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Dubuque Cable Car

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Sophisticated Easterners have always held up Iowa, and especially Dubuque, as an example of a cultural wasteland, but not even the Cabots and the Lodges, and the mansions on Beacon Hill, could boast a cable-car operator among their retinue of household servants. Mr. J. K. Graves of Dubuque could.Graves lived at Fenelon Place, high on a bluff above town, as befit an important person. He was a former mayor, a state senator, a promoter of mines. Now, in 1882, he had become a banker. Unfortunately, for anyone commuting between the bluff and downtown to work, "bankers' hours" was just a metaphor. Graved wanted to be able to go home for dinner at noon, then take a half hour nap, but it took a horse and buggy a half hour each way to make the trip, hardly time even for soup.

He was not about to move down to the river level with riffraff, so he imitated the solution he had seen while visiting Switzerland. He built a cable car from the foot of the bluff up to his house, designed after those in the Alps.

Graves' original contraption was a simple affair. Atop the bluff, a coal-fired steam-engine boiler ran a winch which hauled a small wooden car up and down two rails by a hemp rope.

Graves' servant winched him down the bluff in the morning, up at noon, down again after dinner and a nap, and up again at the end of the workday.

Had J. K. Graves not been a banker whose thoughts turned occasionally to money, that might have been the end of it. But the banker noticed that neighbors soon gathered around his cable car begging for rides. There were other people living on the bluff who might want dinner and a nap, too. In 1884, he opened it to the public at five cents a ride, providing him not only with dinner and a nap, but an income.

Today, a hundred years later, both dinner and naps have moved to evenings, but you can still ride Graves' cable car for $1.50 round trip. The 296-foot trip is worth a post card home, if only you knew what to call it. Is it the world's steepest, shortest scenic railroad, or the most tipsy elevator?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.