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Travel Blog

The Slow Road to Deadhorse

Dubuque, Iowa

In the summer of 1881 a Mr. J.K. Graves of Dubuque, Iowa found himself in a spectacularly tricky quandary.  As a former Mayor of Dubuque and a Senator of Iowa, Mr. Graves was both well-travelled and accustomed to the finer things in life.  After giving up his public duties he returned to his former career running the town bank on the High Street. 

At that time Dubuque had the particularly civil custom of taking a one-and-a-half-hour lunch break.  Everyone went home.  Mr. Graves was partial to a decent lunch but also fond of an early-afternoon nap.  As the crow flew, he lived only two-and-a-half blocks away.  However, being a wealthy man, he lived atop a bluff overlooking the town of Dubuque and the Mississippi River beyond.  The only drawback was that his horse and carriage had to take a circuitous route to reach his home.  And herein lied Mr. Graves’ quandary: he was left with time for either lunch or a nap.  But not both.

But Mr. Graves was patently not a man keen on compromise.  He had travelled throughout Europe as a Senator and had evidently seen the funicular railways running up and down the steep cliffs of many an English seaside town.  And, thus, here was his solution.  He hired a Mr. John Bell, experienced in alpine cable cars, to build a private funicular from the town to his home.  On July 25th, 1882 Mr. J.K. Graves rode his funicular home for the first time and had both a hearty lunch and a salubrious snooze.  Problem solved.

Whilst there’s no specific record of the English seaside towns Mr. Graves visited, I was heartened to see a picture of the funicular at Saltburn in North Yorkshire mounted on the ticket booth wall.  My parents met in Saltburn over 60 years ago, and I used to ride the funicular from the beach to the town as a kid.  As I rode Mr. Graves’ funicular up and down the bluff I found the affinity between Dubuque, Iowa and Saltburn, North Yorkshire quaintly endearing.