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:
“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
carnivals 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.
Everything was running smoothly during a September evening rush hour, when the control shaft connecting the safety winch hoist 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.
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.
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:
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 hired 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.
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.
Certainly 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.
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.
Waiting for their return, once more:
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