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American Lives

Los Angeles: Angels Flight Railway (CA)

by Laurie Stevens, 6 March 2022

 

Angels Flight Railway, Los Angeles, by Laurie Stevens
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Angels Flight, 'The World's Shortest Railway', is a 91m, narrow gauge funicular incline railway, operating with two cars running in opposite directions on a shared cable.

Opened on New Year's Eve 1901, it serves passengers who are moving from the downtown area's 'Historic Core' to an area known as Bunker Hill.

From 1901 to 1969 it was originally located about half a block north of its current location, but all of the elements were dismantled and moved when the original area was cleared for development.

Los Angeles is a place of hills, cliffs, and canyons. and for the some of the first white Angelenos coming to make real estate money, the funicular was an answer to that, a 'last mile' commuting system for would-be residents coming to buy, and not so much intended as a public service.

Angels Flight Railway, Los Angeles, by Laurie Stevens
Photo © Laurie Stevens

There are two cars which run on the counterbalance funicular. These were built in the Beaux-Arts style, named 'Sinai' and 'Olivet'.

When originally opened in 1901, Angels Flight was called the 'Los Angeles Incline Railway'; it was one of several inclines to be built in the growing Los Angeles area, which since the 1880s had also already developed some electrical flatland rail lines.

Angels Flight received its current name in 1912 when the incline was purchased from its original founder, J W Eddy, a railroad man and a friend of Abraham Lincoln.

In its original location, the service had six additional owners after Eddy.

Angels Flight Railway, Los Angeles, by Laurie Stevens
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Bright vermilion adorns the two boarding stations of Angels Flight. The other inclines which were planned, some never built, for the Los Angeles area were site-specific to get people to a teachers college, a sanitorium, or from a beach to a cliff-top restaurant.

Funiculars and other rail infrastructure fell victim to the post-war preponderance of the automobile, as was the case in many other cities.

Angels Flight Railway, Los Angeles, by Laurie Stevens
Photo © Laurie Stevens

There have been several accidents, one fatal, in both of its locations. There was only one at the original site, but 2001 and 2013 each saw failures in some of the design elements, along with some maintenance issues.

The accident of 2001 resulted in the unfortunate death of an eighty-three year-old tourist and Holocaust survivor named Leon Praport, along with injuring seven others, including Praport's wife.

After that Angels Flight closed for nine years while safety issues were thoroughly investigated and addressed by the NTSB, the National Transportation and Safety Board.

Angels Flight Railway, Los Angeles, by Laurie Stevens
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Angels Flight's components were in storage for twenty-seven years, from 1969 to 1996. Bunker Hill, a once very fashionable early neighborhood which was served by the original location, went into decline in the mid-twentieth century, its gorgeous Victorian wedding-cake-looking homes becoming seedy and abandoned.

In 1959 the city declared the area blighted and, in 1969, structures on Bunker Hill were condemned; the hill was leveled in a controversial redevelopment plan.

Skyscrapers for the business district are the features of this new landscape.

Angels Flight Railway, Los Angeles, by Laurie Stevens
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Angels Flight has appeared in many, many films, television shows, video, music, literature, and visual art.

The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places on 13 October 2000. It continues to operate today with the fare being a dollar each way.

Main Sources

Angels Flight website

On Bunker Hill

 

Images and text copyright © Laurie Stevens except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.