Historic Structures

Angels Flight Cable Railway, Los Angeles California

Date added: August 2, 2019 Categories: California Train Station

The property was first constructed in 1901 to provide efficient transportation between the city's commercial core and the top of Bunker Hill. New cars were constructed in 1905. A new station house, designed by noted Los Angeles architects Train & Williams, and an entrance arch were added in 1910. The period of significance begins in 1905 and ends circa 1945. The Flight operated continuously until 1969 when it was dismantled and stored as part of an urban renewal program. Twenty-five years later, the original elements of Angels Flight was removed from storage, rehabilitated, and reinstalled within the same city block slightly south of and parallel to its original location on the hill. Angels Flight operates in its historic function, carrying passengers up and down Bunker Hill's steep eastern slope in downtown Los Angeles.

One of only six incline railways still extant and operating in the United States, Angels Flight represents a now extremely rare property type. The incline railway was originally developed to serve two different needs: industrial and passenger. According to incline railway historian Donald Duke, "The first known incline railway in the United States was constructed in 1762, at Lewiston, New York. It was used to haul merchandise up and down the Niagara escarpment, near what is now the border between the United States and Canada." The application of cable rail technology to incline rails spurred their greatest period of construction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with most constructed between 1880 and 1910.

The technology required for both incline railways and streetcars developed from the early work of Andrew Smith Halladie. Adapting a mining technique of hauling coal cars by large cables, Halladie employed a steam engine to power passenger vehicles run along tracks similar to horsecar tracks. The perfection of high-carbon or crucible steel cable by Halladie and John Roebling made possible new cablerun rail systems. The cable technology lent itself particularly well to climbing steep grades, as nearly 95 percent of the power generated was used to move the cable alone, regardless of the load.

In the simplest of inclines two counterbalanced cars move up and down parallel tracks, somewhat in the manner of a glorified dumbwaiter. Much of the load of each car is balanced by the load of the second car, the engine merely supplying power to move the unbalanced payload and to overcome the friction of the system. Inclines were usually used for comparatively short runs and became quite popular as a means of lifting passengers up very steep grades.

The original installation of Angels Flight involved construction of an inclined cable railway on grade from South Hill Street to Clay Street and at some point past Clay, on trestle work up to South Olive Street. As a result of this configuration, two vertical slopes were involved: a gradual climb of 40'-0" up to the elevation of Clay Street and a steep ascent of 70'-0" from Clay to Olive Street. The two car railway was built as a three-rail system, with a shared common center rail and an automatic turnout system.

In 1905, the track was rebuilt into a direct line system with timber trestles placed to allow the cars to ascend the entire length of the hill at a uniform 33% grade, elevated above the street. New cars, those which are extant, were also constructed in 1905. The new three-track system had a turn-out area in the middle of the incline which allowed the new cars to pass each other, albeit with only four inches to spare. A new (extant) station house and entrance arch did not require any additional mechanical changes for the operation of the railway when it was constructed in 1910. In 1913 the decking, support bents and turn-out bay were again partially reconstructed by Mercereau Bridge & Construction Co.

Angels Flight ran on a 30-inch gauge line, forged of 40 pound iron. The Flight operated on three-rail system with a four-rail passing bay. The "Olivet" car ran along the north rail; the "Sinai" car ran along the south rail. The cars came within about four inches of one another as they crossed the passing bay. A 50 horsepower Westinghouse slipring motor powered the Flight's operation; speed was regulated by a Westinghouse streetcar controller. The motor turned a system of drums around which a 7/8-inch steel pulling cable was reeled. One end of the cable was attached to each car. An operator was located at the station house; the lower station was remotely controlled.

In several cities, such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, individual incline railways served as unique streetcar lines in a mountainous or riverside topography, connecting hillside residential neighborhoods to the city center below. An 1880 article in Scientific American explained "The topography of many western cities is such that, as the corporate limits enlarge, their most populous portions include districts embodying very rugged features. [H]ills,or rather mountains... have long since been absorbed by the cities..., and these are covered with a dense and growing population. This has been of late years rendered the more possible by the introduction of the inclined railway, which makes hill climbing a luxury."

The popularity of incline railways as a means of urban transit passed only with the overall decline in popularity of the streetcar, the rise of automotive technology for transit and transportation, and the subsequent decentralization of cities in the twentieth century.

The mountainous topography of Southern California popularized the use of incline railways throughout the region. Other cities where incline railways flourished, such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, required their use as a result of river bank topographies. Unlike Angels Flight, other inclines railways constructed in mountainous regions of California and the United States were used for tourism or for industrial purposes. In Los Angeles, Angels Flight, Court Flight and the Mt. Washington railways carried passengers up hillsides rather than river bluffs, during the city's pre-automotive history. Both Angels Flight and Court Flight operated for passenger transport up Bunker Hill. Other historic incline railways in Southern California included the Mount Lowe Railway, located in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Pasadena, and the Island Mountain Railway on Catalina Island. Angels Flight is the only surviving historic incline railway in California and one of only six in the nation.

