The Shortest Railway in the World
The cars remain stationary on their twin tracks, fresh paint splashing orange and black across the doors. The metal tracks reflect the fading sunset, and the arches at both the top and bottom are clean and renovated. I glance up at the top, the tracks narrowing at the plaza. Although not functioning, Angels Flight is still a very welcoming sight.
I want to ride it. I want to chug up the tracks for the small fee of 25 cents. For a dollar, you can ride up and down and up again. And then back down. And for that 25 cents, you will be connecting Downtown LA’s historic core and fashion district with the modern financial district, including the California Plaza Watercourt, which features restaurants and stores, and a large concrete stage for live entertainment. In the summer, performances are held on Fridays, which are free for the public. I myself have seen the Chinese Modern Dance Group perform at this pleasant venue, the show accented with a beautiful water-jet display.
Built in 1901, the first Angels Flight was originally named the Los Angeles Incline Railway, and was located further north on Hill, directly adjacent to the 3rd Street Tunnel. It was meant to connect posh Bunker Hill District with the area below, an area consisting of the Grand Central Market and the Downtown Shopping District. As one car ascended, the other descended, carried down by gravity. The two cars, named Sinai and Olivet, allude to biblical mountains. Perhaps they represent a miniature rail line climbing a miniature mountain? It’s a cute image. The cars were also not originally orange and black, but rather, pearly white. They were not painted orange and black until the 1930s.E
According to Glass, Steel and Stone (www.glasssteelandstone.com), the decorative Beaux-Arts archway entrance and station house were added around 1910. The original archway was a simple cast iron pipe structure with a two-feet-high cherub and the name Angel’s Flight (with an apostrophe) above it. The Beaux-Arts style, which heavily influenced US architecture in the period between 1885–1920, dictated the renovation of the new archway. It announced the Angels Flight, minus the apostrophe, and the name stuck, no matter how grammatically incorrect.
My eyes catch the etching of letters on the lower arch, BPOE. Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, or The Elks, as most people know them. Once upon a time, Elks lodge no. 99 was located next to the top of the flight. The Elks are a fraternal order founded back in 1868, a social network that includes numerous celebrities. The list includes presidents FDR, Truman and JFK, actors Will Rogers, Clint Eastwood and Gene Autry, and athletes Vince Lombardi, Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle. The arch, built in 1909, was meant to commemorate the Elks Convention of 1908.
The designing architects were Merceu Bridge & Construction Co. and Train & Williams. I could find no other mention of these two companies in connection with any other Los Angeles buildings. Angels Flight seems to be their most famous accomplishment, but unlike their creation, the companies have not been able to stand the test of time.
Colonel James Ward Eddy is the builder of Angels Flight. He was able to secure the city contract to build the railway that would unify the two distinct districts of downtown. Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where Colonel Eddy is buried, notes that he was a Los Angeles pioneer and a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln. He moved to Los Angeles in 1895, where he settled and surveyed the first transmission line for water power from Kern River to Los Angeles, which was later obtained and used by the Pacific Electric Railroad Company of Los Angeles. He died in his home on April 13, 1916 and was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery next to his two wives and son in the Griffith Lawn. Some of his neighbors in this famous cemetery include Jayne Mansfield, Mel Blanc, Estelle Getty, and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, to name a few.
Angels Flight remained fully functioning until 1969, when the cars were removed and hidden away in storage. The surrounding area was redeveloped, as Bunker Hill went through a complete transformation. Working-class family apartment buildings made way for commercial buildings and modern apartment complexes, and the rail was finally relocated a block or so south on Hill St.
The famous railway has appeared in The Glenn Miller Story, and episodes of Perry Mason and Dragnet, and The Money Trap. However, the Angels Flight was not the only funicular railway in Los Angeles. A similar railway called “Court Flight” existed just north of Angels Flight, near the corner of Temple and Hill streets. Today, the Santa Ana Freeway lies there.
Consultants’ Bureau (www.consultantsbureau.com) mentions that after 27 years in storage, the funicular was rebuilt and reopened in 1996 a half block south of the original site. Although the original cars were used, a brand new track and haulage system was designed and built, a redesign which had unfortunate consequences five years later. Overall, the new line was about 300 feet long, on an approximately 33% grade. Car movement was controlled by an operator inside the upper station house, who was responsible for “visually determining that the track and vehicles were clear for movement, closing the platform gates, starting the cars moving, monitoring the operation of the funicular cars, observing car stops at both stations, and collecting fares from passengers.”
Just reopened in 1996, Angels Flight was closed again in 2001 because on February 1 of that year an 83-year-old man named Leon Praport was killed when one car heading uphill suddenly reversed direction and sped back downhill, crashing into the second car. Seven other passengers were also injured, including his wife Lola.
The National Transportation Safety Board states that the company that designed and built the drive, control, braking, and haul systems, Lift Engineering/Yantrak is no longer in business. The whereabouts of the company’s principal are still unknown.
Angels Flight, while not necessarily as practical as it once was, has always been a source of pride throughout its 108-year-history. It is a part of our past and will be a part of our future. I glance up at the hill once more, the glint of the metal impossible to miss, and imagine that I see the cars ascending and descending the tracks.
Today, the cars remain inactive, although the Los Angeles Times has announced several expected grand openings. On November 1, 2008, the cars were once again placed on their tracks and testing was begun on the railway. It has not yet reopened to the public, but word has it that they are scheduled to open sometime in mid-2009.