In Downtown Los Angeles you can take a ride on the world’s shortest railway that’s been operating (or not) for more than 100 years.
The Original Angel’s Flight
Angel’s Flight first opened as the Los Angeles Incline Railway in 1901. It carried passengers from Hill Street to Olive Street and ran adjacent to the 3rd Street Tunnel. When it opened it was the shortest railway in the world at just 315 feet.
The funicular was comprised of an archway on Hill Street, a station house on Olive Street, and two counterbalanced train cars named Sinai and Olivet. The cars were attached at opposite ends of a long cable connected to a pulley system which was powered by an engine in the Olive Street station house. As one car was pulled up the hill, the other car descended with the help of gravity. The ride lasted about a minute.
The short railway was built by Colonel J.W. Eddy, a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Eddy had spent some time in working in railroad development in the western states, and he built his Incline Railway as a quick and easy way to get from Hill Street to the top of Bunker Hill (where he happened to live).
What’s In a Name: Angel’s Flight
The railway became officially known as Angel’s Flight in 1912 after Eddy sold the railway to the Funding Company of California. The words “Angel’s Flight” had always been painted atop the Hill Street Arch, and the new owners renamed it accordingly.
The Hill Street Arch is also etched with BPOE, the abbreviation for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a fraternal order popular in the early 1900s. (Another variant of the acronym is “Best People On Earth.”)
Elks Lodge No. 99 just happened to be adjacent to the first Angel’s Flight (where the Omni Hotel is now). In 1908, the Los Angeles Elks of No. 99 hosted a national Elks convention, so the opportunistic Eddy had BPOE carved into the arch so the wandering Elks would know the way home. The inscription stands there today.
In November 1952, the Beverly Hills branch of the Native Daughters of the Golden West placed a commemorative plaque at Angel’s Flight, celebrating 50 years of service to the community. The plaque, which is still on display, goes into great detail about the railway, including the claim that Angel’s Flight carried more passengers per mile (one hundred million in its first 50 years) than any other train in the world.
On August 6, 1962, on the first meeting of the Cultural Heritage Board, Angel’s Flight was designated as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 4. On this date, the Board selected a total of five monuments, each of which were threatened in some way. But this new protection couldn’t help preserve the original Angel’s Flight.
In 1962, the city claimed Angel’s Flight under eminent domain, paying $35,000 for it. Although the whole Bunker Hill area was scheduled for redevelopment, the railway operated under the city’s management for seven more years, until its final day on May 18, 1969.
It was originally thought the decommissioned cars would be stored at either Griffith Park Travel Town or the Hollywood Bowl. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the two cars were moved into storage at United Business Interiors, a showroom just a little over a mile west on Olive Street. The other elements of the railway, including the archway and station house, were stored at an outdoor warehouse in Gardena.
The city promised to reopen Angel’s Flight after the controversial redevelopment work along Bunker Hill was complete, a process that was estimated to take two years. But things didn’t go according to plan, and Angel’s Flight didn’t re-open until 1996, 27 years after it had been taken apart.
Angel’s Flight Reborn
So, yes, it took some time. But the city “fulfilled its promise” to re-open Angel’s Flight — a plaque behind a fence on Hill Street proudly proclaims this fact. They don’t mention it took 27 years.
On February 24, 1996, under the auspices of the Angel’s Flight Railway Foundation, the city’s favorite funicular railway reopened to much fanfare. But it wasn’t located in the same spot — that area had been developed with concrete and steel. Instead, Angel’s Flight was re-established half a block to the south (well, southwest really) of where it had once stood.
The original Hill Street Arch and Olive Street Station House were restored, and the original twin cars were put back into operation. But the redesigned railway used a new track and a new pulley system. The world’s shortest railway was also even shorter — the new track was only 298 feet, seven inches long over a 33% grade (about the same grade as Eldred Street, one of the Steep Streets of Los Angeles).
For the next five years, Angel’s Flight ferried riders up and down the tracks, its orange-hued cars running from Hill Street in Downtown’s Historic Core (across the street from Grand Central Market) to California Plaza, an open air corporate park adjacent to MOCA on Grand Avenue.
But then in 2001, tragedy struck. Sinai, on its approach to the upper station, broke free and careened downhill. The runaway car crashed into Olivet, and the resulting collision killed one passenger and injured seven others.
Prior to this terrible accident, Angel’s Flight had only other recorded death in the railroad’s entire 68 years of operation. In 1943 a sailor was crushed beneath one of the cars as he walked up the tracks.
Angel’s Flight was subsequently shut down and stayed that way for another nine years as investigations were conducted and corrective modifications were made. It reopened in March 2010 only to close again in September 2013 after one of the cars experienced a significant derailing. No one was injured this time, but an inspection found numerous mechanical and safety defects. The cars derailed so often, in fact, that the brake override switch had been “corrected” by strapping a broken tree branch over it.
After a series of safety upgrades (that cost around $5 million) and a fair amount of testing, Angel’s Flight, hot off its appearance in La La Land, re-opened to the public in January 2017. It now operates under the management of the Angels Flight Development Company. The railway has since operated incident-free for five years.
In past years during the summer months, a herd of goats has taken up residence in the land underneath Angel’s Flight, an area known as Angel’s Knoll, working hard to keep the area weed-free. They weren’t present the last time we explored the area (May 4, 2022), but they may yet return this year. Keep a watch out for them.
Riding Angel’s Flight
When Angel’s Flight opened in 1901, one-way fare was just once cent. This price increased to five cents by the time the railway was dismantled in 1969. When the railway re-opend in 2001, the price was $0.25, doubling to $).50 in 2012.
Today, a one-way ride in either direction costs $1.00 — or $0.50 if you use a Metro Tap Card (note: Angel’s Flight tickets use a card’s stored value). A one-way ride still takes about a minute.
- 337 S Hill St, Los Angeles
- GPS Coordinates: 34.051047, -118.249796 [ Google Maps ]
- what3words: ///enhancement.worth.opera
Thank you for visiting the Los Angeles Explorers Guild. If you’re enjoying our explorations of Los Angeles, please consider supporting us on Patreon or making a one-time donation via PayPal. We appreciate your support.
Our Most Recent Explorations