Jacob’s Ladder in St. Helena Is One of the Longest, Steepest Stairways in the World

by Piya Sengupta1 year ago
Picture Jacob’s Ladder in St. Helena Is One of the Longest, Steepest Stairways in the World

Remember the remote island of St. Helena from your history lessons? The one where the British sent Napoleon Bonaparte on his second exile? In fact, he died in St. Helena in 1821. But, apart from this historical importance, this island also has something else that makes it famous – Jacob’s Ladder.

When you approach this beautiful island by sea, the first thing you probably notice is a continuous and steep stairway, probably the steepest you have seen in your entire life. That is Jacob’s Ladder for you, twice voted one of the seven wonders of St. Helena. And it is not for the weak of the heart.

What is the history behind Jacob’s Ladder?

Jacob Ladder
The Ladder Hill Railway, and how it operated. Image Credit: sainthelenaisland.info+Kevstan/wikimedia.org

Before Jacob’s Ladder, there used to be a zigzag path up the hill from the valley floor, followed by a rope ladder that led to the top of the hill to the Ladder Hill Fort. It was mainly used by soldiers to climb up to and down from the barracks at the top. The hill was named “Ladder Hill” because of this rope ladder.


In 1820, the rope ladder was replaced by a steep, two-car, inclined plane. There, wagons were hauled up the inclined plane on rails using pulleys. They transported goods and supplies for the Ladder Hill Fort and the farmland on top and carried the farm produce down. The cars rode on a pair of iron-plated fir rails that were laid on wooden sleepers anchored into the rocks. In between, a steep staircase was made for pedestrians. The power was provided by three donkeys at the top, rotating the machine connected to the cars by iron chains and pulleys.

This was called the “Ladder Hill Railway,” and it was in service from 1829 to 1871. This helped carry huge quantities of manure from Jamestown to the top of the hill as fertilizer. But, it had its fair share of malfunctions. The haulage chain used to break quite often, and sometimes the mechanism failed because of overweight manure-laden trucks. The last disaster struck when white ants ate away the wooden sleepers and damaged them. The machine fell into disuse and was dismantled in 1871, keeping just the staircase, Jacob’s Ladder, which is still in use today.

What does climbing Jacob’s Ladder feel like?

Jacob's Ladder
Jacob’s ladder, view from top

When the inclined plane was dismantled, the stairs in between the rails remained and became known as “Jacob’s Ladder.” It has 699 steep steps that run from the valley floor up to the Ladder Hill Fort on top of the slope. At 924 feet in length, the rise of the steps is an average of 11 inches. It is steep, and the cliff face has a height of 602 feet above sea level.

Sliding down the handrails
Sliding down the handrails. Image Credit: sainthelenaisland.info

It is said that the last lower step got destroyed, and the number of steps originally was 700. A few hikers who make the difficult climb have figured out how to make the descent risky but easier. They slide down with their upper back on one handrail and their feet on the other, kind of like an amusement park ride, but without a brake button. For that, you have to rely on your fitness and ability. Jacob’s Ladder is strenuous and extremely difficult to hike, and you get a certificate from the Museum of St. Helena if you complete it.

Climbing up the Ladder
Climbing up the Ladder

Some people who have hiked it say that the ascent of the ladder is more fatiguing than it looks. One can climb the almost vertical stairs and come down feeling accomplished. But the next day, they are hardly able to move their limbs. If you do make it, however, the view is worth the torturous climb.


Why are the stairs named Jacob’s Ladder?

Jacob's ladder, St. Helena
Jacob’s Ladder, St. Helena

The Bible holds the key to this answer. In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 28, Jacob leaves Beersheba and goes towards Haran, where he spends one night as it gets dark. He took a stone from that place and placed it under his head to sleep. That night Jacob dreamt about a ladder on Earth that reached heaven, and “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” Therefore, what can be a better steep stair or ladder reference than “Jacob’s Ladder”? We’re pretty sure there are many more “Jacob’s Ladder references around the world, all involving steep ladders or strenuous climbs!

Stairways are generally supposed to make your life easier, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Indeed, the world is full of steep, scary, eerie, risky stairs full of thrills and adventures leading to worthy end results. And often, the most difficult climbs give you the best,  out-of-the-world views.

Here are three thrilling staircases from around the world where you might need to watch your step! NEXT Page>>

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Picture Jacob’s Ladder in St. Helena Is One of the Longest, Steepest Stairways in the World
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