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1.25.2008 - 65 comments 

Several of you may remember when we were in San Francisco a few months ago and my post about "Lombard Street" (often referred to) as the crookedest Street in the World. But you may also remember that although I said it really WASN'T actually the crookedest street in the world, I failed to say what WAS the ACTUAL crookedest street. At that particular time, I didn't really know what it was, or even WHERE it really was for that matter. I then had a blog commenter post the question, "OK… well what IS the real crookedest Street in the World then?"

I did some research and then updated my blog post to include the information that it was (according to) what "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" calls the "Crookedest Street in the World." It is “Snake Alley”! Since that time, I have actually had a desire to visit this place, which I had previously to this never heard of before.

As we kept on going on our trip at the end of this summer to the Eastern side of Iowa, we decided that we were actually going to try and find this place and go at least get some pictures of it and if possible, drive down it too. So we made reservations and took off on a quest to find this place. After arriving in Burlington, Iowa, we actually found highway signs that pointed the way to “Snake Alley”. After driving around for a while we finally came across the exit of it. We parked the car and started our “Crooked Street” adventure.

It is located between Washington and Columbia Streets on Sixth Street in this quaint little town of Burlington. This Mississippi River town is in the Southeast corner of Iowa actually not too far from where Iowa, Missouri and Illinois meet on the Mississippi. Even if we had not gotten there just to see Snake Alley, it would have still been a nice town visit.

When we got to Snake Alley, we drove to the bottom of it to get some pictures and then walked to the top of it and took some more pictures. While at the top, we found out that you can actually drive down the (one-way) street, just like you can on Lombard Street. It is not like the queues at Lombard Street, where you sometimes have to wait for quite a while before you can get in line to go down the street.

I did also test my driving skills on what is perhaps Burlington's most famous landmark, Snake Alley. It consists of five half-curves and two quarter-curves and drops 58 feet over a distance of 275 feet. The street is reminiscent of vineyard paths in France and Germany.

The thing that was most intriguing to me, were the bricks that were laid on angles so that the horses that pulled the milk delivery trucks to the top of the hill could get more traction while climbing up the hill. For me, that was the most remarkable part of the whole street. It was actually both longer and more crooked than Lombard Street, but as you can see (from the pictures below), nowhere as beautifully landscaped.

Snake Alley was actually constructed in 1894 as an experimental street design. The intention was to provide a more direct link between the downtown business district and the neighborhood shopping area located up the hill on North Sixth Street. Working together, three public-spirited German immigrants conceived and carried out the idea of a winding hillside street, reminiscent of vineyard paths in France and Germany. Charles Starker was a German-trained architect and landscape engineer who settled in Burlington partly because it reminded him of southern Germany. He took a prominent role in many of Burlington's development projects, including Crapo Park, which was built at the same time as Snake Alley.

William Steyh, the city engineer, was well respected for his engineering capabilities and his enthusiasm for park projects. Steyh was also involved in developing Crapo Park, as well as the street railways and stone viaduct construction.

George Kriechbaum, a paving contractor, was a Burlington pioneer whose parents had emigrated from Germany. He constructed the first brick paving in Burlington in 1887. The brick paving of Snake Alley is still the original brick that Kriechbaum provided in 1894. This fact just amazed me as I viewed how well this street still looks after 113 years of use.

Local newspapers proclaimed the street "a triumph in practical engineering." The city had considered constructing more streets in this same manner, but the switchback design proved to be less successful for horse carriages than the city had anticipated.

There is a legend that the fire department used this alley to test horses. If a horse could take the curves at a gallop and still be breathing when it reached the top, it was deemed fit to haul the city's fire wagons. Unfortunately, many teams would run out of control or stumble over the limestone curbing, sometimes resulting in a broken leg.

The alley is composed of tooled, curved limestone curbing and locally-fired blue clay bricks. The constantly changing slant from one curve to the next necessitated a complicated construction technique to keep the high grade to the outside. The craftsmanship and soundness of materials used in the construction of Snake Alley have made it a durable street. It stands today as a singular landmark in Burlington and a reflection of the city's ethnic heritage.

Although this certainly did not have all of the glit and hype of Lombard Street, it sure was nice and quiet around there. Everyone was very pleasant and the view of the Mississippi and the city was in ways just as magnificant from the top of Snake Alley as it was from the top of Lombard Street. But... just in case someone should ever ask you which is older Snake Alley or Lombard Street. The answer is that Snake Alley wins that one too. Lomard Street came about in 1923 as opposed to Snake Alley that was started in 1894 some 29 years earlier than did San Francisco's Lomard Street.

“Be wary of technology; it is often merely an improved means to an unimproved end.” ~ Henry David Thoreau