Snail's Postcard Post

The Fenelon Place Elevator


This charming funicular is known as both the Fenelon Place Elevator and the Fourth Street Elevator, as Fenelon Place is the street at the top, and Fourth Street is at the bottom. It is generally considered the shortest and steepest scenic railway, with a 296-foot track at 106 degrees!    

The Fenelon Place Elevator website places its origin in the context of 1880’s Dubuque–an “hour and a half town,” where work stopped at noon and started again at 1:30, allowing people to have lunch at home (or “dinner,” as it was called then, modern dinner being “supper”).

One of those hour and a half Dubuqueans was Julius K. Graves, a classic industrial mogul-turned-politician of the era. He was president of banks, railroads, and Dubuque’s first gas company, and by 1881, a Senator.

Gravesfrom Encyclopedia Dubuque

Mr. Graves lived on the bluff of Fenelon Place, because rich folks have to live up high, right? But his bank was down on Fourth Street. It was a half-hour horse and buggy commute around the bluff. To return home for “dinner” then head back to work meant a half-hour lunch but no time for his desired half-hour nap.

590px-JkgravesJulius K. Graves house, since demolished.
Photo from the State Historical Society of Iowa

So Graves commissioned a single wooden cable car like those in the Swiss Alps, which began operation in 1882. It was powered by a coal-fired steam engine boiler and hemp rope on a winch, operated four times a day by Graves’ gardner.        

One night in 1884, the banked coals in the engine stove got blown to life and the senator’s personal railroad burned. He rebuilt, and perhaps for karmic reasons, now allowed others to ride, charging five cents (as it says on the roof of the operator house in the postcard). 

The whole operation burned again in 1893. Due to a recession, Mr. Graves could not afford to rebuild this time. But his neighbors had come to depend on the cable car. So ten of them banded together to form the Fenelon Place Elevator Company, and travelled to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago to learn about new designs. They brought back a streetcar motor, a turnstile, and steel cable, and set to laying four rails on which two cars could pass, making it into a funicular (balanced) line.

In 1897, a real estate abstractor named Clifton Baker Trewin built a house close to the Fenelon Place Elevator, and bought stock in the company. Trewin was only in his thirties, and he remained in Dubuque the rest of his life, so as the original ten shareholders died or moved away, it became customary for him to buy their stock. By 1912, the abstractor owned it all!

Trewin from Encyclopedia Dubuque    

Trewin added garages and a second story to the operator house that became a clubhouse for local guys to smoke and play cards. He ran the railroad till his death in 1940. 

But the Fenelon Place Elevator continued. It experienced its third fire in 1962, an electrical fire between floors of the operator house. Repairs prompted a fare raise to ten cents. But the Columbia Exposition streetcar motor held out, and wasn’t replaced until 1977. The modern gearbox and motor keep it running from April through November each year.


This is my first Iowa postcard, which brings me closer to having all 50 U.S. states represented in my collection. Here are the states I still need:

North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island

If you live in or visit any of these places, you can help! Send a postcard to:

Allison Strauss
3370 Glendale Blvd. Box 613
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Include your return address, and I’ll send you a postcard in thanks!

This entry was published on April 27, 2016 at 7:50 pm. It’s filed under Americana, U.S.A. and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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