The following article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.
Got a minute? In L.A., you can use it for a trip back in time.
A HEAVENLY RIDE
On the morning of December 31, 1901, a new train opened for business in downtown Los Angeles. There were crowds and many speeches about progress, and Mayor Meredith Snyder took one of the first rides. Wealthy women who lived in the Victorian mansions atop Bunker Hill served free punch to the passengers. The new railroad’s official name was the Los Angeles Incline Railway, but a nearby metal archway already contained the words, “Angels Flight,” so that’s what everyone called it. Passengers paid a penny for a one-way ride that lasted just 50 seconds. Advertised as “The Shortest Railway in the World,” Angels Flight’s track was only 315 feet long. It wasn’t a typical train, either, and didn’t have an engine car, boxcars, or a caboose—there were only two small, 32-passenger trams.
The cars were named Olivet and Sinai (for two mountains in the Bible). They traveled on an incline between Hill and Olive Streets that was so steep their floors and seats had to be built on different levels like stairs, to keep people from sliding off their benches. Painted white with black trim, Olivet and Sinai worked in tandem: one car carried passengers up from the corner of Third and Hill to Olive, while the other car was heading down.
Some people complained that the ceremonies in 1901 made too much fuss over a train that just traveled a couple of blocks. But Angels Flight went on to carry more passengers per mile than any other railway in the world. More than 100 million people traveled on its tracks in the first 50 years.
THAT MAN WITH A PLAN
The man who brought Angels Flight to L.A. was Colonel James Ward Eddy, a Civil War hero and a friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Eddy lived in the downtown area with his teenage grandson—a kid who often complained it would be a lot easier to climb Bunker Hill if the city would put in a cable car.
The colonel was an entrepreneur, always looking for a new business. He knew that the wealthy families who lived in the expensive Bunker Hill neighborhood would be willing to pay to not to have to climb the dirt road between Hill and Olive. Eddy had practiced many professions, including railroad construction and engineering. He knew that a cable car would be impractical on the short, steep slope to Bunker Hill, but certain types of railways might work very well.
In May 1901, the city gave Eddy permission to build the railway if he also included steps for pedestrians. By the end of the year, Bunker Hill residents returning from downtown shopping sprees could either haul their packages up 123 concrete steps or zip up the hill on Olivet or Sinai. Needless to say, Angels Flight was a success.
To entice tourists up to Bunker Hill, Eddy also built a 100-foot tower behind the Olive Street railway terminal. He called it Angels Rest and advertised its viewing platform as “grand beyond compare overlooking city, sea, and mountains.” Eddy also put a camera obscura in the tower. This dark room worked like the inside of a camera, using a pinhole light to project the view of the street outside onto the room’s walls.
FUN WITH FUNICULARS
Part of the charm of Angels Flight was that it was a funicular railway. Funicular is Latin for “cord” or “cable,” and the Angels Flight cars traveled up to Bunker Hill on heavy steel cable, with Sinai attached to one end and Olivet to the other. An electric power motor turned the cable and hoisted one car up the hill, while gravity pulled the other car down. The two cars counterbalanced each other, so that when Olivet went down the hill, Sinai’s weight prevented gravity from sending Olivet down too quickly, and vice versa.
The cars were guided along by their railway tracks. They had no brakes, but each had an extra safety cable in case the main cable broke. There was one derailing in 1913 when a winch axle snapped, but all passengers except one were unhurt…and that woman broke her collar bone only because she jumped off the train. Otherwise, the funicular system worked safely as Olivet and Sinai each made 400 trips a day, seven days a week.
By 1969 Angels Flight had operated continuously for 68 years. During that time, the railway saw only a few changes: There were new owners, the fare went up to a nickel, the cars’ colors were now orange with black trim, and the observation tower had been torn down in 1938. (It was too rickety.)
What changed most was Bunker Hill. The wealthy residents moved to the suburbs, and the fancy Victorians became multiunit rooming houses that didn’t age well. After World War II, the City of Los Angeles considered Bunker Hill to be a crime-ridden slum. In the late 1950s, L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) knocked down the old Victorians to make way for high-rises and skyscrapers.
As Bunker Hill was demolished, preservationists fought to keep Angels Flight going. They lost in 1969, when CRA dismantled the railway and put Olivet and Sinai in storage, though the agency promised that they’d be back on their tracks “in a couple of years.”
(Image credit: Sgerbic)
Twenty-seven years later—in 1996 and after lots of public pressure—CRA finally reinstalled Angels Flight…but it moved the station to the corner of Fourth and Hill, about half a block from the original site. The new track was 298 feet long, but the steep grade was the same. So were Olivet and Sinai, which had been cleaned and restored. What CRA contractors changed, though, was the funicular hauling system. They hired Lift Engineering to “improve” the railway with a drive system that used separate gears, cables, and brakes for each car.
Then, in 2001, Sinai derailed. Its cable broke, its brakes failed, and it plummeted backward down the hill, crashing into Olivet. An 83-year-old tourist and Holocaust survivor named Leon Praport was killed. His wife and seven other passengers were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the accident on Lift’s faulty design and construction, and an investigation revealed that Lift’s owner, Yanek Kunczynski, had already been sued twice because two ski lifts he’d built had failed and caused passenger deaths. After the accident, Kunczynski fled the country, the City of Los Angeles paid a million dollars in damages to the Praport family, and Olivet and Sinai were grounded again.
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
It took nine years, but a nonprofit foundation, which now owns Angels Flight, raised enough money to restore it. They kept the original funicular system and added safety features, including rail brakes.
On March 2010, Olivet and Sinai began their ups and downs once again. After a little more than a month, they’d carried nearly 60,000 riders. Today, passengers can still experience a ride on the “world’s shortest railway” (though technically, it’s now the second-shortest: at 298 feet long, the Fourth Street Elevator in Dubuque, Iowa, just edges out Angels Flight). And it’s all much the same as it was a century ago…except (thanks to inflation) a one-way ride now costs a quarter.
(Image credit: MikeJiroch)
Angels Flight has made its mark in movies and novels—usually showing the nonglamorous side of L.A. The railway has been featured in many crime films, including Hollow Triumph (1948), where a murderer is on the run; Criss Cross (1949), about an armored car robbery; Cry of the Hunted (1953), about an escaped prisoner; and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a murder mystery. It even had a place in Hollywood’s first monster horror musical: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (1964).
Mystery writers also liked Angels Flight. Raymond Chandler put it in two of his books—The King in Yellow (1938) and The High Window (1942)—and so did Michael Connelly, in his popular police novel Angels Flight (1999).
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into California. This volume brings you stories of the Golden State you've never heard before. You’ll meet child prodigies, spies, traitors, celebrities (and sidekicks), gossips, hermits, humanitarians, and zealots.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!