Monday, August 16, 2010

The Little Funicular That Could

Once upon a time, a long time ago (1882) in a far-away land called "Dubuque, Iowa" there lived a Banker by the name of J.K. Graves.

"Dubuque" was a town with two faces -- downtown was flat land; mansions sat on the bluffs above. The Banker worked downtown and lived in a mansion far above the city. It was a custom at that time for all workers to take an hour and a half for lunch. But Banker was being cheated of his time because he had to drive his buggy for half an hour to get to his house and another half hour back to his office. He was a frustrated man.

So the Banker decided to do something about this situation. And he did. He hired a local engineer who built him a funicular railway. The cable car had a coal-fired steam engine and a winch. The railcar was lowered and pulled up again on the two rails by a hemp rope.

The Banker's gardener would let him down in the morning, pull him up for lunch, send him back down until quitting time and then haul him back up.

But on July 19, 1884, barely two years after it had been completed, the boiler exploded! Undaunted, the Banker built it all over again and began charging a small fee for rides. (Hopefully he also gave the poor gardener who actually did all the work a raise. But bankers...probably not.)

But in 1893, disaster struck again! The elevator burned. There was a recession on and the Banker couldn't afford to rebuild it by himself. Ten of his neighbors on the bluff joined together and formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Company (a name that was very nearly longer than the tracks themselves - 296 ft. long.)

The Chicago World's Fair was running in 1893, so the group went there to see how to improve their funicular. They bought a streetcar motor to run the elevator, a turnstile for the paying customers and steel cables (the hemp ropes kept burning up.)

Eventually Mr. C. B. Trewin became the sole stockholder; the others having died or moved away. He added a pair of garages and a second floor hideaway for himself and his cronies. They could smoke cigars and play cards unmolested by nagging wives.

1962, there was yet another fire but this one damaged only a part of the operator's house. Coincidentally or not, fares went up to 10 cents a ride.

In 1977, the cars were completely rebuilt and the 84-year-old gearbox was replaced by a more modern one.

Today it's largely a tourist attraction. A roundtrip ticket now costs $2 and there are observations decks - 189 ft. up -- that give views of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. It runs from April 1st to November 30th and is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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