Angels Flight

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Angels Flight—everybody’s favorite FUNicular—is there a more iconic piece of Bunker Hilliana? All aboard! proclaims the city of LA!

But don’t get too excited. It’s not open, so you’re not riding it today. Despite what you may hear, you’re not riding it anytime soon.

Toodle down Hill Street between 3rd and 4th and eavesdrop on the guy with the clipboard, yelling at the zinc oxide’d folk, and get the five-cent explication:

earlyaf“Up there’s Bunker Hill, folks, and what a pain it was to shlep from your gracious home down to the Grand Central Market below, there, behind you. But then came riding up lawyer, engineer, friend of Lincoln, Colonel James Ward Eddy, who was sixty-nine when he convinced the city that it needed a funicular in the 3rd street right-of-way between Hill and Olive. Eddy built ‘The Los Angeles Incline Railway,’ known to all and sundry as Angels Flight, no apostrophe thank you, complete with a hundred-foot observation tower that housed a camera obscura. Mayor Snyder made the inaugural 45-second journey on January 1, 1902. The cars were biblically named ‘Olivet’ and ‘Sinai’ and were painted a saintly white, though later orange and red, and a trip up the 325 feet of 33% grade was originally a penny, though they jacked that up to a nickel. What’s with the BPOE arch, you ask? Did the Benevolent Protective Order of Elk have a hand in all this? Not really. A hundred years ago the Elk’d go nuts during ‘Elk Week’ and spend lavish sums all over the city with fireworks and aflatercarnivals and since their lodge replaced the Crocker mansion at the top of Angels Flight in September 1908, they elected to donate this swell gate here around 1909. The BPOE lettering on the arch was actually covered up for many decades when the building above became a Moose lodge in 1926. Anyway, as the city moved west, the gingerbread private homes of the 1890s were cut up into rooming houses, and Bunker Hill took on all that charm we now call shabby chic. In 1950, large insurance companies, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and the Community Redevelopment Association proposed the razing of Bunker Hill to develop 10,000 rental units. In 1959 the City Council declared Bunker Hill blighted, a slum to be cleared and redeveloped. The Elks Lodge/Moose Lodge gets wiped away in 1962. In 1969 Angels Flight was finally removed and stored, with a promise to return it shortly. It was reinstalled here, half a block down, a mere twenty-seven years later, though a tragic accident in 2001 has closed it temporarily.”

These are the nuts and bolts to be sure, though what they don’t add are the drops of blood that oil the gears of doom and the cogs of death!

That may be a bit dramatic. There is the small matter of the 1913 derailment, of course.

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Everything was running smoothly during a September evening rush hour, when the control shaft connecting the safety winch leaphostetterleaphoist busted, sending Sinai plummeting down the incline. The worst injury was actually a Mrs. Hostetter (of the Lovejoy Apartments at Third and Grand) who, had she not elected to leap from Sinai, wouldn’t have broken her collarbone. All other injuries were comparatively minor.
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Subsequent death and (near) dismemberment wasn’t the Flight’s fault—in 1937 Jack Claus, 54 year-old salesman, decided to take a midday siesta on the tracks.

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When a car traveling down the incline suddenly stopped, the operator had to amble down, reverse the motors, and find Sleepy Claus. Claus had been dragged fifteen feet, his clothing torn from his body, but luckily no limbs; he survived with a crushed chest. Less fortunate was the sailor who in 1943 decided to walk up the tracks:
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There’s no such repeat incident in the remaining twenty-six years of our hero’s tenure. Dismantled in 1969, reinstalled in ’96, she returns to kill after a scant five years. Why? The Germans, who have a word for everything, have a word for what happened here. Schlimbesserung. Which roughly translates to “the farther ahead we go, the further behind we fall.” It was just this sort of “worse bettering” that has put Angels Flight out of service. In the seventy years Angels Flight did its thing, 1913 notwithstanding, all was fine: it was a funicular like any other, and you don’t improve upon perfection—counterbalance, a cable, a safety cable. It’s not rocket science. But then: as is always the case with people, who feel like they have to do something when they have a job, and therefore complicate matters (if this wasn’t a case of trying to "save money," then it’s got to be nepotism), some City someone crashhired an entity absurdly ill-suited to the task of restoring Angels Flight: Lift Engineering. Lift Engineering built ski lifts. Ski lifts that killed people. This character Kunczynski worked on Angels Flight, added a whole system of independent cables with brake drums interlaced with various gears, which stripped and made the drums useless, and guess what folks, if we’d retained our Edwardian technology, we’d have a surviving survivor (Leon Praport, RIP, survived a Polish death camp, only to be taken out by another piece of ultra-modern cleverness). Kunczynski has fled to Mexico with a briefcase full of your tax dollars.

