Angels Flight is a landmark 2 foot, 6 inch narrow gauge funicular railway in the Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles. It has operated on two slightly different sites, using the same cars. The first Angels Flight operated from 1901 until it was closed in 1969 when its location was redeveloped. The second Angels Flight reopened on the opposite side of the 3rd Street tunnel in 1996, and closed again in 2001 after a serious accident. The railway reopened for service on Monday March 15, 2010. It was again closed from June 10, 2011 to July 5, 2011 and again on September 5, 2013.
The First Angels Flight
Built in 1901 with financing from Colonel J.W. Eddy, as the Los Angeles Incline Railway, running northwest from the west corner of Third and Hill Streets, Angels Flight consisted of two carriages pulled up a steep incline by metal cables powered by engines at the top of the hill. As one car ascended, the other descended, carried down by gravity. The two cars were named Sinai and Olivet. An archway labeled “Angels Flight” greeted passengers on the Hill Street entrance, and this name became the official name of the railway in 1912 when the Funding Company of California purchased the railway from its founders.
The first Angels Flight was a conventional funicular, with both cars connected to the same haulage cable. Unlike most more modern funiculars it did not have track brakes for use in the event of a cable breaking, but it did have a separate safety cable which would come into play in case of breakage of the main cable. It operated for 68 years with a good safety record.
The only fatality that occurred in the first Angels Flight took place on September 1, 1943, when a sailor attempting to walk up the track was crushed beneath one of the cars.
In November 1952, the Beverly Hills Parlor of the Native Daughters Of The Golden West erected a plaque to commemorate fifty years of service by the railway. It read:
Built in 1901 by Colonel J.W. Eddy, lawyer, engineer and friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Angels Flight is said to be the world’s shortest incorporated railway. The counterbalanced cars, controlled by cables, travel a 33 percent grade for 315 feet. It is estimated that Angels Flight has carried more passengers per mile than any other railway in the world, over a hundred million in its first fifty years. This incline railway is a public utility operating under a franchise granted by the City of Los Angeles.
The railway was closed in 1969 when the Bunker Hill area underwent a total redevelopment which transformed it from a declining community of mostly transients and working-class families renting rooms in run-down buildings to a modern mixed-use district of high-rise commercial buildings and modern apartment complexes. All the components of Angels Flight were placed in storage in anticipation of the railway’s restoration and reopening.
The Second Angels Flight
After 27 years in storage, the funicular was rebuilt and reopened in 1996 a half block away from the original site. Although the original cars were used, a brand new track and haulage system was designed and built, a redesign which had unfortunate consequences five years later. As rebuilt, the funicular was 91 meters (298 feet) long on an approximately 33-percent grade. Car movement was controlled by an operator inside the upper station house, who was responsible for: visually determining that the track and vehicles were clear for movement, closing the platform gates, starting the cars moving, monitoring the operation of the funicular cars, observing car stops at both stations, and collecting fares from passengers. The cars themselves did not carry any staff members.
Angels Flight was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 13, 2000.
On February 1, 2001, Angels Flight suffered a serious accident that killed passenger Leon Praport, 83, and injured seven others, including Praport’s wife, Lola. The accident occurred when car Sinai, approaching the upper station, reversed direction and accelerated downhill in an uncontrolled fashion to strike Olivet near the lower terminus.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted an investigation into the accident, and determined that the probable cause was the improper design and construction of the Angels Flight funicular drive and the failure of the various regulatory bodies to ensure that the railway system conformed to initial safety design specifications and known funicular safety standards. The NTSB further remarks that the company that designed and built the drive, control, braking, and haul systems, Lift Engineering/Yantrak, is no longer in business.
Unlike the original, the new funicular used two separate haulage systems (one for each car), with the two systems connected to each other, the drive motor and the service brake by a gear train; it was the failure of this gear train which was the immediate cause of the accident as it effectively disconnected Sinai both from Olivet’s balancing load and from the service brake. There were emergency brakes which acted on the rim of each haulage drum, but due to inadequate maintenance the emergency brakes for both cars were inoperative, which left Sinai without any brakes once its physical connection to the service brake was lost. Contrary to what might be expected, the new funicular was constructed with neither safety cable nor track brakes, either of which would have prevented the accident; the NTSB was unable to identify another funicular worldwide that operated without either of these safety features.
