Dubuque on a Saturday morning is the kind of place where you stand on an empty sidewalk and needlessly push the button for the walk signal, asking permission to cross an empty street. It is one of those cities with a lovingly restored clock tower in the center of its downtown, and a golden-domed courthouse that seems entirely too grand and too elaborate for the humdrum business of local government employees in the present day.
A street fair or market is setting up as I wander, trying to quickly grab onto some small sense of this place in the few hours I have to spend here. The people on the streets aren’t much help; they consist of a few joggers and small gaggles of men hanging out, with no discernible purpose, outside of businesses that aren’t open yet.
The city seems to be trying, in an endearing way, to be cooler than it is. There is free public Wi-Fi, and would-be edgy murals are splashed across a few walls. I find a very crowded coffee shop in an area called the Millwork District, a name that evokes a gentrification that hasn’t quite materialized yet. As I walk away with my coffee, I pass a man lying tucked politely in the stairway of a law office; he looks so unworried in his sleep, so lacking the practiced invisibility of someone who lives on the streets out of necessity, that I convince myself he’s a lawyer who forgot his key.
I make my way to the riverfront. The water has been almost severed from the rest of the city by highways, and by the railroad tracks that came before them. A yoga class is beginning, its members congregating on a small plaza in the shadow of a pale grey bridge. They could be in any town anywhere in America. I walk for a while along the water, but the Mississippi here has no distinct personality either; there is nothing that illuminates its influence on the city.
I turn back towards where the land rises sharply to a vantage point high above the riverbank. At the base of the bluff is a small neighborhood called Cable Car Square, where sturdy old brick homes have been converted into shops. Here, at the abrupt dead end of a street that can climb no higher, is a small structure that resembles an impossibly quaint bus shelter. This is the Fenelon Place Elevator.
It’s not really an elevator so much as a miniature train on an alarming incline. It was built in 1882 by a wealthy man who lived at the top of the bluff and worked at the bottom, and disliked wasting his lunch break on maneuvering his horse-drawn buggy up and down the rugged hill. Today the funicular – sometimes called the shortest, steepest scenic railway in the world – hauls tourists 189 feet up the hill to the next block.
I wait at the diminutive shelter where the cable cars stop. When a car descends, I climb in, and sit on a wooden bench. The car fills with the few people who can fit inside, then begins to move. The climb is slow and rickety, along tracks that seem to be made of old wood and worn rope. As we are hauled up, the counterbalancing car slides down, and I watch it through the window and door of the little cable car, which doesn’t quite close. It should be terrifying, but it’s not – for some reason, as you wobble upwards, you have complete faith that the ropes will hold and the little car won’t run off the tracks and tumble down the slope.
I am the odd person out in the car, stuck with a family group; or rather, they are stuck with me. As we ascend, they talk about other scenic trains and trams they’ve ridden around the country, and about how the Mississippi, now growing smaller below us as we climb, really is the artery of America.
When we reach the top we pay the operator, who sits in a small booth there, and stand around looking down at Dubuque and the Mississippi below us and more of Iowa (plus some of Illinois and Wisconsin too) stretching out green and lush in the distance.
A small girl in the group decides immediately upon exiting the car that she wants to go DOWN!! But she, and all of us, have to wait for the car at the bottom, which has discharged its passengers, to return to the top.
The little girl grows increasingly unhappy, but I am finally content. From a jumble of highways and railroad tracks and architectural oddities, full of stores that open late and inhabitants who don’t seem to all belong in the same place, downtown Dubuque has been transformed into a neat grid of streets with square red and white buildings, arranged at a bend in the river. I am sure there it more to it, because there always is. Every tidy river town has its own tragedies and enchantments, if you have the time to find them. But because I don’t, I am happy to simply have this image of the city from above, a Dubuque that suddenly makes sense.
Soon the cable car returns, and we get in, I and the little girl and the adult who has been chosen to accompany her to the ground while the rest of the family stays up above. Now we are the descending car, sliding down as our counterpart goes up. We pass each other momentarily in the middle, fellow tourists doing the most exciting thing there is to do in a tidy river town, and then go our separate ways.