Every so often I’ll come across a word that sticks in my head because it’s so unusual to me. Right now, that word is funicular. I’ve rolled it around in my mind countless times the last day or two, pronouncing it until the syllables almost seem like they’re from some alien language. I don’t know why the word struck me as so odd, but I’ve been absolutely fascinated by it; fascinated enough to write an article about it!

So, what exactly is a funicular? Some sort of medical procedure? A new kind of theme park ride? The latter is pretty close, actually: a funicular is a very specific and interesting type of railway. Funiculars are designed with the goal of moving passengers up steep slopes that normal roads or rail systems can’t handle. They are typically fairly short but very steep; a funicular recently opened in Switzerland with a mind-boggling 110% grade! Funiculars work by using two cars on adjacent tracks. These cars are attached by a cable, and act as counterweights to their counterparts as they move up and down the incline. Therefore, whenever one car is traveling uphill, the other will be heading down. This unique and surprisingly simple method of engineering separates funiculars from other types of steep-grade transport such as cog railways.

Funicular layouts

Funicular Track Design. Diagram via Wikimedia Commons.

Funiculars have been around for ages due to their simple design; the first use of one dates all the way back to the 1500s! However, the railway’s heyday came in the late 1800s, when an ever-increasing demand for all things rail led to the introduction of dozens of funiculars throughout the US. Since then, many of these impressive hill-climbers have been shut down, abandoned, or destroyed by weather or fire. However, a few funiculars remain open to this day for your riding pleasure. Let’s take a look at the three oldest ones left standing.

• • •

Fenelon Place Elevator

The Fenelon Place Elevator (also called the Fourth Street Elevator) is situated on a hillside overlooking Dubuque, Iowa (see map). Originally constructed in 1882, the railway has overcome a host of obstacles to continue running to this day. Starting life as a single-vehicle cable car, the railway burned in 1884 and again in 1893. It was only after the second fire that the rail line was rebuilt as a funicular. The funicular proved to be much less flammable than its wooden-car predecessor, and ran uninterrupted for over half a century for 5 cents per ride. Alas, nothing lasts forever, and the funicular burnt for a third time in 1962. This time it was quickly rebuilt – funding came from an increase in ticket prices from 5 to 10 cents. The funicular has been running fire-free ever since, and new safety measures and an improved gearbox significantly reduce the chances of any more mishaps.

Looking down the slope. Photo by Jim Maurer on Flickr (cc)

The railway claims to be the shortest and steepest in the world. At only 296 feet, it has a serious claim to the former title, at least among public funiculars. However, it’s measly 46% grade is nowhere near the top of the list when it comes to steepness. That shouldn’t take away from this impressive little railway that could, however – very few funiculars get a second, third, or even fourth lease on life. Visitors can see downtown Dubuque, as well as the neighboring states of Illinois and Wisconsin, from the top station.

• • •

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway

Built in 1895, the Lookout Mountain Railway of Chattanooga (see map) is technically the youngest funicular on this list. However, it’s had more luck than its Iowa counterpart regarding fire and other mishaps, and has therefore been in continuous operation for significantly longer. Additionally, this is the only funicular on the list built purely for tourism; its purpose has always been to take curious visitors to the top of Lookout Mountain, the site of a major Civil War battle. Today, visitors have the option of driving up the mountain or riding the rails; however, for the first few decades of its operation the funicular was the only choice.

Incline Railway At Lookout Mountain (4-3-12)

At the track split. Photo by Brevort on Flickr (cc)

The railway reaches a maximum grade of just over 72%, which is impressive but not unusual for a funicular. Interestingly, the railway only uses one track for most of its ascent/descent; there is a split in the rails at the midpoint to allow the two cars to pass each other. The thing that truly sets the Lookout Mountain Railway apart, however, is the sheer scope of it all. The railway is just about a mile long, running circles around the meager distances of the other two entries on this list. The railway also swings for the fences in regard to its cars, which are far larger than their puny competition in Iowa. The cars have glass ceilings which allow visitors to look out over Chattanooga as they tackle the steep slope. The entire design of the funicular is so impressive that it was declared a National Engineering Landmark in 1991, nearly 100 years after its construction!

• • •

Monongahela & Duquesne Inclines

Saving the oldest for last, we head to a duo of funiculars in the hilly city of Pittsburgh (see map). The Steel City is nestled in a river valley, which meant that there was very limited room to expand as the population grew in the mid-1800s. Eventually, immigrant workers were forced to find housing atop the steep slope of Mount Washington, situated just south of downtown. The area offered stunning views, but it came with a price: workers had to scramble up and down a treacherous mountain to commute. Eventually, German immigrants who were familiar with funiculars in their home country introduced the idea to the city, and by 1870 the first railway, the Monongahela Incline, had opened. The Duquesne Incline followed in 1877, ushering in a torrent of funicular construction. At the height of the funicular craze there were 17 such railways along the hillside. Today, only the two oldest (*correction: the Monongahela is the oldest, but the Duquesne is only third oldest) remain in operation.

Monongahela ascending

Heading up Monongahela. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The pair of funiculars aren’t world-beaters when it comes to steepness; they sport 38% and 33% percent grades, respectively. Nor are they the longest inclines around – the Duquesne is the longer of the two with a span of only 794 feet. The sheer age of these two inclines, and the fact that neither one has even temporarily ceased operations for any reason, is impressive enough on its own. That’s nearly 150 straight years of ups and downs! Interestingly, the *Monongahela Incline* is owned by Pittsburgh’s Port Authority and can therefore be officially considered a form of public transportation rather than a simple tourist gimmick.

• • •

Honorable Mention: Johnstown Inclined Plane

I actually discovered this final funicular while in the midst of writing this article, and felt that I couldn’t leave it off the list. Built in 1891, Johnstown’s railway (see map) was built as an evacuation measure following the catastrophic flood of 1889. Its age makes it the third-oldest funicular in the US, ahead of the aforementioned Lookout Mountain Railway. Apologies for not finding it sooner!

Johnstown Inclined Plane side view

Side view of the incline. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

There you have it: my funicular madness manifested. Now that I’ve said the word 29 times in this article maybe it’ll finally get out of my head!


*Thanks to vonHindenburg on Reddit for the corrections on the Pittsburgh inclines!


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