Jacob's Ladder - Atlas Obscura

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Jacob's Ladder

Jamestown, Saint Helena

A grueling 699-step stairway to a heavenly view of the island of Saint Helena. 

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The aptly named Jacob’s Ladder on the Island of Saint Helena is a heart-pounding flight of 699 steps ascending to an elevation of 600 feet on Ladder Hill overlooking Jamestown, the capital city of Saint Helena, one of three tiny islands in the South Atlantic Ocean that comprise the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha.

The stairway connects lower Main Street in Jamestown to the ruins of Ladder Hill Fort in the area known as Half Tree Hollow. The stairs are all that remain of a funicular constructed in 1829 for the Saint Helena Railway Company. It replaced the rope ladder soldiers climbed to move between Jamestown and their barracks far above.

Royal Engineers built the original cable railway to transport manure produced by Jamestown’s horses and cattle to the Island’s volcanic heights for fertilizer. The return descent carried farm goods to the city below. Three donkeys hitched to a winch at the top operated pulleys, moving two cars up and down the inclined plane. It reportedly took seven and a half minutes for a car to traverse the Ladder.

The railway remained in service until 1871 before falling into obsolescence and disrepair. Termites had feasted on its woodwork to the point of dangerous instability. The Royal Engineers dismantled the railway, leaving only its 700 stairs. (Subsequent roadwork eliminated one stair.)

The line length of the Ladder is almost 924 feet, with a maximum incline of 41 degrees. The steps have an 11-inch rise, making them exceptionally strenuous to climb.  Night lighting was installed along the sides in 2000. An encouraging marker denotes the halfway point.

The climb remains a workout-inducing shortcut between the city and the heights above. Schoolchildren traveling between home and school even devised a hair-raising technique to slide down the Ladder’s iron handrail.

The Jacob’s Ladder stairs clinging to the side of Ladder Hill are a beloved Saint Helena landmark. Tourists and visitors to the Island include a climb as a required activity on their itinerary. In 2013, Graham Doig of Scotland completed the fastest recorded ascent: 5 minutes and 16.78 seconds. Those strong enough to finish the grueling climb are rewarded at the summit with a spectacular aerial view of Jamestown and its harbor.

Know Before You Go

People who complete the ascent can get a certificate of achievement from the Museum of St. Helena.  The Museum also has a working model of the original railway.

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January 18, 2024

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