Exploring the City Steps of Pittsburgh

In the heart of Pittsburgh, a unique urban landscape feature connects the past to the present—the city steps. These stairways, etched into the city’s steep hillsides, have played a crucial role in Pittsburgh’s development. To dive deeper into their history and significance, we chatted via email with Laura Zurowski, Charles Succop and Matthew Jacob, authors of “City Steps of Pittsburgh: A History & Guide,” who have embarked on an inspiring journey to document and share the stories of these iconic structures.

Gaps in Railings
Gaps in the railing

What inspired you to write “City Steps of Pittsburgh: A History & Guide”?

Laura: In 2017, I had recently started recreating Bob Regan’s urban exploration of the city steps with an Instagram-based documentary project called Mis.Steps: Our Missed Connections with Pittsburgh Public Stairways. Bob had written a book about the city steps in the late 1990s, and I used it as a springboard to fuel my writing and Polaroid “portraits” of the stairs.

At the same time, Matt Jacob worked for Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, creating the city’s first digital database of municipal infrastructure assets, such as retaining walls, streetlights, ADA curb cuts, bridges, and city steps. Matthew was tasked with incorporating Regan’s city steps data into that database and photographing current conditions.

Charles had recently been hired into the newly established Pittsburgh City Archives and was embarking on the monumental task of classifying and digitizing 200 years’ worth of municipal records, city council meeting minutes, architectural drawings, and photographs of public works projects that had not been viewed in decades.

Throughout the next five years, Matthew, Charles, and I “knew” one another through our Instagram profiles: I walked the city’s neighborhoods for Mis.Steps, Matt shared historical information about the city steps and mapped trails throughout the city’s greenspaces, and Charles created meticulously researched “slice of life” photos through his Pittsburgh Then and Now account.

In 2021, I realized the time was ripe for creating a new city steps book—Pittsburgh was a very different place from the one Bob Regan had encountered in the late 1990s. Soon after, Matthew and Charles signed on, and our team was born. While each of us could have created this book independently, we believe it is more substantial and compelling because of our collaboration. Still, we must acknowledge that this dream of creating a brand-new Pittsburgh city steps book wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Bob Regan over twenty years ago.

West End
West: Kerr Street, West End

Can you share a particularly fascinating or surprising fact you discovered about Pittsburgh’s city steps during your research?

Laura: Thanks to newly digitized records found in the City Archives, we now have information about when the city started building the public stairways. By 1870, the Road Committee—the city government entity responsible for implementing approved petitions for new steps and repairs—authorized the construction of three flights of steps for Boyd’s Hill (the Bluff neighborhood, also known as Uptown), all connecting the hilltop to Second Avenue down below.

Three years later, following the annexation of Birmingham (today’s South Side), construction of stairs in the South Side Slopes began in earnest, including flights connecting Washington and Josephine Streets (Park Alley), Josephine and Sheridan Streets (Oak Alley), Yard Alley (now known as Yard Way, one of the longest flights in the city), Ninth Street, and Eighth Street to Brownsville Avenue. While the South Side Slopes dominated building efforts, stairs appeared in the Hill District connecting Somers Street and Wylie Avenue in 1875. Nearly every year following brought one or more city ordinances authorizing the construction or repair of city steps.

Although the wooden city steps of the 1800s are long gone, one set, in particular, is worth revisiting. The Indian Trail steps were an impressive feat of engineering. Built by the city in 1905, this flight ran along the side of Coal Hill (Mount Washington) from Carson Street, near the Duquesne Incline, to a point near the intersection of Shaler Street and Grandview Avenue in the Duquesne Heights neighborhood.

This flight was over a mile long with 1,000 steps. Before these stairs were built, workers traveled a footpath that appeared on maps dating back to 1763 (a path likely used generations prior by Native Americans in the region). Despite the nearby Duquesne Incline, workers usually walked to avoid paying the fare. This flight was demolished in 1935. 

North Side
North: Sunday Street, California-Kirkbride

How did you select which steps to feature in your book?

Laura: We wanted people to experience all sections of Pittsburgh, so the book intentionally offers walks in all quadrants: East End, West End, Northside, and Southside.

We also provide a few “best of” lists of individual locations unique because of their length, steepness, or “off-the-beaten-path” qualities. Our approach is that of a trusted friend who takes you to see some of the best features of their favorite neighborhoods: it’s conversational, non-technical, and informative. 

East End
East: Diulus Way, Oakland

What role have Pittsburgh’s city steps played in the city’s history and development?

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pittsburgh’s burgeoning industries depended on many manual laborers and employed a massive influx of immigrants. The only affordable, inhabitable land for the working class was on the hilltops or, in some cases, along the hillsides. In an era before the near-universal adoption of motor vehicles, many residents needed to live within walking distance of their place of employment.

As the area’s population swelled in the late 1800s, so too did the need to transport workers “from the hills to the mills.”‘ Enter the city’s steadily expanding network of public stairways. Many steep-slope residents reached their homes by ascending wooden stairways after a hard day’s work. In the years before municipal water and sewer services, stairs also provided the only access to the community water supply and privy vaults, or outhouses, for many poor and working-class families.

Did you encounter any challenges while researching and writing the book? If so, how did you overcome them?

Laura: Other than putting in the time to research, write, and photograph, the book’s creation process was very smooth. Much of this is attributed to Charles’s comprehensive research using the City Archives and other public sources. Only within the last few years have the public and historians been able to review surviving records that detail city operations. The municipal record collection was instrumental in learning how the city built, repaired and funded its steps throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Indian Trail steps Mt. Washington copy
Indian Trail

Can you discuss the architectural and design aspects of the city steps that stood out to you?

