The railway is 296 feet long and angles up at a breathtaking 106 degrees, with a vertical elevation of 189 feet from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place. There are two cars on the railway that start at opposite ends and pass eachother at the midpoint of the elevator. These cars counterbalance each other and draw their power from the station house engine at the top of the hill.
The railway is actually a funicular railway (also known as an inclined plane or cliff railway), a cable railway in which a cable attached to the railway car moves it up and down a steep slope. These kinds of railways have been around for hundreds of years and are used for moving goods and passengers.
When you reach the top of the railway, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of Dubuque’s historic downtown, the Mississippi River, and three states.
The railway was commissioned by Mr. J. K. Graves, a former mayor and state senator. He didn’t like that it took him half an hour by horse and buggy to traverse the steep distance between his home and his workplace every day. To remedy this, he hired John Bell, a local engineer, to design and build the railway. It was modeled after those used in the Alps.
The elevator was opened to the public for five cents a ride in 1884, after the elevator burned due to a stove fire and was rebuilt. After yet another fire in 1893, Graves wasn’t able to rebuild the elevator. Enough people had come to rely on it for transportation to and from town that they banded together to have it rebuilt yet again. After the final fire in 1962, the fare was raised to ten cents a ride.
The cable cars were completely rebuilt in 1977, and the original 84-year-old gearbox was replaced by a modern one. The movie F.I.S.T. even filmed a movie scene in the elevator.
Rates have gone up a little bit since the original five cent fare, but it’s still pretty reasonable. Adults pay $1.50 one way and $3.00 round trip. Children 5-12 pay $.75 one way and $1.50 round trip, and children under five ride for free.
The ride is definitely worth the trip. The amazing views make it worthwhile, of course, but you can also learn plenty about the history of the elevator when you visit. Make sure to bring a camera to capture all of the amazing sights you'll see.
The Fenelon Place Elevator runs from April 1st to November 30th, from 8am to 10pm. Location: 512 Fenelon Pl., Dubuque, IA. You can park at the top or bottom of the elevator and ride it one-way or round trip.