May 4, 2013
by David Ryan
If your only experience with the Midwest has been to fly into Chicago, you would be correct in saying that the area is really flat. But if you travel only three or four hours to the west to where the Mississippi River connects Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, you will find a completely different landscape.
There you will find hills, deep valleys, and bluffs. The most recent Ice Age glaciers missed this part of the country and never had a chance to bulldoze the land flat. Melt water from the retreating glaciers added to the landscape by carving the large bluffs along the Upper Mississippi River Valley. The combination of the two makes it one of the prettiest places in the United States.
With many cities and towns along the Mississippi, I figured that some of them must have public stairways to connect development above the bluffs with development close to the river. That was enough to get me started. I did some research and learned that there were towns with stairs. I cleared the calendar and went on a road trip with my dog Petey last month to check them out.
My first stop on the Mississippi River was Dubuque, Iowa. It is on the west side of the river across from the Illinois/Wisconsin border. It had its beginnings in the mid-19th century as a lead mining center and river port.
Even though lead mining disappeared early in its history and the importance of river commerce declined many decades ago, Dubuque remains a viable community today with a population of around 60,000 people. Despite its many changes Dubuque has managed to retain much of its 19th century architecture and character. And to an outsider, it seems to have just enough funkiness to be interesting.
In my research I learned that in addition to stairways that Dubuque at one time had two funicular railroads. From previous travels I knew that one of the funicular railroads was still operational. It claims to be the world’s shortest and steepest railroad. And from various correspondences I learned where various stairways could be found.
With that I was ready to start walking and anxious to see what I could see.
We found a suitable parking place near the funicular railroad (Fenlon Place Elevator) and headed north. We would ride the funicular later in our walk. Continue Reading →