The Funicular Railway

The Ledge: Why the Funicular Railway Ends in the Middle of Nowhere

The passengers to make the inaugural climb on the Funicular Railway included four of the city’s top ranking officials, a cub reporter who had no business being there, and a man nobody in Nagspeake is sure ever existed. The uncertain man read a poem, and in so doing, saved the life of the cub reporter, who hadn’t known until she heard the poem that her invitation to record that first climb had been an invitation to her own murder. Or so Charlotte Gracechurch-Ferry told me one night after one too many cocktails. I had to twist her arm to get her to keep talking once she’d sobered up, but it was worth it. This is a tale of murder, monopolistic mail-order shenanigans, a rattletrap railroad, and the Shutter Club.

Wait, you say. What could murder, mail-order shenanigans, and the Shutter Club have to do with the Funicular…or, goodness, each other?

I will tell you.

It’s a familiar landmark to anyone who’s bothered to leave his or her vacation house in Bayside for a deeper look at the city: the Slope’s pride and joy, the old Funicular Railway that rises from Spanner Street to the Hilltop Overlook Station, from which a “picturesque offroad hike” through unpaved wilderness will take you to St. Whit’s Asylum, Ferrous Sanctus Monastery, the Magothy and Whilforber Railroad, or (via descent by bouncing Hill Bus), the Quayside Harbors. In theory, you can also get to the Shutter Club Mansion from the Overlook, but in reality if you were going to be let through the gates, you wouldn’t be taking the Funicular to get there.

Shutter Club, circa...?

This is the only photo we have on file of the Shutter Club Mansion, and I’m required by law to state that the owner of record of the Mansion states that this isn’t the house we claim it is. You can make up your mind on your own, though; take the Funicular yourself and look to your left as you stand on the old stone patio of the Overlook and face up the hill. The big white structure peering out of the trees looking a whole lot like the picture above is probably the Shutter Club Mansion. If you aren’t convinced, walk along the only road that appears to head toward the white building.

On the way, just before you get there, you’ll pass the abandoned but beautiful patio with a grandstand and an overgrown croquet field that was supposed to be where the Funicular ended. Pause here and have a look around. Imagine how this platform looked when it was first built. Meditate on the fact that it was never used. Then move on. Keep on walking another half mile until you come to a giant wrought-iron gate with a large bronze plaque mounted in the center that reads


which always makes me laugh, as the Shutter Club is, or was, or is supposed to be, a photography club.

Discussion of the Shutter Club is important to a discussion of the Funicular for two reasons. Firstly, the Funicular Railway gets you the best view of the Mansion it’s possible to get without calling a score of armed guards down on you, and the Shutter Club’s guards are no joke. They wear bowlers and tweed hunting suits with patched elbows and tall India-rubber boots, and they carry shotguns open, over the crooks of their arms. At least, they look like shotguns, to the same extent that the guards look like leisurely wildfowl hunters; which is to say: only until one of them aims or looks directly at you. Then the facade comes crumbling down and you realize how very wrong you were to trespass.

For many years the guards were presented as the hunters they looked like, and a couple generations of Nagspeakers trying to creep up for a look through the mullioned windows of the Mansion just thought a private hunting preserve ran up against the Shutter Club grounds when they were run off by the gun-toting men in tweed suits. Even the anachronistic dress could be explained away as a quirk of the “hunting club” that appeared to be entrenched up on the Hilltop. A few speculative and some outright fanciful articles were written about it, and in one surviving travelogue from sometime in the last century I even found a reference to the Gentleman Shooters’ Most Dangerous Game Preserve, along with a single photograph, a contact name, and a phone exchange. The supposed name of the preserve makes me think the Shutter Club itself got into the fun for a while (the contact, by the way, was a “Mr. Dick Connell, esq;” when I dialed the number, I was answered by a recording I think might’ve been audio from the “Small Game for Big Hunters” episode of the Avengers, which was perfect because the man in the photo was clearly Patrick Macnee. Needless to say, nobody returned my call). The first inkling people seemed to have that the Gentleman Shooters weren’t what they appeared to be should’ve come much earlier, though, when a scattering of tweedy fellows in India-rubber hunting boots began to look like permanent fixtures during the construction of the Funicular Railway, which brings us to the second reason the Shutter Club overlooms the Funicular in more than just the geographical sense.

