Infrastructure & Environment

January 2014 Last Look: The World’s Shortest, Steepest Scenic Railway

A way for businessmen to take a mid-day nap in the 1800s, the incline in Dubuque, Iowa, is still used by commuters and sightseers today.
January 2014
 

Billed as the “world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway,” the Fenelon Place Elevator has been a fixture in Dubuque, Iowa, since 1882. It was originally built by banker and former Mayor J.K. Graves, who lived on a bluff high over the city. At that time, businessmen customarily returned home for a midday meal and a nap before going back to work for the rest of the day. But for Graves, even though his home and office were just a few blocks apart, the round-trip carriage ride took nearly an hour. Having seen incline railways on trips to Europe, he successfully petitioned the city for the right to build one of his own.

At first Graves rode up and down alone, but he soon opened the funicular to the public for 5 cents a ride. When fire damaged the elevator in 1893, he could not afford to rebuild; he turned the railway over to a group of neighbors who formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Co. The original steam power was long ago replaced by an electric motor and the hemp rope upgraded to steel cable. The 5-cent fare has given way to $3 for a round trip.

Used daily by commuters and sightseers, the elevator runs from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., from April 1 to Nov. 30. Operator Tee Stejskal says she still meets a few locals who have never taken a ride. “But I can understand if they have a genuine fear of heights.”

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