The Fenelon Place Elevator has provided thrills with wonderful views of Dubuque for many years. It is referred to as the steepest and shortest railway in the United States and possibly the world. The elevator has a length of 296 feet to carry passengers 189 feet. In 1955 it was stated that the elevator had carried more than 7 million people since its opening. The incline in places is nearly seventy-four degrees. The 286-foot long track has three rails that widen to four to allow the cars to pass each other.
The original lift involved a single open car pulled by hemp rope and steam engine. The two-track system was operated by electricity. The elevator was constructed for Julius K. Graves who was faced with a daily round trip of sixty minutes to reach his hilltop home from downtown and return to work. Originally Graves planned to cut a tunnel up to 100 feet into the bluff. This would allow the elevator to lift vertically. He later gave up this idea and petitioned the city council to construct an elevator after seeing the advantages of incline railways in the Alps of Europe. The petition was granted on June 5, 1882. A one-car model was designed and built by John Bell, a local engineer. Graves' private elevator went into operation on July 25, 1884. The Swiss-style car was moved up and down the hill using hemp ropes, a coal-fired steam engine boiler, and winch. The machine used to lift and lower the car was designed by C. B. Trewin and constructed by the Adams Company.
Nearly two years later, on July 9, 1886, the elevator was destroyed by fire. Remembering that his neighbors had often asked for rides, Graves opened his elevator to all riders for a fare of five cents. On May 25, 1893 the elevator burned again. Accustomed to having the use of the elevator, ten neighbors (each of whom invested $250) formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Company and bought Graves' interest in the system.
In 1893, during a visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, company members discovered a steel cable for the cars to replace the hemp ropes that had been used. A twenty-five horsepower electric motor was manufactured by the Adams Company. A turnstile, a relic of the Exposition, was placed in operation with an automatic counter. The company had three rails installed with a bypass in the center to permit the use of two counterbalanced cars.
One of the original members of the Fenelon Place Elevator Company, C. B. Trewin, gradually bought up eighty shares of stock as the other members lost interest in the enterprise or died. By 1916 he owned the company and in 1916 replaced wooden cars with others made of steel. Ownership of the elevator eventually passed to his daughter, Mrs. Dorothy I. Huntoon. On July 2, 1925 lightening hit the motor's transformer twice and a more powerful motor was purchased in Davenport installed and the elevator reopened for business on July 4th. The same year an intercom system was installed in the cars.
The cars were rebuilt in 1977 by the BRADLEY IRON WORKS, INC. and the original gear drive was replaced with a modern gearbox with a DC motor. Mrs. Donald Huntoon, owner of the Fenelon Place Elevator Company, said the repairs cost more than what the entire bluff elevator originally cost to build. The fare for traveling one way remained a nickel from 1882 until 1962. The fare became ten cents after a fire required costly repairs.
Tourists and residents thrill at the elevator ride and the magnificent view of the city. In 1978, after extensive rebuilding of the vintage 1916 cars and replacing worn teeth on the gears used to raise them, the fare increased to twenty-five cents for adults and fifteen cents for children. Fares for one-way travel in 2008 were posted as fifty cents for adults. As many as 150,000 passengers have been carried annually with an estimated eight million passengers between 1884 and 1964.