The Slope and Hilltop Inclined Railway, to call it by its proper name, was built sometime approximately a hundred and fifty years back (as nearly as I can figure, records being blah blah blah. Actually, Wilmer Cobblebridge of the NBTC claims his father worked on the building of it, which either means my reckoning’s off by a good half-century or Willie’s a lot older than he claims to be). It was built to commemorate an anniversary (God knows which one) of the opening of the Nagspeake terminus of the Magothy and Whilforber Railway line up at the crest of the Hilltop. So it seemed to be all in good fun that, on the night before it was opened with great fanfare to the public, persons unknown found some way to move the entire vertical length of the Funicular to an entirely different location on the Slope.

West Spanner Street

I know how absurd this sounds, but remember that it had been done before with the Terminus on the Hilltop (see my post here: When it happened again with the Funicular, people freaked out, of course, but with a kind of delight: the whole thing looked like the coolest tribute ever. With no hesitation, as if he’d been in on the joke the whole time, the Mayor of Nagspeake lead his constituency through the angled streets of the Slope from the original location on West Spanner Street (above) to the new location of the inclined railway two miles down the same road. He threw the switches that set it into motion, and then the Mayor and a select group of officials climbed into the bullet-shaped green car for its inaugural climb. The honored party included Julius Honorius Deacon, the visible half of the eponymous mail-order catalogue empire Deacon and Morvengarde; Holden Ulenborrow, son of Slope real estate magnate Joshua Hortus Ulenborrow; and Cattrick Sullen, the patriarch of the Magothy and Whilforber Railroad. There was also one member of the press, cub reporter Hannelore Ferry; and one poet: Owen Ilford, who may actually have opened the ceremonies that morning by reading a piece called “Pruning the Iron Skyward.”

A very brief digression: there is no historical record (obviously, considering the state of historical record in this city) of Owen Ilford actually having been in the car, other than Charlotte Gracechurch-Ferry’s recollection that her great-gran Hanna told her “That poet guy shoved into the car at the last minute, and the rest of the stuffed shirts knew they’d look like dicks if they told him to get off in front of everyone.” But Owen Ilford, or someone who called himself by that name, did write the homily that came to be associated with the disastrous events of the opening of the Funicular, and a number of Ilford scholars, including Dr. Edsel Price, believe Ilford may even have read his poem in the role of poet laureate of the city. But this is a debate for another time and for other people. Bad things happen to Ilford scholars, and I like my life the way it is.

But back to the grand opening. The green car made its way up to the crumbling patio at the top of the Funicular’s new trajectory, a platform that had at been built as a scenic overlook long, long before and was in a state of miserable disrepair. The original location—the one you passed while walking to the Shutter Club several paragraphs ago—had a grandstand, a picnic area, and a gorgeous little gazebo snack shop built specially to be a destination for railway riders, and those things are still there, shuttered and abandoned because there’s no good way to get to them. The new landing has a restaurant that had been closed for as long as anybody could remember even when the Funicular lurched to life so long ago. Since then it’s passed through a number of hands who’ve tried to make it successful, but at the time of this writing its most recent incarnation is long dead, just like all the others.


So the million-dollar question is, who moved the Funicular Railway and why? Certainly the city of Nagspeake lost out on the deal. Who came out ahead?

Well, here are some facts. The move put the Funicular two miles further from the Shutter Club Mansion, and put a rocky outcropping of Whilforber Hill between them, obscuring the huge picture windows of the Mansion’s ballroom from railway riders. Two nights before the night of the move, the Shutter Club held one of its infamous Sepia Balls. The next day, someone rang the doorbell of a starry-eyed reporter sharpening pencils at Mache, a second or third-tier broadsheet renting offices at the outskirts of the Printer’s Quarter. The reporter went to her editor with something big enough to make that editor drink way too much at a party that night in the Quarter. There, the editor made the mistake of telling at least fifteen people in attendance that he had something that was going to take the Shutter Club down a few pegs. The next day, the editor didn’t show up to work. That following night, the Funicular Railway was miraculously picked up and moved out of range of prying eyes.

