Although housing conditions varied widely in the basin, from opulent mansions to squalor, rich, poor, and everyone in between lived and worked within the roughly two by one-and-a-half miles that constitutes the Cincinnati basin until the mid-1870s. An omnibus service to Mt. Auburn was started in 1850, but it was not an effective or efficient means of traversing the hills. The trip to the picturesque summit of Mt. Auburn took roughly two hours from the center of downtown. The bus (a covered horse cart) could only hold 12 people at a time and required four horses to pull it up the hill; and even with the double team the trip from the base to the top of the hill required multiple stops to let the horses catch their breath.
That all started to change when the first incline plane opened at the northern end of Main Street in 1872. The train let riders climb the 275 ft. hill in a mere 90 seconds. The demand for the incline was verified when roughly 6,000 people showed up to use it on its first day of operation. Six-thousand people did not ride the incline because they lived in Mt. Auburn. Extremely few people lived there in 1872, and they were all farmers or extremely wealthy. The vast majority of people who made that maiden voyage travelled up the hill to get out of downtown — just for a few hours. They sought the fresh air at the top of the hill and the panoramic views of the river and the city below. The owners and operators of the incline recognized additional opportunity in these attendance numbers and quickly built a two-story resort house at the top of the hill. Constructed quickly, it was architecturally uninspired, but it managed to open two floors of saloon, restaurant, and ball room with unrivaled views and a public garden by the fall of 1872.
When the Lookout House opened it relied on the novelty of the view and being served by the city’s only incline. Frank Harff, a successful saloon operator who was hired to managed the resort, understood that the novelty would wear off and that the key to long-term success was a variety of entertainment. He brought in world-class orchestras and elaborate fireworks displays.
The popularity of the Main Street Incline and its Lookout House inspired the construction of four more inclines and three more resort houses in the following years. In particular, the Bellevue House, built in Clifton Heights at the top of the Elm Street Incline, and the Highland House, atop the Mt. Adams Incline were built to rival – and outclass – the Lookout House. Unlike their predecessor, both the Bellevue and Highland were architecturally beautiful and complex structures.
Both the Bellevue House and Highland House were also strong competition for booking the best and most audacious entertainment. Both had concerts and huge pyrotechnic displays, but neither stopped there. Plans for the Bellevue House included “a one-hundred pounder Parrott gun, which will be fired at sunrise, noon and sunset every day in the year.” It also sponsored wrestling matches and boxing matches. The Highland House fancied itself a slightly classier establishment, having a reputation for the best orchestral music on the hills, but it was not above theatrics. A crowd gathered there on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1879 to watch an amazing new phenomenon: A hot-air balloon was filled so that the courageous Miss Helen Augusta Thiers could descend into the air, cross the river, and land in Campbell County. To make things more interesting, she took along “Little Daisey Horton, aged eleven years….[who] seemed to enjoy the prospect rather than to be alarmed, and promptly took her place in the basket by the side of Miss Thiers.” For those who found the balloon insufficiently compelling entertainment: “The wire-walking performances of Mons. Charest and Madame Tululu, in the afternoon and evening, were remarkable for extreme daring, closing by Mons. Charest (blindfolded) carrying the Madame on his shoulders, and walking the wire forward and backward.”
After both the Bellevue House and Highland House opened in 1876, the Lookout House stepped up its game. In June 1877, they shipped in a white whale from the East Coast, brought by train in a 168,000 gallon tank. The conditions were inhumane. By early July their ad promoting the whale exhibit told Cincinnatians to “see it today, for tomorrow it may be dead.” The ad told the truth. The whale was dead a few days later. After the whale incident, the Lookout House added an expanded promenade and a large theater.
Beer did not build the incline planes, but it played a huge role in making them happen. Private companies built the inclines as for-profit ventures. This meant that they needed adequate ridership to justify their construction and to keep them open. There was a catch-22 in these ventures. While many of the backers of the inclines also invested in hilltop real estate development, you could not sell houses that were virtually impossible to get to, and you could not run a profitable incline until you had enough hilltop residents commuting on it to justify its costs. The hilltop resorts helped bridge this gap. Tens-of-thousands of people who did not live in Mt. Auburn, Mt. Adams or Clifton Heights took the inclines weekly to get to the Lookout House, Highland House and Bellevue House.