When will she return? It’s instructive to recall the 27 years she was gone after having been promised a speedy boomerang.

In 1962 taxpayers gave the CRA $35,000 ($240,000 USD2007) to “buy” Angels Flight, so that the CRA could, according to its chairman William T. Sesnon Jr., relocate the railway in Griffith Park or the Hollywood Bowl.

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CRA officials change the plan slightly when they announce in September 1968 that Angels Flight would have to come down—temporarily—to be stored for two years, and then replaced at the same site (shortened, of course, given as they were grading thirty some-odd feet from the Hill). By the time of the CRA’s brief civic ceremony “dismantling event” held in May 16, 1969, they’d already realized the railway would have to be stored until the Hill was completely developed. Surely that wouldn’t take so long.

clatterclatterCertainly many breathed a sigh of relief. Gone was that clattering anachronism, garbed in the orange and black of an Edwardian Hallowe’en, which could no longer connect the downmarket quaffers of cheap chop suey with the newly ensconced deadbolted seniors and senior bankers and the like.
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But still, a promise was a promise, and in a scant twenty-seven years, the CRA did in fact make good on its promise. With the needling of one John Welborne, and the Conservancy, and some other interested parties.
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Waiting for their return, once more:

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Many long for the return of the cars and restoration of the Flight, and demand that the City get involved—again. Granted, that Angels Flight is privately run (Welborne’s Angels Flight Railway Foundation) can mean problems, as anyone who’s ever passed a hat can tell you. Fears of an MTA takeover appear to have been unwarranted, however, and apparently, the long road toward repair may be at an end. People can take all the potshots they want at Mr. Welborne, or execrate the heavens for the very existence of delays in general, but if it takes another ten years, the fact that we’d have Angels Flight in Los Angeles at all would be nothing less than a miracle.

Photo credits:  from top, author’s collection; courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; author’s collection; courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; author’s collection; (grouping of three) William Reagh Collection, California History Section, California State Library; author’s collection; all newspaper images from Los Angeles Times

Driving Angels Flight

Location: 300 Block Hill Street
Date: September 1, 1934

We cannot know how many times mechanic Herbert Stockwell gazed from his window at 316 Clay Street over the steps adjoining the Angels Flight Railway and dreamed, but this was the night he partook of some liquid courage and attempted to drive down the steps. He crashed about 50 feet shy of Hill Street, knocking his teeth out and bloodying his nose, and was discovered wandering confusedly by Officer Hull. Hull took him to Georgia Street police station, where Stockwell was charged with grand theft auto and drunk driving. The wrecked car belonged to Doris George, wife of a physician in the Black Building at Fourth and Hill.

The Castle – 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue

Photo Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The most haunting image of old Bunker Hill’s final days depicts a fenced off Victorian mansion awaiting its doom with “progress” looming in the background in the form of the Downtown’s first skyscraper, the Union Bank Building. The residence, affectionately known for years as “the Castle” and located at 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue, was one of two residences on the Hill to escape the wrecking ball, only to meet an even more tragic end.

Located on Lot 16, Block L of the Mott Tract, early owners of the property were tee-totaling Los Angeles pioneer Virginia Davis and her husband John W., who sold the land for $450 to G.D. Witherell in March of 1882. It has long been believed that the Castle was built around this time, but an 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map reveals the structure as being constructed. In 1887 the property changed hands again, so it probably was capitalist Reuben M. Baker who built the large Victorian structure that would be a mainstay on Bunker Hill for over 70 years.