Besides the design failures in the haulage system, the system was also criticised by the NTSB for the lack of gates on the cars, and the absence of a parallel walkway for emergency evacuation. The funicular suffered serious damage in the accident.
The City of Los Angeles commissioned conductor David Woodard to compose and perform a memorial suite honoring Praport and the funicular’s quaintly named cars. It was performed on March 15, 2001 by the Los Angeles Chamber Group as An Elegy For Two Angels.
Angels Flight In Popular Culture
Jim Dawson’s history of Los Angeles’ Angels Flight was published in 2008. It features a chapter on the funiculur’s busy history in Hollywood films. A filmography including stills can be found here. Additionally:
- It appeared in the opening scenes of the film The Glenn Miller Story in full operation.
- It appeared in the Perry Mason television series in which Perry’s car was “stripped.” The 1966 episode, the only one of the original series filmed in color, was called “The Case of the Twice Told Tale.”
- In the 1966 movie, The Money Trap, Glenn Ford rides down Angels Flight while tailing the daughter of a suspect, with the camera showing the view as a passenger would experience it.
- Angels Flight is shown in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Indestructible Man (1956). It is also seen in detail in The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (1965).
- Angels Flight was also the name and locale of a 1999 Harry Bosch crime novel by Michael Connelly.
- There are references to Angels Flight in the song “Strange Season” on Michael Penn’s 1992 album “Free-for-All,” and the cover features images of the line and a ticket stating, “Good for one ride”.
- A scene in Hollow Triumph (1948) features Paul Henreid escaping from pursuers on one of the cars.
- There is also a scene in Robert Siodmak’s 1949 film noir Criss Cross where the gangsters are planning the armored car heist. The cars can be seen through a window going up and down, first in daylight, then in darkness, to illustrate the passage of time.
- The funicular’s debut on film was probably “Good Night, Nurse” in 1916, but it got its first reel close-up in a 1920 one-reel comedy of errors, All Jazzed Up, in which a bride honeymooning in Los Angeles can’t stop thrill-riding up and down on Angels Flight. Her husband leaps from one car to the other to reunite with her at the end.
- The opening scene of Impatient Maiden, directed in 1932 by James Whale of Frankenstein fame, is shot all around Angels Flight, including the Third Street steps and the Olive Street Station.
- An entire list of over 20 movies shot on and around Angels Flight (complete with over 100 stills) is at [www.electricearl.com/af].
- In the game Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, Angels Flight is a gap where the player can grind up or down the rails, the gap being called “Angel Going Up!” or “Angel Going Down!”
- It was shown at the opening to an episode of Dragnet, with Jack Webb’s voice-over: “…for five cents, ride the shortest railway in the world.”
- Angels Flight was also the name of a 1980’s-1990’s Hair metal band based in McKinney, Texas.
- It was in the 1965 children’s book Piccolo’s Prank by Leo Politi.
- Joseph Losey’s 1951 film M features Angels Flight in several shots.
- Angel’s Flight is a low-budget 1965 film noir about a Bunker Hill serial killer, shot on and around Angels Flight in both the downtown and Bunker Hill neighborhoods.
- There are at least five novels titled Angel’s Flight or Angels Flight, all with scenes that take place on the funicular and use it as a symbol of some kind. The first novel, by Don Ryan, was published in 1927. The most famous was Michael Connelly’s 1999 best-seller.
- Among the novelists who included Angels Flight in their works are John Fante and Raymond Chandler. Chandler visited the funicular in The High Window (1942) and in the 1938 novella The King in Yellow.
- Angel’s Flight is the title of a famous 1931 oil painting by Millard Sheets that hangs as part of the permanent collection in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It shows two young women on the funicular’s upper platform looking down on the nearby houses of Third Street, but the funicular cars themselves are out of the frame.
- It has been shown in the end credits of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful.
- It is seen several times in the Kent Mackenzie film The Exiles, a film about the Native American community living in Bunker Hill
- The correct name for the railway is Angels Flight, which is grammatically incorrect as there is no possessive apostrophe before or after the ‘s’. The film of the same name, however, does include an apostrophe.
- The decorative Beaux-Arts archway entrance and station house were added around 1910. The original archway was a simple cast iron pipe structure with a two-feet-high cherub and the name Angel’s Flight (with an apostrophe) above it.
- The initials that appear on the archway, ‘BPOE’, stand for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, who once had a lodge in a large building adjacent to the top of the original flight.