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High on a hill, Dubuque calls to me

Dubuque Iowis called San Francisco Midwest with it cable car rides farm-to-table restaurants independent bookstores plus water views like this

Dubuque, Iowa, is called the San Francisco on the Midwest, with it cable car rides, farm-to-table restaurants and independent bookstores, plus water views like this of the Julien Dubuque Bridge over the Mississippi River.

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Fenelon Place is open from
8 a.m. to 10 p.m. April 1 through Nov. 30. This may be the most fun you can have for $1, the cost of a one-way ride to the top. It’s $2 round-trip. Children: one- way, 50 cents; $1, round-trip. Children under age 5 admitted free; (563-582-6496 ).

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Updated: November 24, 2011 12:25AM

DUBUQUE, Iowa — I couldn’t afford to travel to San Francisco this summer, so I settled for the next best thing.

Dubuque, Iowa.

Why not?

Dubuque is the San Francisco of the Midwest.

◆ Trolley car? Check. The Fenelon Place Elevator Co. has a cable car legacy that dates to 1882. One white-and-Dublin-green steel car runs up what is billed as the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway. A second similar car runs down. There’s even a Cable Car Square consisting of a couple of antique stores and a hippie-dippy ice cream shop at 4th and Bluff in downtown Dubuque.

◆ Water views? Check — the mighty Mississippi River. You can see Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin from the observation deck, just as you can see Mill Valley from Mount Tamalpais in San Francisco.

◆ Cool farm-to-table organic restaurants with a guy singing James Taylor songs? Check, with the L. May Eatery, 1072 Main St. (563-556-0505; Don’t miss the butterleaf wrap (grilled chicken breast, green and bell red peppers, and Asian dipping sauce) appetizer; $8. I washed it down with a smooth Potosi Steamboat Shandy in honor of the nearby river.

◆ Independent book stores? Check. I love the River Lights Bookstore, 1098 Main St. (563-556-4391; in the regentrified Upper Main Street neighborhood as much as I enjoy City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach (and Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa). I found the beautifully linotyped Wapsipinicon Almanac, published from Timothy Fay’s house in Anamosa, Iowa, at River Lights. The bookstore basks in the warmth of the wooden floors and tin ceilings of an 1870s brick building that originally was a grocery mart.

San Francisco is the City by the Bay. Dubuque, the gateway to Iowa, is the City by the Hay.

Sometimes it is fun to travel with tongue in cheek. I found willing foils during my cable car ride: Ken and Stephanie Nosworthy of Naperville were visiting Fenelon Place for the first time.

They laughed at my concept.

“Of course this is San Francisco!,” Stephanie said. Ken added, “The only thing we haven’t discovered is Haight-Ashbury.”

Ken and Stephanie have been married 41 years. They are originally from Bristol, England, and lived in Scotland and Egypt before settling in Naperville. Ken, 71, runs a computer software consulting company.

“This is a neat experience,” he said during a conversation overlooking the river 189 feet from the ground. “It’s a funny thing about America. You always take everything to be smart, up to date and modern, then you get places like this that are pretty ancient.”

Stephanie asked, “Have you seen the motor that runs this thing? Take a look. You will want to walk down.”

But we all rode down on the cable car. Successfully. The cable cars were completely rebuilt in 1977, and the original gear drive was replaced by a modern gear box with a 15-horsepower DC motor. Fenelon Place was safe enough to have a scene from the 1978 Sly Stallone movie “F.I.S.T” filmed at the elevator. Chicagoans will want to note the vintage turnstile before tourists embark on the ride. The turnstile is from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The elevator is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I was so condescending about coming here,” Stephanie admitted. “I have a friend who lives in Rome. Because her husband thought she needed a break, he took her to Paris last weekend. And this weekend they are in Florence. I said to Ken, ‘You never take me anywhere,’ and he said, ‘I thought about going to Dubuque.’”

Ken and Stephanie said Fenelon Place was their main reason for visiting Dubuque.

“This ride seems so un-American if you don’t live here,” Ken said. “There’s a gap [in the air] between the [cable] car and getting off. Secondly, we wanted to do the river rides. My wife isn’t very keen on small boats. She wouldn’t mind going on the Queen Elizabeth, but we enjoyed it.” They rode the Spirit of Dubuque dual paddle wheel riverboat (563-583-8093;

The Jitterz Coffee Shop, 1073 Main St., was a pre-cable car visit for Ken and Stephanie, as was the wonderful Naughty Dog cafe, places that were also on my agenda. The pet-friendly Naughty Dog is up the Eleventh Street hill from River Lights. (563-556-7154; naughtydog Try the traditional Italian cheese panini (aka The Caprese, $4.99 for half a sandwich), which is just like something you’d try in North Beach.

The Nosworthys visited nearby Galena on the Illinois side of the river about 10 years ago. They prefer Dubuque.

“It is much nicer here,” Ken said. “More down to earth.”

And they weren’t talking about the ride back to Cable Car Square. The young-at-heart couple enjoyed Fenelon Place so much they planned to return for a romantic nighttime ride.

Paging Tony Bennett.

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