The Fenelon Place Elevator claims to be the shortest, and steepest, scenic railroad in the world. The funicular railroad is 296' long and rises 189' from the lower level to the higher level. By definition, a funicular uses two cars that counterbalance each other. There are three rails on the right of way, a center rail is common for both cars. A spot in the center of the right of way, at the midpoint, has four rails so the counterbalanced cars can pass each other.
There has been an elevator here since 1882, when a local banker, J.K, Graves, wanted to shorten his commute time from his home, on top of the bluff, to his bank in downtown Dubuque. His home and the bank were only a couple of blocks apart, but it took Mr. Graves half an hour to navigate his horse and buggy up or down the bluff. He built the elevator so he could go home for lunch, take a nap, and return to the bank in a timely fashion. He found that neighbors were asking for rides, as well!
The railroad has been damaged, or totally destroyed, by fire three different times. In 1884, a fire in the boiler that provided power for the cable car, burned the entire operation. Mr. Graves rebuilt it, opening the new cable car to the public and charging for rides. In 1893, the operation burned again, but in a recession, Mr. Graves was unable to rebuild the railroad himself. Neighbors, now dependent on the elevator, banded together to form a company that rebuilt the railroad as a two-car funicular. After visiting the Worlds Fair in Chicago, the group decided to employ an electric streetcar motor and replaced the old hemp rope with a steel cable. (The old hemp rope burned in the fire, causing the car to crash into the bottom of the railroad.)
In 1961, the elevator was no longer a necessity because of the wide use of automobiles, but a key component of everyday life in Dubuque. A small fire damaged the operator's house, and the repairs resulted in a fare increase to 10¢ for a one-way ride.
The 1978 Sylvester Stallone film, F.I.S.T. was shot with Dubuque as a stand-in for Cleveland, with a scene shot on the Fenelon Place Elevator. In 1984, the funicular underwent a major restoration, including rebuilding the cars and switching out the ancient tug with a modern DC motor and gearbox.
Still privately owned and operated today, the Fenelon Place Elevator is open April 1 through November 30 from 8:00 AM to 10:00PM. The fare is $1.50 per ride (75¢ for children) with an extra 50¢ for a bicycle.