Although there was more to do at the hilltop resorts than consume German-style lagers, alcohol sales were critical to the financial survival of the hilltop houses. Most of the entertainment – orchestral concerts, firework displays, sporting competitions etc., etc. – were free. The entertainment was just an inducement to buy booze. The Bellevue House considered any day that they sold at least 100 kegs of beer to be a good day, and they often went through more than that. The Price Hill House was the only one that refused to sell alcohol because its backer, General Price, was an evangelical who considered drinking a sin. However, the financial necessity of beer sales became apparent and beer started flowing freely at the Price Hill House as well (causing its nickname “Buttermilk Hill” to wane with time.)
The most festive and prosperous days at the hilltop resorts were Sundays. It was illegal to sell alcohol on Sunday’s throughout the State of Ohio from 1831 until Prohibition went into effect in the state on May 27, 1919. Cincinnati had a long, colorful history of largely ignoring the Sunday closing laws, and complaints about noise from the hilltop resorts were simply ignored by city officials for the first couple of decades that they operated. In fact, local policemen’s and political party picnics were on the list of beer-swilling events that took place on Sundays. That changed in the Spring of 1882. Bowing to pressure from the “Law and Order organization,” the Mayor issued an order on April 23, 1882 calling for strict enforcement of the Sunday closing laws. Three days later, a warrant was sworn out for David Billigheimer, the manager of the Bellevue House. Billigheimer took an aggressive approach to defending the charges, but his warrant was one of 30 issued on the same day in a moment in Cincinnati history when the champions of the Sunday closing laws had the upper hand. Frank Harff, manager of the Highland House, joined Billigheimer in court on May 8th, but took a different course. While Billigheimer was seeking an additional continuance (and his lawyer was vowing to change the law), Harff “[t]o the surprise of every body….pleaded guilty to the charge of violating the provisions of the Smith Sunday Law” and said that he “would faithfully promise to live up to the very letter of the law hereafter.”
He did, but the end of Sunday sales brought the end to the hilltop resorts. Business declined rapidly. They closed, were shuddered, and fell into disrepair. On March 15, 1894, the Enquirer reported the final demise of the Lookout House. “No attention was ever paid” to it after the beer hall and opera house were closed. Kids broke out the windows. “Thieves stole all the lead pipe” and the building inspector declared it “unsafe and ordered it pulled down.” Both City and private coffers were spared the cost of demolition when the vacant building burned to the ground. Firemen contained their work to protecting adjacent structures and put no effort into saving it. The property loss was “only about $3,000 owing to the dilapidated condition of the building.”
When the Highland House opened in December 1876, it was heralded “in all its appointments, [as] the most complete of our hilltop resorts.” It enjoyed such a high standing in Cincinnati society that President Hayes attended at concert there in the summer of 1879, but those days were long-gone a few years after the Smith Sunday Law took effect. On March 19, 1896, the Enquirer reported a fire at the hilltop resort. The building that the newspaper mourned as once being “one of the landmarks of the city” was partly destroyed by a mysterious conflagration. The rest was to be demolished. It was vacant and the building inspector had declared it unsafe.
The Price Hill House joined suit and burned to the ground in 1899. The demise of the Bellevue House was less dramatic. It was slowly dismantled.
By the time the hilltop resorts closed, enough people had moved to the hilltops that the inclines could survive on ridership without the subsidy of alcohol sales. The Main Street Incline closed in 1898 and Fairview in 1923, but both suffered from management and mechanical problems. Bellevue, which had a problem with erosion, was demolished in 1926. Price Hill closed in 1943, and Mt. Adams was the last to go in 1948.
There is nothing left of the hilltop resorts today, no direct physical legacy, but their impact on Cincinnati still looms large. The incline planes radically transformed Cincinnati. Before they were built, living on the hilltops surrounding the basin was only a practical option for farmers or the very rich; but by 1890 it was widely accepted that all future residential development in the city would occur on the hilltops and the basin would be relegated to industry and business. That never happened completely, but the growth, development and vision of the city did follow this basic vision for roughly 100 years. Mt. Auburn, Clifton Heights, Walnut Hills, Clifton and Price Hill were all made possible by the inclines. The inclines were feasible because of the hilltop resorts, and they were profitable for one reason above all – beer.