Early, early the morning of the opening, the Mayor’s secretary knocked on the door of the starry-eyed reporter and invited her to join his honor for the first climb. And at the last minute, some poet shoved his way into the car before it started up the Slope. Six people went up; six people came down. The band played, the crowds went home. The editor never turned up again. It was presumed he died an accidental death after drinking too much.

Hannelore Ferry told her great-granddaughter Charlotte, my boss, that Owen Ilford probably saved her life by tagging along that day. In the car, according to great-gran Hanna, Ilford took a piece of paper from his pocket, asked the four rich and powerful men to sit, and read a second poem, one that’s never turned up in any Ilford publication I’ve been able to find. For those who don’t know, Owen Ilford wrote a few historical poems and a lot of poems about murders. This second piece was one of the latter, and it took all of two lines for Hannelore to realize Ilford’s poem was about the events the stranger had told her had taken place at the Sepia Ball two nights before. Three stanzas later the piece became a poem about the disappearance of a broadsheet editor, and then about the death of a starry-eyed cub reporter in a railway car. Horrified, she watched the other four men in the car squirm. How they were involved she had no way of knowing just then, but it was clear to her that she hadn’t been brought up the railway to document the historic occasion at all. She’d been brought up to have an accident, because of what she knew about what had gone on at the Sepia Ball.

The poet finished his reading, re-folded the paper, and calmly told the rest of them that he was considering including the piece in his next anthology, but that his editors thought it sounded too fantastic to be believed. He asked them what they thought. One by one the four rich men agreed that the events of the poem seemed a little far-fetched. They looked at Hannelore Ferry, who took a deep breath and agreed. Owen Ilford nodded and said he thought he’d probably leave it out if they all thought it was too much. They got out at the landing with its abandoned restaurant and crumbling patio all but tumbling down the cliff. They looked around, set off a few fireworks for the crowds down below, filed back into the car and began their descent. The dozen tweed-suited guards that had materialized out of the woods surrounding the landing melted back among the trees, shotguns open over their arms, rubber boots making no noise as they disappeared, and the six in the car pretended they hadn’t seen them. Or so Hannelore Ferry told Charlotte Gracechurch-Ferry before she died.

So what happened at the Sepia Ball to cause all this ruckus? Well, it happens every year, and it’s become a thing of legend—mostly grim legend, woven from unconfirmed rumor, uncomfortable dreams, and the occasional cautionary bedtime story. The most infamous tales concern a Ball in the 20’s given to honor the stars of a serial film that was shot, in part, at the Shutter Club—but that’s just one year, one vintage of really bad stuff going down in the white mansion on the hill. Whole anthologies of suspense and sometimes outright horror tales are released after the Ball every year, mostly by anonymous contributors and imprints that don’t publish their addresses. Bad things happen to Ilford scholars, but Sepia Ball speculators usually get it even worse. And that’s when their bodies turn up; most just disappear, like Hannelore Ferry’s editor. The only thing that saved the reporter herself, it seems, was the intervention of the city’s most famous phantom: the poet, Owen Ilford.

In the end, Hannelore refused to say right up to the end what she knew, and anyhow there’s no way to prove any of what she told Charlotte. Just one more bit of grim legend surrounding the Shutter Club; just one more lost tale of murder by a poet nobody’s sure ever existed. The Funicular carries on, its two green cars passing each other midway up the Slope with the Mansion looking on from its perch on high, keeping its secrets.

The Slope and Hilltop Inclined Railway

East Spanner Street, at Salvation Court; and Hilltop Overlook Station
Departures on the hour and half hour from East Spanner Street;
on the quarter and quarter-to from Hilltop Overlook Station.
Fares are free for children under 12 and fifty cents for adults.

Kate Milford is a regular contributor to, and also very good at miscellaneous filing and collating assignments. Her first book, THE BONESHAKER, comes out this spring from Clarion Books.

Coming soon: using administrative skills learned here at the NBTC offices, Kate descends into a veritable hell of back issues of the Gillymolle Press Journal in search of unpublished Owen Ilfordiana. We wish her the best, but have already picked out the wreath we’ll send to her funeral.

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