Take a ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator

In order to get a nap, he had to create the shortest, steepest railway in the world. 

Yes, that’s correct. The story of the Fenelon Place Elevator, the world’s shortest and steepest railway was created because of the desire to take a 30-minute nap.

Location: 512 Fenelon Place, Dubuque, Iowa 52001

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History of the Fenelon Place Elevator

Back in the 1880’s, it was common for most stores and businesses in Dubuque to close for an hour and a half every day for lunch.   For J.K. Graves this meant traveling by horse and buggy up to the top of the bluff to his home, which took 30 minutes to get home and 30 minutes to get back, leaving him with only 30 minutes for lunch.  But what he really wanted was: 30 minutes for lunch and a 30-minute nap.  Can you blame him? 

His solution came from his travel adventures in Europe, where he had seen cable cars and inclined railways.  He asked the city for permission to build an incline railway and it was granted in 1882. It didn’t take long before others saw the benefit and wanted a ride, and eventually, he started charging 5 cents a ride.  

Inside the cable car looking east towards downtown.

In 1893, the elevator burned down.   Graves was unable to rebuild and surrounding neighbors, who had become dependent on it, formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Company and began the task of rebuilding.  The same year as the fire, they traveled to Chicago to the World’s Columbian Exposition (the very first World’s Fair) to search for new ideas.  (interesting note:  another group from St. Luke’s Church in Dubuque also visited the fair in Chicago, as they searched for ideas for their new church and they ended up with one of the largest collections of Tiffany stained glass windows).   They came back with a streetcar motor, a turnstile, and steel cables for the cars.  It was designed as a funicular, which means there are two cable cars that counterbalance each other.  They pass side by side directly in the middle of the track, otherwise, they are at opposite locations.  

The system has undergone modifications and enhancements over time, including its most recent change from a DC motor to an AC motor back in 2015.  Of course, the price has also gone up from 5 cents a ride, as well.   It’s currently at $4 per person for the round trip. 

Taking a ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator

You can start the ride at either end, although most folks start at the lower level on 4th Street.  At the lower level, there’s a small booth that you step into.  There is no one at this location – but there’s a sign that says to get into the streetcar, then pull the cord, which rings the bell and tells the person at the top that you are ready to be taken to the top. 

Get your cameras ready to record your ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator.

The cable car will start to get tugged and start to move away from the base.  Typically, the doors that face towards the top don’t fully close –  and for me, that adds to the excitement as it gives you a clear view of what’s coming and an opportunity to get some clean-looking photos.  As you pass the middle of the ride, the tracks divide, giving space for the two cable cars to pass right next to each other.  

The views at the top

Once at the top, you’ll have a view of not only Dubuque but also of Illinois and Wisconsin which are just across the river.  They have two observation platforms, one on the south side of the track and another on the north side of the track.   I’d also recommend taking a walk behind the building, along the street at the top – as the doorway might also be open that shows the motors that run the system.  

You can take in the views of the tri-state area from the observation deck.

What do the locals think?

I’ve talked to several locals and there are two possible outcomes –  they love it or they don’t understand.  There really isn’t a hate option.  Some love it because it’s part of Dubuque’s history and it brings in tourists.  Others don’t hate it, but they question it.  They aren’t sure why it’s so popular.  

The counterbalancing cable cars will pass each other directly in the middle.

Why is it so popular? 

It’s completely unique, there’s no other town in the area with anything like it. It’s also quick and relatively cheap. This combo allows it to work for family outings or a date night.   Love it or question it, I’m glad Dubuque keeps it and maintains it.    Yes, you could replace it with a smoother ride, newer more elegant looking cable cars – but it’s the old-style feel that adds to the mystique.   

The neighborhood surrounding the elevator is full of unique shops.

Take a ride at night on the Fenelon Place Elevator

If you have time, also consider taking a ride at night.  When I’ve done it before, I’ve really enjoyed the views of the city at night.  For a photographer buff like me, I’ve loved their observation decks at night,  bring a zoom lens, as its fun to get night time closeups of things like the clock tower, Hotel Julien, the Julien Dubuque Bridge,  Dubuque County Courthouse

Taking a night ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator
In the background is the longest bridge in the state of Iowa, the Julien Dubuque Bridge.

The time I almost dropped my camera lens over the cliff

One of my craziest memories from the Fenelon Place Elevator is when I was photographing from the observation.  I took my camera bag to the bench at the back of the deck, as I wanted to change to a different lens.  I took the lens off, put the caps on it and set it down on the ground.  Then I went to grab the new lens – and then the old lens fell over on its side and started rolling down the observation deck.   I saw it happen, but I was busy getting the new lens attached to the camera and I figured it would stop at the fence along the edge of the deck.  But it didn’t stop.  It rolled right into a gap between the deck floor and the fence and then took a speedy drop down the small patch of grass and headed for the nearby cliff.  I quickly dropped the camera into the bag, and swiftly ran to the fence, placed two hands on the top bar and hurled myself over the fence and down the grass decline towards the bluff.  

This got the immediate attention of the employee working the elevator, who darted out his booth and headed towards me, directing me to step away from the cliff.   He thought it was just a lens cap – and he’s seen many lens caps head towards the cliff.   I had to explain that it wasn’t the lens cap, it was the lens.  The cap costs just a few dollars, the lens is hundreds of dollars.  

The employee then asked me to step back and he would head down the incline to find it – and he did.  When I returned to the observation deck, I thanked him and told him that I wanted to pay him.  He said he couldn’t take any money. I tried again “its a tip”,  he respond no again.  On my last attempt, I said  “please take it  –  and put it in the collection basket when it comes your way on Sunday morning”   and then he accepted. 

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