He Rode Into the Sunset

February 14, 1924

62-year-old John Byrne, a character actor who typically played the role of the grizzled old sourdough in films, was found dead in his room at 509 Temple Street, a boarding house.  Police investigating the room found that a tube that connected the gas to a small heater had been pulled, or accidentally kicked, loose.

It was unclear whether Byrne, whose real name was John McGuire, had intended to die.

There was no suicide note, and it appeared that at his time of death, Byrne had been reading a western story in a popular magazine.  The magazine was opened to page 41, the last page of the story, and the last line read, "And so, with the same old cheery smile on his sun-cracked lips, Sagebrush Jim came to the end of the trail."

Temple Street Cable Railway

Of the two cable car lines that ran through Bunker Hill in the late 1880s, the Second Street Railway was the first to be financed and functioning, but the Temple Street line would prove to be more durable and longer lasting. While the cable cars of Los Angeles are now just a very small footnote in the city’s history, the Temple Street Railway was for years, a reliable mainstay for Bunker Hill residents in the waning days of the Victorian era.

Cable cars did not come to Los Angeles until 1885, even though a local paper suggested in 1882 that a line running up Temple and over to the Normal School (where the Central Library now stands) would be a good idea. The Temple Street line was conceived of around the same time as its Second Street counterpart, but while the latter immediately had investors reaching into deep pockets, the raising of funds for the Temple cable cars was slower going. A month after the Second Street line was completed, the Temple Street Cable Car Railway Company was finally able to incorporate with a Board of Directors that included Walter S Maxwell, Victor Beaudry, Ralph Rogers, Thomas Stovell, Julius Lyons, E.A. Wall, O. Morgan, Prudent Beaudry and John Milner.


Work on the line began in December of 1885 and was estimated to be completed by the following May. Unlike the Second Street line which was constructed rapidly to capitalize on the real estate boom of the 1880s, the Temple line was built with considerably more care. Completion of the railway was delayed, mainly due to wait times on parts ordered from around the country, and the Temple Street cable car made its eagerly awaited inaugural trip through Bunker Hill on July 14, 1886.


The Temple line cost $90,000 to construct (around 2 million in today’s dollars) and would require roughly 600 passengers a day, each way, to make a profit. The cars, built by the John Stephenson Co of New York, held fourteen passengers and according to the Los Angeles Times, “are models of elegance and easy motion.” The line initially ran 1.6 miles up Temple from Spring to Belmont, and would eventually be extended to Hoover in an area then known as Dayton Heights. Unlike the failed attempt of the Second Street line to connect with the Cahuenga Valley Railroad, the Temple Railway was successfully connected with the steam cars which allowed passengers to transfer from one line to another and travel out to Hollywood.


Tragedy struck the Temple Street Cable Railway on the morning of January 16, 1892 when James Brown, a 51 year old employee of the railway company for six years, was killed in a freak accident. Every day, Brown would oil the wheels from the end of the line up to the powerhouse on Edgeware near Echo Park. On the fateful morning, a piece of Brown’s clothing was caught between a cable and the wheel. The speed of the wheel pulled his arm off and as the Times reported, “he was terribly mangled around the head and face, and several bones were crushed, so that death must have almost been instantaneous.” Almost a year later, Brown’s widow would be awarded $20,000 from the Temple Street Railway Company.

Great flooding in 1889 would obliterate the Second Street line, but the better built Temple railway would persevere with little interruption to service and would carry 1.5 million passengers by year’s end. This would prove to be the pinnacle for the line, which never turned much of a profit and was near bankruptcy by 1897. The cars managed to chug along for another few years, but by 1902 they were breaking down frequently and many residents opted to walk along the rails instead of waiting to catch a ride on these relics of a bygone era. The railway was purchased by railroad magnate Henry Huntington in late 1901 who would eventually make the line an electric one. On November 18, 1902, the cable cars on Temple Street officially stopped running.

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Court Flight – The Other Funicular

Court Flight

Even the least historically minded Angeleno probably knows about Angels Flight, the beloved funicular that graced the corner of Hill and Third for over 60 years. What many do not realize is that for 40 years, Bunker Hill residents enjoyed two incline railways in their neighborhood. Unlike Angels Flight, which has become one of the defining images of yesterday’s Downtown, Court Flight has become a footnote in the history of the city.

Dreamed up by the Observation Tower Company in 1904, Court Flight was originally envisioned as a tourist spot, more than a practical mode of transportation. The railway was built on portion of Court Street so steep it was passible only to pedestrians by stairs, and its pinnacle was believed to be the highest point Downtown until City Hall was completed in 1928. It was this bird’s eye view of the city that attracted the Observation Tower Company who intended to install a tower at the top of the funicular to make optimum use of the view.

Court Flight Early Days

Initial construction began in December 1904 with the grading of the hill and the replacement of the old wooden steps with a concrete staircase. Progress was then halted for months when Mrs. Rachel Hopperstead had an injunction issued claiming that her property at the top of the hill would be damaged by the proposed observation tower. The Company acquiesced, agreeing to forsake the tower. Construction on the incline railway was completed in October of 1905.

Court Flight by Ansel Adams

Court Flight’s base was located on Broadway and it ran approximately 180 feet up towards Hill Street, in between Temple & First Street. At a 53 percent grade, it was probably the steepest railway in the world (and possibly the shortest as well). The two cars that each carried 14 passengers were designed by a local artisan named Leo Suck and were lavishly furnished with mahogany and large French plate glass mirrors. Unlike Angels Flights, the Court Street cars ran on two separate tracks instead of one. The top of the railway was about 450 feet above sea level and photos from the 1920s reveal that the observation tower was eventually installed and provided visitors with views of Catalina Island. When it opened, a ride cost 5 cents, but books of 100 were available which cost 1 cent per trip. While it was conceived as a way to earn money from the views, Court Flight quickly became popular with Bunker Hill residents traveling to jobs located in the Civic Center and Financial District.

Court Flight Cat
From the time it opened until his death in 1933, Sam Vandergrift manned the controls of Court Flight, taking only three days off the entire time for his wedding and honeymoon. Sam liked to brag that in all the years he served as operator, not a single accident or injury ever occurred. Since the drunken teamster who fell down the bluff in 1908 was not riding the train, just standing near it, Vandergrift’s safety claim does appear to be ring true. In addition to old faithful Sam, the other mainstay of Court Flight was Tom the cat who slept in the operator’s chair at night and rode the train during the day, begging meals from customers on their way home from the market.

Post Court Flight

Sam Vandergrift had assumed ownership of the funicular early on and his widow kept it running after his death. By 1942 the railway was operating at a loss despite the steady flow of passengers and the $65 a month in rent from the sandwich shop at its base on Broadway. Additionally, Mrs. Vandergrift was having trouble finding reliable operators who had not enlisted. In January 1943, she was granted a permit to abandon operation, and after 38 years, the cars on Court Flight came to permanent halt. Subsequently, a franchise was granted to an unnamed party to start up operation, which the Board of Public Utilities tried to have terminated. In October of 1943 all issues involving Court Flight were ended when a discarded cigarette ignited the brush around the cable cars. The flames destroyed the tracks in seconds. The cars are rumored to have survived the fire and are supposedly in the possession of a collector in Woodland Hills.

Court Flight Headline

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection & USC Digital Archive