Peculiar Pittsburgh

An incline for cars, cookie tables, and the Pittsburgh Left: Answering your Peculiar Pittsburgh questions

What do you want to know?

It's usually not just a cookie table — it's multiple cookie tables.

It's usually not just a cookie table — it's multiple cookie tables.

Courtesy of MichaelWill Photography

From monkey balls to the fire truck design and more, your Peculiar Pittsburgh questions have helped us examine and explain our region.

For the past eight months, readers like you have submitted their queries, and our staff has hunted for answers to questions like:

And we’ll continue to search for answers about the mysteries you bring our way. So keep asking us about Pittsburgh oddities and traditions.

Along the way, we stumbled upon the answers to several of your mysteries while researching previous articles from our archives as well as fellow media outlets. We rounded them up here.

Q: At its peak, how many inclines did Pittsburgh have, and how many could take a car up to Mount Washington?

More than a dozen inclines once dotted Pittsburgh’s hills, 90.5 WESA reported in August, adding that the inclines were first used to move coal. Then, as people moved to the tops of the hills, the cable cars started moving people, too.

“Engineers took on the challenge and in 1870 hundreds of people rode the Monongahela Incline on opening day,” per WESA.

And yes, the inclines did move vehicles, too. One example is the Castle Shannon Incline, which allowed cars to go from East Carson Street to the top of Mount Washington.

Per a February 2017 Post-Gazette article, the Castle Shannon Incline’s entrance on East Carson was between First Street and the Smithfield Street Bridge. On Mount Washington, it ended on Bailey Avenue, west of Haberman Avenue. It operated until 1964.

Learn more about the history here and about the Castle Shannon Incline here.

Q: How about the cookie table at weddings? I don’t remember it so much growing up and I went to plenty of Polish weddings.

The history here is a little messy. Some say it’s a custom brought to Pittsburgh by immigrants. And everybody, from Italians to Greeks to Polish people, claims the tradition as their own.

However, others say it’s a tradition that grew out of the Depression Era and the need to save money on wedding cakes.

Regardless, there’s very little published on the tradition, per an April 2018 article by Rossilynne Culgan in our archives.

However, one thing is clear, according to Lauren Uhl, Heinz History Center’s curator of food & fitness: With the exception of Youngstown, Ohio, it seems to be a uniquely Pittsburgh tradition.

Learn more about cookie tables — including etiquette — here.

Q: Is it true that the glass of the Grand Concourse roof was painted black during WWII to disguise it?

Yes. During World War II, Pittsburgh and the area around it were known as “Victory Valley,” and after Pearl Harbor, the government wanted skylights and other features covered to keep enemy planes in the dark, Pittsburgh City Paper reported in September 2004.

And that included the Grand Concourse, which at the time, was a passenger station for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad.

When restoration started in the 1970s, there was not only paint, but dirt and tar so thick that it took days and 400 cans of Oven-Off to get the skylight was clean, according to City Paper.

Learn more about the Grand Concourse during World War II here.

Q: How did the Pittsburgh left come to be? Why do people do it? Is it legal?

This trio of question about the local traffic custom comes from two readers. And the last part is the easiest part to answer — no, it isn’t legal.

Like many Pittsburgh quirks, it’s embraced as a tradition of the city. The Post-Gazette tried to track down the Pittsburgh Left’s origins in September and found the newspaper’s earliest reference was in a June 1985 column that called the maneuver “pushy.” By 1996, the Pittsburgh Left was dubbed “famous” in a letter to the editor.

But as for why it exists to begin with, a City Paper article from June 2006 noted that many of the city’s streets were designed before cars and offers this justification:

But they also mean that street grids are constricted, with little room for amenities like left-turn-only lanes. The absence of such lanes means drivers have to solve traffic problems on their own. Instead of letting one car at the head of an intersection bottle up traffic behind it, the Pittsburgh Left gives the turning driver a chance to get out of everyone else’s way. In exchange for a few seconds of patience, the Pittsburgh Left allows traffic in both directions to move smoothly for the duration of the signal.

Learn more about the Pittsburgh Left history here and the reason for it here.

Inspired to ask a question? Let us know what you’re wondering about: