Don’t call it a funicular.
While that’s a fun word to say, the conveyance that this month began carrying people up High Pole Hill in Provincetown is technically an inclined elevator. There aren’t very many of them in the United States.
The outdoor machine takes passengers up about 85 feet of hillside to reach the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. It took about three years to build — about the same length of time as it took to construct the monument itself, a landmark 252-foot-tall tower built in the early 20th century with granite shipped from Maine.
“This is the biggest thing since the monument opened in 1910,” says David Weidner, executive director of the nonprofit Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, which oversees the monument and museum. Weidner took on the job in 2017 and not long after began exploring the idea of how to better connect the hilltop attractions with the town below. One goal was to increase the number of annual visitors — nearly 100,000 in pre-COVID times — by 50 percent.
Making it easier to get up the hill was a project that many people had brainstormed about for a long time but never actually tried to do. And it turned out to be quite complicated.
John Bologna, chief executive of the consulting firm Coastal Engineering in Orleans, says that various solutions had been proposed: a ski lift, a tram, or stairs. One design looked a bit like the Spanish Steps in Rome, he says. But stairs would’ve required clearing much of the wooded hill. During the monument’s construction, a temporary narrow-gauge railroad was built to ferry granite blocks up the hill, and an accident involving a runaway rail car speeding down the hill killed an 84-year old widow. That may have eliminated a rail track from consideration.
In 2017, Weidner traveled to Europe to look at systems used to climb hills. Similar to an indoor elevator, an inclined elevator uses an electric winch at the apex of a track to pull a single car up. “It’s like an elevator shaft laid onto an incline,” Bologna explains. “We’d been referring to it as a funicular, which is the wrong term. That’s a tandem system, where you have two trams on each side, and they use each others’ weight as a counterweight” when traveling up and down.
The planners identified a Swiss company, Outdoor Engineers, as their vendor. Another Swiss company, Inauen-Schätti, fabricated the elevator. The target date for opening it was September 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s departure from England. (The Mayflower Compact, the settlers’ governing document, was signed aboard the ship while anchored in Provincetown Harbor.) The projected cost was initially $2.2 million.
Since much of High Pole Hill is sand, laying down stable rails for the elevator required drilling screw anchors 20 to 40 feet into the ground, Bologna says. The two rails needed to be placed precisely using X, Y, and Z coordinates in space, from the bottom to the top of the hill. If anything was off-kilter, the elevator might run, but it would stress the metal rails, and cause faster wear-and-tear, Bologna says.
A condo complex at the base of the hill filed a lawsuit, questioning the sandy hill’s ability to support the elevator system and complaining about the traffic and noise it would generate. (The suit was settled out of court.) Arranging travel for Outdoor Engineers’ staff from Switzerland to Provincetown during the pandemic was a challenge — especially during last summer’s COVID outbreak in town. If everything went smoothly, Outdoor Engineers would’ve needed to visit the site three times, says Thomas Müller, head of the inclined elevators division at Inauen-Schätti. Instead, his crew traveled to Provincetown “about five or six times — for sure, more than planned.”
All of the Outdoor Engineers and Inauen-Schätti measurements used the metric system, and so things needed to be carefully converted to English units of measurement. There were also supply chain snafus in getting some of the necessary supplies to the site, Bologna says.
Inclined elevators are rare in the United States, but it’s not as if Weidner’s nonprofit was trying to build the first. Bologna had ridden one as a kid at Niagara Falls, and there’s even one in Plymouth, at the White Cliffs Country Club and condo complex. But the state’s regulations regarding elevators weren’t exactly written with hill climbing systems in mind.
As an example, Bologna says, the design included electricity and water lines running next to a set of emergency stairs, adjacent to the tracks. It would power lights and a ticketing kiosk at the base station, as well as provide water for the landscaping. But, he says: “The elevator code says that you can’t have water in an elevator shaft — you can’t use the shaft for any other utilities. But there’s not really a shaft here. It’s an open-air structure.” They were able to resolve that without having to move any utilities. Regulators also wanted to talk to the Swiss engineers in person at the site.
A second planned opening date, May 2021, came and went. For most of last summer, the elevator stood forlornly inside its glass base station, functional but not approved for operation. The final OK came just before Halloween, when the museum and monument were approaching their annual winter closure. “It was quite an involved process,” Weidner says.
By then, the budget had climbed from $2.2 million to $6.5 million. The bulk of the expense will be borne by the nonprofit, though there was a $200,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and financing support in the form of tax-free municipal bonds from MassDevelopment. The cost of riding the elevator is included in the museum’s admission price.
Bologna talks about the elevator as a long-needed connection between Provincetown’s commercial district and the museum — the present to the past. Weidner says that when he first rode the elevator on a trial trip last year, “I was in utter awe — just the beauty of seeing the entire town” as he rose up High Pole Hill. After more than a century of thinking about how to build that linkage, “I’m really quite proud that we were able to do it,” he says. “This was seriously hard work, and now it’s done. A hundred years from now, it’ll be normal — people will say, this has always been here.” Weidner says he even cried a bit at seeing the project finally finished.
Although the elevator began running in “soft launch mode” on April 1, a formal opening ceremony is scheduled for June 1.
In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt steamed into Provincetown Harbor on his presidential yacht, the Mayflower, to speak at the laying of the monument’s cornerstone. In 1910, President William Howard Taft returned on the same ship to speak at the dedication.
Weidner says that both President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have an open invitation to the official ribbon-cutting. Though the presidential yacht was decommissioned in 1929, the monument still stands — albeit now, a little easier to reach.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.