Members of my family wait in line to ride the Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque, Iowa, during a recent weekend spent touring the area. One of the cars ascends the track as anoth- er comes down, transporting people from the “bottom” of Dubuque to the “top.”
Members of my family wait in line to ride the Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque, Iowa, during a recent weekend spent touring the area. One of the cars ascends the track as anoth- er comes down, transporting people from the “bottom” of Dubuque to the “top.”
When we were planning our family’s long weekend in Dubuque, celebrating Mom and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, I vowed I would try to “go with the flow.”
There are certain things that cause me some anxiety - namely bridges, heights and tight spaces. So, when my sister found the Historic Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque and suggested we take a ride, I was a bit apprehensive. Going up the side of a cliff in a tight little elevator car included over- coming two of my three most- dreaded situations!
I had to admit, however, that the little elevator — also described as the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway —is an ingenius invention.
Built in the late 1800s, it was designed to allow residents who lived on top of the bluffs around Dubuque to travel to their jobs in the lower, downtown area of the city.
The brochure for the small tourist attraction describes its history.
Mr. J. K. Graves, a former mayor, devised the idea to shorten his lunch hour. He spent 30 min- utes driving his horse and buggy around the bluff to get to his home on the top of the bluff and another 30 minutes to return downtown, even though his bank was only two and a half blocks away.
You see, Mr. Graves liked to take 30 minutes for his meal and then enjoy a 30-minute nap, but this was impossible because of the long buggy ride.
As a traveler he had seen incline railways in Europe and decided that a cable car would solve his problem. John Bell, a local engi- neer, was hired to design and to build a one-car cable modeled after those in the Alps.
The original cable car, which was built for Mr. Graves' private use, had a plain wood building, that housed a coal-fired steam engine boiler and winch. A wood- en Swiss-style car was hauled up and down on two rails by a hemp
rope. Mr. Graves' cable car operated
for the first time on July 25, 1882. After that, he had his gardener let him down in the morning, bring him up at noon, down after dinner and nap, and up again at the end of the work day. Before long, the neighbors began meeting him at the elevator asking for rides.
On July 19, 1884, the elevator burned when the fire that was banked in the stove for the night was blown alive. After Mr. Graves rebuilt the elevator, he remem- bered how his neighbors showed up when he used the cable car and he decided to open it to the public. He charged five cents a ride.
The elevator burned again in 1893. Because there was a reces- sion Mr. Graves could not afford to rebuild the cable car. The neigh- bors had come to depend on the elevator to get them to work, to church, to school, and to the mar- ket.
Ten neighbors banded together and formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Co. They devised a new design which involved a streetcar motor to run the elevator, the turn- stile, and steel cable for the cars. They had remembered that each time the elevator house burned, the fire also burned through the hemp rope that held the car and sent it crashing down the hill destroying it and the little house at the bottom. So, in turn, they installed three rails with a fourth bypass in the middle to allow for the operation of two counterbal- anced cars.
There was another fire in 1962.
That time, an electrical fire between the ceiling of the opera- tor's room and an apartment upstairs brought the realization that the price had to go up. And it did to 10 cents a ride.
In 1977, the cable cars were completely rebuilt. After 84 years, the original gear drive was re- placed by a modern gear box with a motor.
So, when we arrived at the site and I saw the old cars and the steep incline, I decided I would wait on a bench while the rest of my family took the ride up the cliff.
However, as they waited in line and I watched car after car leave the little “station” at the bottom and safely return, my courage began to build.
With 11 of us waiting to go up, we had to divide into two groups. Going up was actually fun, as I watched the other car descend as ours ascended the cliff.
Once we reached the top, we departed the car and were able to look over the city of Dubuque and the Mississippi River. It was a stunning view.
While I appreciated the over- look, I was still a bit nervous about the height and never did stand too close to the railing of the deck!
As we lined up to get back into the elevator car, I have to admit I had to fight my anxiety once again as I looked down the incline.
The descending trip was not as enjoyable as the first part, but as long as I didn’t look out the lower window, I was doing OK. I also had my nephew’s support as he let me hold his hand for reassurance.
A short three minutes later the trip was over with a jolting “land- ing,” but I had survived.
I was glad I had gathered enough courage to overcome my anxiety so I could enjoy this expe- rience with my family. It was just a fun thing to do in a unique little invention.
If you find yourself in Dubuque, The Fenelon Place Elevator is a fun stop. It takes less than an hour and it does take you to an amazing platform where you can see the lovely river valley.
For those of you who may share some of my anxiety about heights and small spaces, I want to reas- sure you that if I survived, I am pretty sure you will too!
Next week, I’ll tell you about our visit to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.