Stairway Wandering Along the Mississippi – Part 1 (Dubuque, Iowa)

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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.

We passed some interesting buildings and found our first stairway a block north on 5th Street.

We climbed the 127 steps (by my count) to the top and found a very nice neighborhood of very large old homes.

If you lived on this street you would have the choice of taking the stairs or the funicular to the bottom of the bluff.

You also have a great view of downtown Dubuque and the Mississippi River from the top of the bluff.

With downtown being only a couple of blocks away taking the stairs or the funicular would be a great way to get to work.

As we continued our walk, we found these stairs off of Hill Street.

And when we reached the top after climbing the stairway’s 60 steps we were greeted by this friendly fellow.

And when we looked across the street, we discovered that we were in Washington, DC!

 

We continued our walk and never found a shortage of interesting old homes.

When we reached 11th Street we found these stairs heading down the bluff to downtown.

The stairway crossed a street, and to no surprise that street too had interesting houses.

The stairway then went under a street. The tunnel under the street was built to accommodate Dubuque’s other funicular railroad that shut down in 1929.

Here’s what the tunnel looks like from below. By the time we finished the stairway I had counted 180 steps.

As we continued to wander we passed these folks standing outside the local art museum.

As we worked our way north we found these steps near 14th. This stairway has by my count 90 steps.

Further north we found these stairs at 18th Street. Although they we closed, we climbed the 69 steps anyways.

When we reached the top we found out why they were closed. The road embankment at the top had collapsed because of the recent rains.

We even found stairways that have been closed for good reason. I’m not sure if Petey likes the idea of climbing these stairs. This stairway had 155 steps; another closed stairway a block or two away had 106 steps.

We also found interesting houses that were not from the 19th Century.

We even found private stairs. It wasn’t until we reached the top that we realized this was leading to someone’s front door.

These are not the only stairways and interesting buildings that we found. We found several other stairways: some known by the city and some that weren’t. I am sure someone who lives in Dubuque could have shown me more. But for someone who likes to walk around to see what they can see, Dubuque is an amazing place to wander.

 

 

 

 

23 Comments

  1. What a fantastic post, David! I know you’ve been saying since we walked together last September that the Mississippi towns just had to have some stairs. Beautiful stairways, great variety of homes – new & old, and wonderful Americana. Dubuque would have justified your trip by itself. I have a hunch that you have more to share.

  2. Did you take any photos of the old Carnegie library at the bottom of the stairs on 11th Street? It must be lovely to meander down those stairs and walk into the public library to browse through the book stacks.

    • Yes, I did get a picture of the Library. There was so much that I could not include in the post. I was walking with my dog and it was raining at the time that I did not want to tie him up outside. But now you’ve given me another reason to go back to Dubuque. Thanks – DR

    • Born and raised in DBQ and as a youngster my mom and grandmother would walk me to the library and we could only take as many books as we could carry back up the steps and home. This was during the late 80’s. I teach H.S. Now and have walked my students in the same path!

  3. The first set of stairs, that you accessed from 5th street, went up the bluff to Cooper Place. Then there is the “funicular elevator” (4th street) and many years ago, there was another set of stairs, on the other side of the elevator, that led from the 2nd house up from the elevator, down the bluff and emptied on 3rd street. Those steps were 172, as I learned to count to 200 that way. Many ways to access downtown!! (The horses had a very difficult time, in the snow, in the early 1900’s), and in the 1950’s, my Mom would walk either the 3rd or 5th street stairs, as the elevator was used only in bad rain or snow. (otherwise, she saved the 5 cent fare).

    • That is so cool. What happened to the 3rd Street stairs? Thanks for letting me know.

      • They became a liability, I believe about 9 or 10 years ago-ish, the city removed them. You can still see the “shadow” of where they were. On a visit back, a few year ago, I wanted to walk them. That’s when I found out. Thanks for the pictorial history of DBQ’s stairs!

  4. Thank you for featuring my local area. You’ve only begun to crack the secrets of Dubuque, IA and the bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley. I agree, this is the most beautiful part of the USA. I love to travel, but I always breathe a deep “aaahhh” when I fly back over my homeland. The Dubuque motto “Majesty on the Mississippi” tells our story.

  5. Nice bunch of pictures David! I grew up in Dubuque and spent a lot of time climbing stairs. The stairs with the pic of your smiling dog look like the the ones next to the old Jackson school on W. Locust, am I right?

    • Yes, they are the stairs next to the school. There is another set of closed stairs on the other side of the street. It’s too bad that they’re closed as they would make a great walking route.

  6. I loved the photos of my home town where I grew up. It is such a beautiful town in Iowa that so many people in the US have no idea how great the town is like. Thank you for posting those photos and comments!

  7. we used to live at the top of the 11th street stairs and I worked on 8th & Iowa. I walked the stairs pretty much everyday 2 trips a day.

  8. Thank you for the pictures Dave, I grew up in Dubuque and never walked any of those stairs, I’m now on a quest to do so this spring. I wonder what else I may find that I never experienced in this Beautiful town.

  9. Very nice pictures of Dubuque. I found it very interesting that you mentioned funicular railroads. Being a local resident, we have always called it “the cable car” or “the 4th St elevator”. It sounds so funny and foreign to hear it referred to as a funicular railroad. Glad you enjoyed your time in Dubuque!

  10. Nice pics Dave, my Gramma use to tell me that story when I was younger, forgot the details, thanks for the reminder,
    From the time I was 17 to 18 I walked these steps alot of nights , with Danny Schumacher, Marybeth Decker, u later married Danny, Kenny Birch, Jeff Decker, all to play cards , with friends u lived up there.. Awesome

  11. What an informative and beautiful article, David. I lived at the top of those 11th street stairs when I was a child and walked them every day to kindergarten and first grade by myself (those were the days!) And I never knew it was the site of another “cable car”. I left Dubuque many years ago, but am always awed by it’s beauty. You have a new fan and follower. Note to self: item for bucket list – to visit some of David’s favorite stairs.

  12. If you like the stairs here in Dubuque you should see the small caves all over town.

  13. The last set of stairs were my short-cut to Dan McDonald’s house.

  14. Nice write-up and photos, David. Also, note that there are/were steps and walkways zig-zagging in a switch-back fashion going from the bottom near the intersection of Dodge and Locust streets up to Cleveland park (at the end of Cleveland Ave.). These are no longer active steps and have been fenced off at the top at the park, but they are still navigatable as many of the steps and some old-fashioned lamppoles are still there to explore starting from the bottom.

  15. You might want to explore the town of Galena, IL only 16 miles away from Dubuque as well. They have at least 3 sets of stairways up the very steep hillside. That town has architecture from the 18th century since it predates the Louisiana purchase and the Homestead act which delayed settlement in Iowa. Quite impressive are the buildings in Galena which are built into these hillsides which can be up to 5 stories high with entrances at various levels near these stairways.

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