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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fun With Funiculars*

Funicular is one of those funky terms that gets tossed around a lot. A hybrid of a railroad and an elevator, the term is often used to describe cog railways or even aerial cable cars. But the only authentic funiculars are those having two cars of equal size connected by a cable looping over pulleys and a drive wheel. As the drive wheel moves the cable, one car goes up the track while the other goes down. Funiculars are used on slopes too steep for conventional railroads. If you’re so inclined, ahem, here are the world’s coolest funiculars.


When it comes to steep slopes, there’s no place like the Alps. That’s why when it comes to funiculars, Switzerland, to mix metaphors, takes the cake. The Alpine nation has dozens. Some of the more popular ones among tourists are the Harderbahn in Interlaken; the Marzilibahn in Bern, connecting the Marzili neighborhood to the Bundeshaus, the seat of the Swiss government; and Ritom, one of the steepest funiculars in the world, measuring 2579 feet in altitude at a maximum 87.8 percent gradient. It’s by Lake Ritom in the Southern Alps canton of  Ticino which borders Northern Italy.


Speaking of Italy, the funicular fun continues near Lake Como. The Funicular Como-Brunate connects the “metropolis” of Como to Brunate, a picturesque small town located in the mountains. The funicular opened in 1894, coinciding with the early days of tourism in the area. Today’s visitors experience a seven-minute ride offering stunning views along the way.


In days of old, many funiculars were designed to connect a city’s upper and lower towns. Such is the case in Quebec City. The funicular linking the two parts of this UNESCO World Heritage site dates back to 1879. Located in the historic district, the Old Quebec Funicular serves as a direct link between Dufferin Terrace, located outside the storied Chateau Frontenac Hotel, and le Quartier du Petit Champlain and the Old Port below.

United States

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania sports three rivers and two operating funiculars. The Monongahela Incline was built in 1870 and is the oldest continuously operating funicular in the United States. It is one of 17 that were originally built to carry folks from hillside homes to work during the late 19th century. The other from that era still operating is the Duquesne Incline. If it looks familiar, you might have seen it in the movie “Flashdance”.

The Duquesne Incline

Dubuque, not to be confused with Duquesne, is in Iowa. Its Fenelon Place Elevator is likely the shortest funicular in North America. It’s 296 feet in length, stretches steeply from downtown to the summit of Dubuque’s bluffs. At the top, take in a magnificent view of the historic business district and the mighty Mississippi River.

Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque

*A longer version of this article is here.

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