The Los Angeles funicular took its first flight on December 31, 1901, and reopened on August 31, 2017 after being closed for several years for repairs. Angels Flight was the brainchild of Col. James Ward Eddy, a Civil War veteran and railway constructor who financed the railway’s construction on his own dime. Angels Flight, the world’s shortest railway, climbs between Hill and Olive Streets, past the now long-disappeared Victorian homes of Bunker Hill; an area that itself is a ghost in the city, having been flattened and redeveloped starting in the 1950s to make way for modern buildings and skyscrapers that now shape the skyline of Los Angeles.
On opening day in 1901, the railway boasted more than 2,000 passengers. The Los Angeles Times documented the excitement of the day as passengers gawked at the thrill of riding and seeing the little railway ascent the hill for the first time: “inside the little engine-house there came the sharp tinkle of an electric bell, and the engineer grasped the lever and threw it back. Behold, the cars began to move!” The “awe-struck multitude” was most thrilled to see then Mayor, Meredith Snyder, make the trip up the hill.
Bunker Hill’s eventual demise also affected Angels Flight. The City of Los Angeles took hold of Angels Flight in the late 1960s by eminent domain as part of a redevelopment project, and promised to move and restore the railway—the dismantled funicular instead sat untouched, in pieces, in storage for nearly 30 years before relocating and reopening in 1996. Despite its many closings and eventual relocation, the railway has managed to appear in several noir novels and films as well as the 2016 film La La Land. Today, the railway is owned and operated by Angels Flight Railway Foundation, who with the support of activists and city officials, helped make the 2017 reopening possible.
In 1965, documentarian Ed Penney observed how the “gaudy colored chariot… can still take us back to the world of the near past.” The same holds true in 2017— it remains a funny relic of Los Angeles yesteryear among busy modern city streets. 116 years after Mayor Snyder took one of the first trips on the railway, today’s Mayor, Eric Garcetti, ceremoniously rode on Angels Flight to commemorate the re-opening. Our visit to Angels Flight on the day after its reopening found us battling extreme heat and a crowded platform of other passengers eager to take the quick trip down the hill. We of course opted for a second ride up the hill, which had us waiting in a hot Olivet for some time – several passengers could not bear the heat and the waiting, and left before the train could begin its ascent. As we sat there sweltering, we couldn’t help but think how many other Angelinos have rode up and down in these very same hot and crowded cars over the past 116 years. How many passengers sat just as we did on their way to work or school as they observed the city grow and change around them.
While it's impossible to think of how Bunker Hill’s midcentury redevelopment destroyed so much of its character and history, Angels Flight remains as a survivor of the Victorian era and reminder of a very different downtown, now a bustling and modern cityscape. In his 1965 documentary, Ed Penney documented the early destruction of Bunker Hill and voiced concern over the uncertain future of Angels Flight. His words ring true today as relics of Los Angeles continue to disappear:
Far more than Angels Flight will fall when these ties and tracks are torn apart. One more safety valve of a saner more lifelike pace. One more part of our heritage will be sold for scrap. Throughout this city, this nation, in the impatient world of the new there is little room for the old.
We think Penney would be glad to see how Angels Flight has managed to survive, in one way or another, all these years.
Angels Flight is located at 356 S. Olive Street and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Chandler, Raymond. “The King in Yellow.” The Simple Art of Murder, Pocket Books, Incorporated, 1952.
Dawson, Jim. Los Angeles's Angels Flight. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2008. Print.
"Mayor Snyder's Ascent of the "Angels' Flight." Los Angeles Times (1886-1922): 12. 1902. ProQuest. Web. 28 Aug. 2017.