Three Forgotten Incline Railways from Southern California History

Court Flight in the 1940s. Photo by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection,

In Southern California, nostalgia abounds for two funicular railways that, in decades past, transported tourists and locals alike up some of the region's steep escarpments.

From 1893 to 1938, the Great Incline portion of the Mount Lowe Scenic Railway ascended the mountains north of Pasadena, reaching grades as steep as 62 degrees on its way to the summit of Echo Mountain. Hikers today climb Echo Mountain to explore the ruins of the abandoned funicular.

In downtown Los Angeles, