Iowa road trip

Hey L.A., looks like Fenelon Place Dubuque beats Angels Flight for shorter incline railway

Type “shortest railway” in Google and a page of articles comes up on Angels Flight, a 298 feet funicular in downtown Los Angeles. Type “shortest scenic railway” and the search returns show Fenelon Place Elevator Company, a 296 feet long funicular railway in Dubuque, Iowa. Both places are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Fenelon Place railway is two feet shorter than Angels Flight and arguably offers more scenic views.

Dubuque skyline

Angels Flight calls itself “The Shortest Railway in the World” at 298 feet in length. It is actually a funicular or incline railway to carry passengers uphill and downhill in the historic district of downtown Los Angeles known as Bunker Hill. Originally opened in 1901, Angels Flight was dismantled in 1969. In the 1990s Angels Flight was reconstructed one-half block south of its former location and now operates daily. Angels Flight ranks #4 in Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments.

Dubuque, Iowa sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River at the junction of the state borders of Wisconsin and Illinois on the east bank of the Mississippi. Bluffs rise 200 feet over downtown Dubuque and the Mississippi River.


In 1882, J.K. Graves, Dubuque’s former mayor and former State Senator, lived in Dubuque on the bluffs. In his position as a banker in downtown Dubuque, the time needed to ride his horse buggy home for lunch and back again left little time for a midday meal and nap. To shorten his commute time between his workplace and home, Mr. Graves had the idea to build a funicular incline railway similar to ones he had seen in Europe.

He petitioned the city and received approval for the project. He hired John Bell, a local engineer, to build a one car cable railway similar to those used in the Alps.

Mr. Graves’ cable car started operating on July 25, 1882. The wooden Swiss-style car was hauled up and down two rails by hemp rope. His gardener operated the coal-fired steam engine boiler and winch that powered the funicular to carry Mr. Graves up and down the bluffs 189 feet in elevation over 296 feet  of track. A stove fire in the building at the top of the railway burned the elevator in 1884. Upon rebuilding the funicular, Mr. Graves allowed guests to ride the elevator for five cents.

Fenelon Place-1

The elevator burned again in 1893 and due to economic recession, Mr. Graves allowed his neighbors on the bluff to create the Fenelon Place Elevator Company with right of way for the rail. A new streetcar motor was purchased during the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and steel cables replaced the hemp rope. Three rails were installed with a fourth rail bypass to allow two cars to operate simultaneously on the tracks.

Fenelon Place-3

In 1977, the cable cars were completely rebuilt and a modern gear box and motor were installed.

The cable car holds eight passengers and the ride is steep. Fenelon Place Elevator Company is open 8:00am to 10:00pm from April 1 through November 30. The cost for rides is $1.50 each way for adults, half-price for children and free for kids under five.

The Fenelon Place Elevator has been described as: ‘the world’ steepest, shortest scenic railway, 296 feet in length, elevating passengers 189 feet from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place. Magnificent view of the business district, the Mississippi River and three states.”

Fenelon Place Elevator Company brochure.

TripAdvisor traveler reviews of Dubuque, Iowa rank Fenelon Place Elevator as the #1 city attraction.

Fenelon Place view

View from Fenelon Place of Port of Dubuque and Mississippi River.


Blogger Disclosure: My ride on Fenelon Place Elevator was complimentary as part of “Dig In! Iowa’s Ag Innovation Tour” FAM trip in conjunction with IPW 2014 Chicago U.S. Travel Association convention.


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