets are all important things, but The Orbit will argue all day that the city steps (in general) and Rising Main Way (in particular) are a historical and cultural treasure that should be maintained and protected the way we preserve the Fort Pitt Blockhouse or Pitt’s little log cabin.
In the world of city steps, Rising Main Way is the big Kahuna, the alpha and the omega, the most colorful single crayon in the box. At 371 steps, Rising Main is not just the longest stretch of city steps in Pittsburgh, it is among the longest sets of community steps in the country. To put it in perspective, it’s something on the order of a fifteen to eighteen-story building, built straight up a steep hillside, and now totally surrounded by nature. And it’s less than two miles from the center of downtown Pittsburgh.
Getting there: There are a couple different ways to approach the Rising Main steps. Probably best for the first-timer is to drive/ride to the very end of Howard Street (off North Avenue, North Side), park/lock up anywhere and plan to just do an up-and-back. It will be plenty.
That said, there are a ton of terrific steps throughout Fineview and a lot of great things to see when you’re up there, so the more adventurous could plan one of many possible longer routes around. The Orbit will most certainly be back to describe some of these possible journeys.
One of the fascinating things about any step hike is the amateur archeological survey one inevitably ends up on. At one time there were dozens of properties that lined the hillsides of both Rising Main and the shorter Toboggan Street. Today maybe eight houses still stand, and only a few of these appear to be occupied.
Along the way up, you’ll see plenty of evidence of these former homes: if their sandstone foundations and crumbling walkways don’t give them away there are obvious breaks in the step railing that show where there was an entrance point from the steps to a property. Some of these inevitably become hobo camps or teen drinking hangouts. If you’re lucky, there’s evidence of witchcraft.
That houses were only accessible by the steps is certainly not unusual–you still see many of these around. But the thought of being half-way up or down this particular incline, needing to haul your groceries the equivalent of, say, eight or ten stories to your front door, is pretty amazing. It’s romantic to think of the houses built in this environment, but the reality would certainly be challenging. It’s no surprise that few of these homes remain.
The original purpose of the steps was of course a means of commuter travel from the many high hills (where people lived) to the valleys and flats along the river (where they worked, shopped, prayed, and played). Some of the steps still serve this purpose, but Rising Main certainly does not. Plenty of people live in the Fineview neighborhood (at the top of the hill), but there’s really nothing to walk down to anymore.
The project that built I-279 in the mid-1970s ran right through the industrial and commercial heart of the valley that separates Spring Hill and Reserve Township (on the east) from Fineview and Observatory Hill (on the west). The constant drone of rushing traffic never lets you forget it. The full run of houses that used to line Howard Street (at the base of the hill) have been long demolished (though again, many foundations remain), so there aren’t even any people to visit. [But The Orbit will put in a pitch to visit Pittsburgh’s finest piece of public art while you’re there.]
I’ve dragged a lot of out-of-town guests up the steps–and some of them don’t let me forget it! But if I were visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, I’d take a step hike over a trip to the museum, or a ball game, or whatever it is that most people do when they travel. Take The Orbit‘s advice: corral your guests and get their whining-ass kiesters up the steps–they’ll thank you for it later.
13 thoughts on “Step Beat: Rising Main, The Longest Steps”
I can remember vividly the steps on Rising Main when that area was part of a bustling neighborhood. I’m talking about the early to mid 50’s. The lower part of the street from the pumping station up to Tobogan St. is where we used to hang out most, playing “gumball” (you yinzers know what I’m talking about) in the courtyard of the pumping station. We also wore out multiple rear tires on our bikes by riding down the street that bordered on the pumping station, turning into the courtyard of the pumping station and skidding to a halt on the huge iron plate that was in front of the sand and gravel pits. Another source of fun was going down that same Hill on the steel-wheeled skates that clamped on to your shoes. That took a combination of skill, stupidity, courage and a total lack of common sense. But we were Norsiders and that’s what Norsiders did. No reasoning or intelligence was involved. It just looked and sounded like fun. A few years ago, I went back to the ‘BURGH for a visit and I drove through the now empty neighborhood where I grew up. I took a good, long look up Rising Main and marveled that I’m still alive after having done all the craziness when I was growing up.
I walked a lot of the steps on the North Side , using the Vinial steps often, going to and from my high school, North Catholic and also visiting a girlfriend, who lived on Goettman St. I also used those steps to get to work as a lifeguard at the Cowley Recreation Center for two years. Needless to say, I was in pretty good shape back then.
Thanks for sharing, Paul–those are beautiful memories.
I took my roomy to the top of the hill after a long walk from James street off East Ohio…kept telling him it would be worth the walk. He was in shock at the beauty of Toboggan street, in the stillness of the night with the sound of traffic droning from i279… we walked up to the now defunt and overgrown homes at the very end of the street, how eerie it was to see them still illuminated by one faithful streetlight. i couldnt help but wonder what it would feel like to have lived on that street and return decades later to see it as it is now. Im going to take those steps on a regular basis now, it’s so incredibly beautiful, thank you for sharing your story here in the comments…I knew someone would have a story to tell about it!
I came upon this page and am committed to climbing the Rising Main steps tomorrow, rain or shine. Thank you Pittsburgh Orbit for this well-written piece, and to Paul McGrain for painting such a vivid portrait of life there in the 1950s.
Larry: How did it go?
I first did the Rising Main steps, which was a good workout. Parts of it are not going to last a whole lot longer if they don’t receive some TLC. We took our time walking back down and gave a good look at the old houses and remnants of others. A couple would be great places to traumatize someone around Halloween. At the bottom of the steps, it looks like someone is investing in at least two places there, as one appears almost finished rehabbing and another apparently underway. That might end up being a nice, secluded little enclave someday. If I was a real estate investor I’d be checking out availability of property from Toboggan to the end of Howard.
From there I was ready for more, so I schlepped down to the Southside and did the steps starting at the bottom of 18th street. Rising Main may have the most steps (in one stretch), but it seemed that the two sets of steps from 18th to St. Paul Monastery combined would add up to more than 371 steps. Or at least seemed like it at that point. Either way, I plan on doing both again.
It was a 70 degree day in January, how much better could it have gone? Rising Main was as cool as presented Pittsburgh Orbit. Thanks for being a reliable resource,
Great steps scene report, Larry! It’s great when people get out to enjoy them as much as we do.
This is fantastic. The steps would take you close to the old WPXI studios on Television Hill.