Officials temporarily close Le Mont Restaurant because of landslide danger
Reaction to the tons of boulders and dirt “as wide as a football field” that tumbled down the face of Mt. Washington early Tuesday fell between full-scale alarm and seasonal nonchalance.
“We're always concerned about the hillside,” said Mark McNally, executive manager of the Duquesne Incline.
“It's part of nature. It moves from time to time.”
Just after 4 a.m. Tuesday, a Norfolk Southern freight operator reported a rock slide above West Carson Street near the incline. No one was injured, but residents on Mt. Washington said the slide sounded like an explosion.
City officials closed LeMont, the landmark restaurant that perches on supports over Mt. Washington's steep face and temporarily shut the nearby Duquesne Incline.
An engineering consultant said rain, runoff and perhaps the severe winter combined to loosen clay and shale over an area estimated “as wide as a football field” and extending from below LeMont to just east of the incline.
“When you combine that with heavy rain and runoffs, you have landslides,” Bruce Roth, an engineer with GAI Consultants Inc., said at a news conference with city officials, including Public Safety Director Mike Huss and Public Works Director Mike Gable. “The slide that we're seeing right now is a common occurrence in Western Pennsylvania.”
Huss said he expected trees and rocks to continue to slip throughout the day on Tuesday. Engineers will monitor the site, he said.
“It still is an active situation,” Huss said. “The slide is still occurring.”
Officials acknowledged they're concerned about the integrity of Grandview Avenue — Mt. Washington's main drag that features picturesque views of Pittsburgh's skyline — but there's no evidence that the slide is threatening the road.
“We did not see any obvious signs to take imminent actions to close or evacuate the area,” Roth said.
City building inspectors plan to meet on Wednesday at LeMont with civil engineers to determine whether the restaurant can reopen this week.
LeMont officials did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“There are no signs of any damage to the LeMont Restaurant at this time,” Huss said, adding that an inspection found no cracked windows or walls in the building that would indicate ground movement. “We're erring on the side of caution. We want to get them reopened as soon as we can.”
The Grandview Saloon, between LeMont and the incline, opened for lunch on Tuesday.
“It's business as usual,” said manager Sue Getner, who added that she inspected the hillside behind her restaurant. “I looked over the deck, and nothing had moved. We're fine, thank goodness.”
Roth said that area of Mt. Washington consists of “very weak clay stone” known as “red beds” that are prone to sliding. LeMont reported some rocks fell about two weeks ago.
“There was no way to predict what would occur now based on what occurred two weeks ago,” Roth said.
He said it's possible no further work will be necessary after the cleanup. It's possible that extensive stabilizationefforts could be needed.
During the next month, GAI will test rock and soil samples from the slide area and evaluate that data and the history of slides on Mt. Washington. It will report within two months with recommendations for stabilizing the area, if that's necessary.
Steady rain on Monday night likely triggered the slide, said Monroeville consulting engineer James Hamel.
“It was probably just waiting to happen. You get some heavy rain, and then, it goes,” said Hamel, who studied Mt. Washington's geology in the 1990s as part of a scrubbed plan to build a busway at the base of the landslide-prone hillside.
He found accounts of occasional major landslides around Mt. Washington from 1868 to 1938. One on Christmas Day in 1937 caused a train derailment that killed an engineer and a fireman. Smaller, periodic collapses since have dropped debris.
“Generally, they fall on the railroad tracks,” Hamel said. “That's not to say you couldn't get one that would take a bounce and land on Carson Street or some structure.”
McArdle Roadway, one of the main accesses to Mt. Washington, closed for several months when a Jan. 9, 2012, landslide dumped more than 100 tons of debris on the road. Two smaller landslides closed the road briefly over the ensuing year.
Tuesday's slide blocked eastbound and westbound tracks, forcing Norfolk Southern to reroute its freight trains, spokesman Dave Pidgeon said. There was no timetable for when operations would resume, he said.
Crews worked throughout the day to clear the tracks. Reopening the eastbound tracks was expected to take longer as the tracks shifted under the weight of rock and dirt, Huss said.
“That is a very busy rail line with a lot of commerce,” he said.
McNally and incline officials checked data from more than a dozen sensors, known as tilt meters, that measure ground movement and which are installed on platforms holding the track.
“We had no event,” McNally said. “We had no movement, no shift, no anything.”
Hamel said most landslides on the hill escape attention, typically shifting the ground in unnoticed wooded areas. He could not recall any movement that imperiled buildings atop Mt. Washington, most of which he said are set back from the edge.
Slides on Mt. Washington get more attention than other places because of its prominent location and popularity, said Ilyssa Manspiezer, director of park development and conservation for Mt. Washington Community Development Corp.
“People are definitely aware that hillsides move, and I guess that creates some anxiety,” she said.