Upon first glance, the roughly 300-foot-long – or short, depending on how you look at it – Angels Flight Railway looks like an oddity in the midst of Downtown L.A.’s Bunker Hill district at 4th and Hill Streets. Surrounded by glass and metal skyscrapers, concrete buildings and some greenery here and there, the funicular’s two orange and black cable cars, Olivet and Sinai have shuttled many Angelenos throughout the decades.
The railway was built in 1901 by Colonel J. W. Eddy, a teacher, Civil War veteran, Illinois State Representative and miner, according to records from the Historic American Buildings Survey. Eddy moved to L.A. in 1895 and saw a need for an easier way for residents to go up the hill “other than by foot or horse and buggy.” On its grand opening on December 31, passengers rode free all day on Olivet and Sinai (which were painted white back then) and “punch was served by the ladies who resided nearby on Olive Heights.”
Angels Flight was designated as a landmark on August 6, 1962 by the Cultural Heritage Board of Los Angeles because it was “the last remaining cable railway” in L.A.; sadly, it was closed seven years later in 1969 as Bunker Hill became more commercial and less residential. In 1996, Angels Flight was finally re-opened, and (full disclosure!) because it was one of the projects of the architectural design company that my father worked for, me and my family were among the first to ride the railway. However, it was shut down again in 2001 due to an accident in which the operating mechanisms failed, killing 83-year-old rider Leon Praport. It was the second death in Angels Flight’s history; in 1913, “damage to the cable allowed one of the cars to go careening back down the incline. Passengers were badly shaken” but one woman died after she jumped out of the car.
Last week, passersby may have seen Sinai and Olivet running up and down their tracks for the first time in 2009 (the first test runs had taken place in early November of last year), and according to Angels Flight Railway Foundation President John Welborne. One man even waited eagerly to pay the 25-cent fare and be shuttled up to California Plaza at the top of the hill, but the ready passenger had to be turned away because the landmark’s final testing and safety certifications are still in process, said Welborne.
The total cost to re-open Angels Flight is $3.5 million, said Welborne, with only $254,000 left to be raised. The city of L.A. was in charge of the first re-opening in 1996, but after that, Welborne said the foundation took the landmark back into private hands. The foundation was awarded a matching grant from the California Cultural & Historical Endowment in 2006, but with reports that California’s budget deficit will hit $42 billion by next year, Welborne said he’s concerned about how the state’s financial crisis will affect the project’s funding. Still, he said the foundation has managed their money well and he’s optimistic that Angels Flight will finally re-(re)-open soon.
When the city restored Angels Flight, they changed the original “tried and true technology” to a different system; one that ultimately failed and caused the fatal 2001 accident, said Welborne. A sign posted on the landmark dated January, 2007 said the railway was due back up later that year, and Welborne admits there have been some delays. The mechanical and electrical engineers had been going back on forth working on their other projects and Angels Flight, he said, and litigation on the tragic accident hadn’t been settled until September 2006. “Until the cars were out there, nobody would believe it” that Angels Flight was finally going to re-open with the constant changes in re-opening dates, said Welborne.
“I think there is an intrinsic personality of the railway and its cars…It has that legacy,” said Welborne. “Somebody will say to a grandchild, ‘I used to ride this with your father’…It’s the only thing left on Bunker Hill that’s authentic…It has been fought for so many times by just plain citizens.”
- See the Library of Congress’ collection of Angels Flight photos and documents
- Read journalist George Garrigues’ account of Angels Flight then and now through photos at his website
- See more photos of the landmark before it closed in 1969 from USC’s Regional History Center at Dace Taub’s website