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OKI Wanna Know: Why does Cincinnati have so many public stairways?

The Main Street steps, looking down from Mount Auburn towards Downtown in mid-April. Trees are starting to turn green, and when they do the view of Downtown will be obscured.
Bill Rinehart
Cincinnati's longest public stairway, the Main Street steps, as viewed from the top, in Mount Auburn.

You might have a question about the area that sticks in your craw. And maybe it's not a serious, or deep question, but it nags at you just the same. That's where OKI Wanna Know comes in. We try to find the answers for you. This week, WVXU's Bill Rinehart steps up to another challenging query.

Lauren Young of Wyoming moved to Cincinnati from Boston about 18 years ago. Something jumped out at her right away: Staircases leading up the different hillsides around the city.

"They're all around and I was just curious because I've never really encountered anything like that in all the places I've lived," she says. "I knew about the incline of course historically being in Cincinnati, but I didn't know if the steps were kind of related to that; if that was a way to keep people off the streets so they wouldn't get run over by horse and buggies."

There is a connection to the inclines, according to Christian Huelsman. He's the founder and executive director of Spring in Our Steps, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and improving public walkways, including the steps.

The inclines were motorized trams that climbed hills surrounding the basin. There were five, going up Mt. Adams, Mt. Auburn, Price Hill and to what are now Fairview and Bellevue parks. They operated between 1864 and 1948.

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Huelsman says in many cases, the inclines came after the stairways.

"There were some stairways such as the Ohio Avenue steps, the Elm Street steps, that sort of took a path just offset from the incline path. In Price Hill, it was a little more complicated. There was a series of three or four stairways that led from State Avenue up to Maryland. Then you would take Maryland Avenue up to what we now know as the Incline District."

Huelsman says steps on the west side of Mt. Adams were almost underneath the incline tracks.

"People would take the stairs down to Findlay Market, or to get their shoe repairs, or to get other errands run. And then they would take the incline back up," he explains. "We have these public stairways largely in part because there was no other way for people to get up the hills prior to the advent of the automobile."

Huelsman says walking up the street was laborious, and dirty. Horse drawn buggies were slow. He says the first steps up the hills were like the first sidewalks: made from wood.

"Wooden stairways typically were converted to concrete risers around the 1930s. Around the early 20th century, those concrete stairways sometimes took the form of precast risers. There was an article in the 1930s where the city prided itself on having this modular, singular risers that could be swapped in and out for easy maintenance."

Huelsman says the Main Street steps from Over-the-Rhine to Mt. Auburn were the first to be replaced with concrete.

"In fact that site is special for three different reasons: it was the site of the very first incline railway in Cincinnati; it was the very first concrete public stairway in Cincinnati; and it's also the longest public stairway in Cincinnati with 350 risers."

Many sets are just a few dozen steps. In total, there are 399 sets of steps around Cincinnati, but there used to be more. Some have been closed because of community requests. Others have been replaced with ramps.

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Huelsman says stairway funding over the years has been inconsistent.

"And that inconsistency changes the way that those stairs are repaired and maintained," he says. "So, turning them into a ramp rather than having them as stairs puts them, that connection, back into productive use. We've lost a few but we haven't lost the connections necessarily."

And that's where Spring in Our Steps comes in. Huelsman says the group was formed when a bunch of friends decided to clean up some walkways. "Shoveling the muck and the trash and the overgrowth off our beautiful brick and stone pavers in our alleys, and we expanded that to public stairways, hosting almost 200 cleanups since 2012."

In addition to preservation, Huelsman says Spring in Our Steps also hosts social events, and works to put signs and art on the stairs. He says they're worth saving, if for nothing else, the views.

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"It is very much Cincinnati at its core. They've outlasted many of the buildings along streets in our neighborhoods. I think they're very important for keeping us connected to our history, as well as understanding how people have navigated the city for well over 150 years."

Huelsman says not a lot of cities have public stairways. But some do. Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Los Angeles all have several hundred.

If you have a question that's been staring you in the face, take the next step, and ask OKI Wanna Know by filling out the form below.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.