No two flights of Pittsburgh city steps will ever be identical, thanks to the unruly terrain. Still, one fascinating design aspect that many people enjoy discovering is the reason for the many openings in the railings. These openings were intentionally designed and constructed, and at the time of construction (generally the late 1940s), led to a home, or in some cases, an entire alleyway (referred to as a “way” in Pittsburgh) leading to several homes that have long since been demolished. It’s important to remember that the stairs were constructed to transport a city of 700,000 but now exist in a city of 300,000. When walking the stairs in winter, it’s still possible in some places to see the foundations and retaining walls of the homes that once occupied these hillsides.

South Side SLopes
South: St Michael Street, South Side Slopes

How do you hope your book will influence readers’ perspectives on urban exploration and the importance of city steps?

We hope this book inspires more people to get out and explore. While the days of residents walking from “the hills to the mills” have disappeared into the past, the stairs have gained in popularity. They offer an alternate form of public transportation to those seeking it out and connect hikers and cyclists to a growing network of designated trails and bike lanes throughout the city. The stairs, both old and new, are designed to transport people. But, to preserve their relevance in the modern world, they need people to use them and advocate for their maintenance. 

Are there any city steps in Pittsburgh that you consider personal favorites? If so, why?

Laura: I hate to play favorites because they’re all unique and interesting, but Rising Main in Fineview is near the top of my list because it’s one of the longest flights in the city and is part of the nearly forgotten history of the East Street Valley neighborhood. The neighborhood was demolished to build the Parkway North, which displaced nearly a thousand residents.

Matt: I would have to agree with Rising Main as one of my favorite sets of steps. Seeing the sheer scale of the Rising Main steps was part of what inspired me to start photographing Pittsburgh’s city steps and sharing them via the @pghsteps Instagram. Additionally, some of my other favorites include the St. Michael Street in the Southside Slopes, which has fantastic views as well as orphan houses along them; the Louisiana Avenue steps in Beechview, which have an odd construction and park-like location; the Bernd Street Steps in Beltzhoover which have an abandoned payphone on the steps, and finally the S. Dallas Avenue/Edgerton Avenue Steps in Point Breeze which growing up as a kid nearby always felt like a secret shortcut. 

Charles: My favorite flight has to be the 10th Street Steps, which connects Duquesne University to Second Avenue. In addition to its interesting history, this flight offers an incredible panoramic view of the South Side.

The Facebook group “Death Stairs” has become quite popular, with many members posting photos of Pittsburgh’s city steps. What are your thoughts on this community and its impact on the awareness and appreciation of Pittsburgh’s city steps?

Laura: While the Death Stairs Facebook Group is global in scope and has an enormous number of followers, it features lots of photos of Pittsburgh city steps. Some photos accurately represent the current condition, and others are from past decades or historical. It’s certainly a quirky and fun experience. We also enjoy participating in another Facebook group called Pittsburgh City Steps.

Started by local Michael Reddy, the vibe is very positive. People share historical photos and information about closures or dangerous conditions and mobilize people for city steps walks, urban hikes, and other assorted community activities. Most people who have joined the group live in Pittsburgh or call it their home despite living elsewhere.

About the Book 

Title: City Steps of Pittsburgh: A History & Guide
By Laura Zurowski, Charles Succop and Matthew Jacob; Foreword by Bob Regan
Imprint: The History Press
ISBN: 9781467156721
Price: $24.99
Publication date: 07/15/2024

In Pittsburgh, the elevation varies wildly, fluctuating more than six hundred feet from highest to lowest points throughout the area, making it one of the hilliest cities in the United States. Throughout this unruly and physically challenging landscape, the city’s first mass transportation system was built—a steadily expanding network of public stairways, locally referred to as “city steps.” With more than nine hundred unique flights of stairs throughout the city’s ninety neighborhoods, the city steps reflect the history and character of a diverse Pittsburgh. Authors Laura Zurowski, Charles Succop and Matthew Jacob present the history of Pittsburgh’s city steps alongside maps and incredible walking tours that reveal the beauty of the city through its most unique public infrastructure.

About the Authors

Matthew Jacob works for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. Matthew holds a degree in history from Temple University and a master’s degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University. 

Charles Succop has worked in the City of Pittsburgh Archives since 2017 and is the local historian behind the popular @pghthenandnow Instagram account. He graduated from Appalachian State University and the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a Master of Library and Information Science degree. 

Laura Zurowski is a technical writer at the University of Pittsburgh. Since 2017, she has published the blog Mis.Steps: Our Missed Connections with Pittsburgh’s City Steps. Laura graduated from Emerson College and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, where she received a master’s degree in education, planning and social policy.

Purchase the book starting on July 15 at www.arcadiapublishing.com.

Daniel Casciato
Daniel Casciato
Publisher and Editor | writer@danielcasciato.com

Daniel Casciato is a highly accomplished writer, publisher, and product reviewer with 20 years of experience in the industry. He is the proud owner and publisher of Pittsburgh Better Times, a lifestyle magazine that covers a wide range of topics, from fashion and beauty to food and travel.

Daniel helped founded Pittsburgh Better Times in 2010 to help readers discover new and exciting things to do in the Pittsburgh area and beyond. As a publisher and editor, he works hard to bring the latest trends, hidden gems, and must-see attractions, all with a focus on the unique culture and character of the Steel City.

His writing talent is evident from the numerous publications he has written for, including Cleveland Clinic's Health Essentials, Health Union, EMS World, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Providence Journal, and The Tribune-Review. He has also written content for top-notch clients, such as The American Heart Association, Choice Hotels, Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America, Culver's Restaurants, Google Earth, and Southwest Airlines.