Designed in the Queen Anne style, the residence had 20 rooms, both a marble and a tile fireplace, and a three story staircase winding up the center of the house. Two of the mansion’s most recognizable features were the stained-glass front door and an overhang on the north side for carriages to pass through to the rear of the property. The curved Mansard roof on the tower and the triangular crown of a front balcony were removed after sustaining damage in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. The original address of the home was actually 225 S. Bunker Hill Avenue until an ordinance, passed in December 1889, changed street numbering throughout the City, much to the irritation of many an Angeleno.

In March of 1894, grading contractor Daniel F. Donegan purchased the property for $10,500 and moved in with his wife Helen and four children. Though the family lived there for less than ten years, the name Donegan became the one most associated with the house and it has long been believed that the clan were the ones who nicknamed the mansion “the Castle.” A piece of neighborhood lore involved Donegan attempting to clear a nearby rat infested property by offering local children 25 cents for each cat brought to him, to be used as four footed exterminators. Residents were soon irked when their feline pets began to disappear. By 1902, the Donegans had moved, and new owner Colton Russell soon converted the mansion into a boarding house, a role the Castle would play for the next six decades.

 

The Castle in Better Days

During its 60-plus year tenure as a multi-unit residence, the Castle would play host to all walks of life of the City of Angeles. Salesmen, doctors, waiters, elevator operators, miners, firemen, tailors, printers, hotel food checkers (well maybe just one of those), and many others called the Castle home at some point in their lives. When the WPA conducted a census of the area in 1939, 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue was comprised of fifteen separate units, including a small guest house, built in 1927. The landlord’s family resided in four rooms while the rest of the tenants occupied single rooms and shared six toilets. The majority of the occupants were single, white and over 65 years of age. Rent ranged from $10 to $15 a month and occupancy at the Castle was anywhere from six months to eight years.

What the 1939 census failed to mention, however, was the Castle’s resident ghost.

 

The spook who haunted the Castle could possibly have been a former resident who met their ultimate doom in the mansion. In 1914 Hazel Harding, a 28 year old former school teacher with a history of mental problems, lit herself on fire and jumped out a second story window. She survived the fall, but succumbed to her burns. In December 1928, 66 year Charles Merrifeld shot himself to death with a revolver in one of the rooms. Merrifeld, who committed suicide to escape the effects of poor health, had been the Castle’s landlord with his wife Bertha since 1919. The Widow Merrifeld would continue to oversee, what she advertised as, the Castle Rooms for an additional eight years following her husband’s death. According to residents interviewed for a 1965 Herald Examiner piece, for years the ghost contented himself with one type of action; “Everytime one of the sculptured wooden decorations falls off the wall, Mr. Spook catches it before it can shatter on the ground and deposits it neatly and safely on the front porch. So the crash doesn’t wake up the tenants.” Perhaps Mr. Merrifeld wasn’t quite ready to give up his duties as landlord.

 

The Castle & Salt Box Prepare to Move

In 1955, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) announced its plans to overhaul Bunker Hill, and by 1968 the only residences of the bygone era that remained were the Castle and the Salt Box, located at 339 S. Bunker Hill. Both structures were set to be demolished on October 1st of that year, but were saved in the eleventh hour when the Recreation and Parks Commission voted to let the homes reside on city owned land at Homer and Ave 43 in Highland Park. Additionally, the Department of Public Works agreed to move the structures to their new home which would become known as Heritage Square. For the Cultural Heritage Commission, the decision came after a six year battle to save the structures. Once moved, the CHC would then face the task of raising enough money to restore the age-worn buildings.

L.A. Times Headline

The Castle and Salt Box were relocated to their new home in March 1969 using $33,000 appropriated by the City Council and $10,000 from the CRA. Almost immediately the structures were invaded by vandals. On October 9, 1969 both houses were set on fire. Within minutes, the lone survivors of Bunker Hill’s Victorian era were gone forever.

All photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection