Dubuque incline is a historical ride

Fenelon Elevator

Imagine living about two blocks from your office, yet having it take longer than an hour to commute.

If you were banker J.K. Graves in 1800s Dubuque, that’s exactly what it took to go home for lunch and return to work.

Graves lived on a bluff overlooking downtown Dubuque. The city was known as an “hour and half city.” Business shut down at noon, so people could go home for dinner. For Graves, that meant driving his horse-drawn buggy around and up the bluff 30 minutes one way. Then, he’d have to grab a quick lunch and head back down, taking another 30 minutes. That didn’t leave much time for dinner.

If only there was a way the former mayor and state senator could cut that time down.

Well, according the attraction’s brochure, there was.

During his travels across Europe, Graves had seen incline railways. He sought city permission to build himself a railway that would have a cable car to transport him up and down the hill.

cable car tracks

The original cable car was built for Graves’ personal use. It was made of wood and was operated by a coal-fed engine. The railway used two hemp ropes as cables.

He used it for his personal transportation from 1882-84. Then, it burned one night after a fire in the stove spread.

He rebuilt it. He then realized he could some money because he remembered how his neighbors would gather around and watch him ride up and down the steep bluff. He decided to offer public rides for a nickel.

In 1893, the cable car burned again.

Suffering during a recession, Graves couldn’t afford to rebuild the car.

About 10 neighbors formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Company. Graves gave the company the franchise for the right of way for the track, according to the brochure.

Fenelon Elevator Incline

Company representatives traveled to Chicago’s Columbian Expo for ideas on how to improve the system. They ended up using a streetcar motor to run the elevator. They added steel cable to replace the hemp ropes. A turnstile was even added.

Eventually, the company was owned by one person – C.B. Trewin, who bought up people’s stock as they passed away. He owned the elevator company outright by 1912.

With the modernization, the incline lasted until another fire caused damage in 1967. The necessary repairs resulted in the ride increasing to a dime.

The Fenelon/fourth Street elevator was overhauled in 1977, using modern equipment and motor.

Great view from the top

Are we glad Mr. Graves built the incline, and that it has continued through the years.

With its historical significance, the Fenelon Place Elevator Company incline is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The elevator was a few blocks from our hotel, so we took a jaunt over for a ride to the top.

We’ve ridden inclines in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, so any chance we have to ride one, we’ll take it.

The cost hasn’t grown much since the mid-1800s – $3 per person round trip. You can ride one-way, as well, for $1.50. There are steps nearby, so need to rent a horse and buggy and take a 30-minuite ride.

Going up the incline

It’s always fun to sit near the top of the cable car and watch as you move up hill or see the station grow farther away on the ride down. A second cable car moves on a separate set of tracks to help keep the movement balanced.

The view from the top of the incline was the ride. You see all of Dubuque’s classic downtown area – the county courthouse, Mississippi River, bridges and the city’s clock tower.

View of Downtown Dubuque

The courthouse is the only golden-domed courthouse in Iowa. Three buildings have golden domes in the state – the original state capitol in Iowa City, the current state capitol in Des Moines and the Dubuque courthouse.

Gold Dome in Dubuque

We took a self-guided tour around a couple of blocks atop the bluff. It’s a residential area. So, we thought it best to let the neighbors be.

walk around the bluff

The ride down the bluff was relaxing.

The incline is located in the Cable Car Square. It has a few residences and businesses in the area.

Cable Car Square

A coffeehouse décor intrigued us.


A few blocks down the street was the Cathedral Square. It’s home to a Catholic church. We checked out part of the area, while we took a different path back to the hotel.

Cathedral Square

The Fenelon/Fourth Street Elevator incline should be a “must do” when in Dubuque.

For more information on the elevator, please visit www.dbq.com/fenplco/.

Disclaimer: Thanks to the Dubuque CVB for the complimentary ride tickets. However, all opinions and views are ours.