Trip Shot: Dubuque Funicular

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View of Dubuque from the funicular station. photos (c)2017 J.S.Reinitz

What started more than 100 years ago as a way for a man to get home in time to enjoy his lunch is now a landmark.

The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque began when a banker, who lived at the top of the city’s bluffs and worked below, tired of the half-hour buggy ride up and half half-hour ride down that ate into his lunch break. In 1882, he commissioned a rail elevator and had his gardner work the contraption. After awhile neighbors began asking for a lift (or a lower), and the banker began charging 5 cents per ride and eventually handed over the operation.

Today, a century and a few devastating fires later, the elevator (actually a funicular with two cars that uses the weight of the descending car to pull the ascending car) is still going. The ride is about 300 feet with a 200-foot elevation gain.

And the cost isn’t much more than when it started, only $3 round trip. The views of the town and the Mississippi River are worth it.

Our video of the ride is here.



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The first time I consciously heard the word funicular was last week when I watched the DVD of “Grand Budapest Hotel.” In the award-winning Wes Anderson tale, the term was uttered, it was written large on a building in at least one scene, and there were shots of a funicular (or a clever model of one against a matte painting) in action.

Then, one day later, I heard a reporter use the word on a public radio news story about . . . I can’t remember what, probably something happening in Europe. But there it was, a funicular hauling Sylvia Poggioli up a hill smack in the middle of Morning Edition.

It’s not that I didn’t know what they were, I just didn’t know that’s what they were called.

I’m sure I’ve ridden in one before, and I’ve spent a good portion of my life living a short distance from Dubuque, which has a still-operating funicular. Except, in Dubuque they don’t call it a funicular. They call it an elevator, or “the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway.” On the official website, “funicular” can only be found once, buried 10 paragraphs down the history page under at least six “cable cars” and five “elevators.” Although, to be fair, the Dubuque setup wasn’t a proper funicular (using two counterbalanced cars on a single cable) until the 1890s, about 10-years after the original was built.