OUR TOWN: Dubuque's 4th Street Elevator offers breathtaking sights, easy ride up or down a steep hill

Published: Jun. 9, 2016 at 5:20 PM CDT
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If you're looking for a quick way to scale one of Dubuque's steepest hills, consider hopping into the Fenelon Place Elevator - or 4th Street Elevator, as the locals call it.

It's considered the world's shortest, steepest railway, its first iteration built by former Dubuque mayor J.K. Graves. Current owner and general manager Amy Schadle said Graves lived at the top of the hill, but worked at the bottom.

"It'd take him a half hour for his horse and carriage to come up, half hour for his big dinner of the day and then a half hour to go back," said Schadle, who explained that didn't leave Graves enough time for his afternoon naps. Taking inspiration from a trip to Europe, he decided to build a cable car in 1882.

"Five minutes he was at his bank, five minutes he was home, plenty of time for his nap, and to get back down to his bank," Schadle explained.

Eventually, Schadle said Graves' neighbors came to rely on the elevator. "He started charging neighbors. It was a whole nickel."

When it burned for the first time in 1884, he quickly rebuilt it, but it caught fire again during a recession in 1893. This time, Graves needed help to bring it back from the ashes.

"So, he sold the franchise to ten neighbors who had come to rely on it," said Schadle. "My great grandfather, C.B. Trewin, was one of those neighbors."

It's been in Schadle's family ever since. Now, she says both locals and tourists come to enjoy the breathtaking sights at the top, and marvel at the incredibly steep angle of the ride - about 106 degrees.

"They're kind of amazed Iowa isn't flat," Schadle said, "but they like it. They come from all over the world."

No thanks to inflation, it's no longer a nickel to step aboard, but it's still pretty cheap - $1.50 one-way or $3 for a round-trip, an additional $2 if you want to bring your bike.