Angels Flight, in operation longer than any other cable railway system in the City of Los Angeles, was a favorite of residents and tourists alike. From 1901 until 1969, the railway traveled the steep face of Bunker Hill as the city grew and changed around it. Entrepreneur Colonel J. W. Eddy saw the need to connect the exclusive residential enclave of Olive Heights, as Bunker Hill was then known, to the burgeoning business district below. Elegant Victorian residences, designed in fashionable Queen Anne and Eastlake styles, crowned the hill. The area was not accessible from its eastern edge and could only be reached by steeply graded streets and steps. The city's commercial district lay to the east, just below the hill. Extravagant Queen Anne and Eastlake mansions, built for prominent Angelenos such as the Crockers and Bradburys, crowned the hill. The mansions were followed by elaborate hotels and apartment buildings as the popularity of the hill grew. The only problem was access, since the hill was steep and the walk formidable.

Third Street was Bunker Hill's only link to downtown, yet the street extended only a short block west of Hill before terminating and becoming a pedestrian stairway into the residential area. Third Street resumed at the top of the Hill, at Olive Street, though no through traffic could proceed over the hill. This situation remained until the Third Street tunnel was constructed under Bunker Hill in 1901 to provide an uninterrupted route for vehicular traffic. The tunnel, however, left unsolved the problem of transporting pedestrians to the top of the hill.

On May 10, 1901. Colonel Eddy petitioned Los Angeles City Council for a franchise to operate an electric cable railway to travel over the Third Street right-of-way from Hill to Olive Street. The City Council granted the request to construct the railway in the public rightof- way with two conditions. The open area above the Third Street Tunnel was required to be turned into a landscaped park, and a stairway was to be constructed to avoid a monopoly on the access up to South Olive Street.

Construction commenced in August of 1901 and was completed by December of the same year. The Angels Flight cars were christened on December 31. 1901. The railway immediately became an important connection between the affluent hillside and the commercial core of the downtown area. The fare was one cent thereafter, and never more than five cents during its entire run. The mayor commended Eddy for "furnishing transportation facilities for the hill residents and in beautifying the formerly rough and unsightly face of the hill."

The bulk of the traffic was from passengers entering on Hill Street. Passengers entered a car and waited for a buzzer to announce the beginning of the ride. The entire trip was made in just under one minute. The attendant, fare box, and mechanical systems were all located at the top of the hill.

Although not the only incline cable railway in Los Angeles, Angels Flight was the most popular and the longest lived. Billed as "the shortest railway in the world", the Flight operated from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. The Flight's popularity peaked in the 1920s with as many as 12,000 passengers daily. By World War II, however, with the rise of the automobile, ridership plummeted to an average of 3,000 passengers daily. In its first fifty years. Angels Flight claimed to have transported more than one hundred million passengers.

Like other cities throughout the nation, Los Angeles experienced the effects of urban renewal programs of the mid-twentieth century. Historian Paul Gleye described the effects on Bunker Hill: "In 1948 the City Council adopted a resolution declaring the need for a redevelopment agency, and by 1955 a plan had been prepared and adopted that called for the demolition and redevelopment of the entire hill. The derelict old mansions-turned boarding houses would be replaced by modern apartment towers and landscaped plazas. The proposals were controversial, but ten years later the land had been cleared, its population removed, and in 1969 Angels Flight was dismantled amidst promises that it would be rebuilt as part of the redevelopment plan." It was to be restored at the same location in two years, when the Bunker Hill regrading project was completed.

In the 1960s, Angels Flight still transported thousands of people per day, although substantial changes had occurred in the neighborhood. Its last weekend of operation was May 17-18, 1969. An estimated 40,000 people took the 315 foot journey one more time before the railway was dismantled and stored. As with its opening, all rides were free.

Long considered an icon of downtown Los Angeles, Angels Flight was recorded in many photographs, the subject of dozens of postcards, and the location scene of movies. The Daughters of the Golden West were the first to designate its importance with the installation of a marker in 1952. It was recorded for the Historic American Buildings Survey by the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1964, and designated by the Cultural Heritage Board as one of the first Historic-Cultural Monuments in 1962.

Beginning in the late 1960s and through the 1980s, and without the building height limit that had been lifted in 1957, Bunker Hill was redeveloped with large high rise commercial towers and landscaped plazas. However, the area remained separated by its geography from the remainder of the downtown below the hill. In 1995, the station house, entrance arch and cars were removed from storage and rehabilitated. Seismically stable trackage and trestle were constructed to emulate the appearance and function of the original, to the extent technically and economically feasible. The rehabilitation and reinstallation of Angels Flight, conducted according to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards, restored the historic link between Bunker Hill and the city's historic commercial core below.