Railway not inclined to be a target


This quaint Mississippi River city divided by limestone bluffs seems quiet enough, with stately Victorian homes, ornate 19th century commercial buildings and a graceful Gothic Revival cathedral. But even here, where Santa hitches a ride on what may be the steepest, shortest railway in the world, you can’t be too careful.

Much of Dubuque is on the National Register of Historic Places. That includes the Fenelon Place Elevator, an incline railway spanning just 296 feet -- 2 feet shorter than Angel’s Flight on L.A.’s Bunker Hill. Dating from 1882, the Iowa funicular has been in the same family since 1912.

But this year made history, manager Amy Schadle said, when the Transportation Security Administration came calling. Four inspectors arrived in black vehicles to seek out security threats.


“They were so surprised when I showed up on their list,” she said, but “if it’s on their list, they have to inspect it.”

The TSA isn’t just for airports, the agency says.

“Recent media reports about missing rail spikes on a railroad in Illinois demonstrate the critical need for protecting the rail system,” its website says.

“TSA plays an important role in securing our railroads and conducts inspections and investigations to prevent attacks, share best practices and solve problems.”

That applies to Fenelon Place, said Jean Tiffany, one of the cable-car operators. “We are a railroad. We’re a form of transportation.”

Actually, Schadle said, the insurance company classifies it as an amusement. Most riders are tourists.

Also known as the Fourth Street Elevator, the railway links Fourth Street to Fenelon Place on top. Encyclopedia Dubuque pegs the incline at nearly 74 degrees in some places.

TSA inspectors spent about an hour that August day crawling around the hillside, taking photos and laughing, Schadle said.

“The young ones rode it down and walked around the shops. It was a beautiful day. This was kind of like a break for them,” she said.

So Fenelon Place is safe and secure.

But Schadle, 61, who has been responsible for it since 1983, already knew that. She lives in the house next door, built by her great-grandfather, C.B. Trewin, who became sole owner of the funicular nearly 100 years ago.

Trewin didn’t conceive it, however. That was J.K. Graves, who lived atop the bluffs and worked in the flats below. A Fenelon Place history says he needed a quick way to get home for the midday meal, known as dinner.

The incline railway made its inaugural trip on July 25, 1882.

It burned down within two years, but Graves rebuilt and opened it to the public, charging 5 cents.

In 1893, fire destroyed it again. Ten neighbors, including Trewin, formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Co. They went to Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition to look for the latest technology and returned with a streetcar motor, steel cable to support the cars -- replacing flammable hemp rope -- and a turnstile.

Trewin gradually bought out the others and, in 1912, became sole stockholder, Schadle said. The price of a ride remained a nickel until 1963. These days, it’s $1.

Santa rides free, of course.

“The day after Thanksgiving is when Santa goes down the elevator and lights all our Christmas lights,” Schadle said. Then he listens to the children’s wish lists.

The funicular closes for winter at the end of this month.

Before the motorcar era, a vertical city like Dubuque needed more than one shortcut up the bluffs.

Another private incline railway opened about a mile away, at West 11th Street, in 1883. It too became public, but it went out of business in 1927. Today, picturesque public stairs ascend through the railway’s limestone arch.

Dubuque had 25 separate public stairways in the early 20th century. Most have vanished.

But the view on top is as spectacular as ever, with Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Mississippi spread out below. That’s the reason most people ride today.

That, and romance. Each year, one or two couples get married on the view decks.

“Sometimes they tell us [they’re coming], and sometimes they just show up,” Schadle said.

Much of the funicular’s machinery has been modernized since the 19th century. But not everything.

“The turnstile is still used,” Tiffany said. “Just think of all those sticky hands all those years.”

Actually, some teary, terrified passengers crawl under the turnstile when they reach the top. Turns out, Tiffany said, “they’re scared of heights.”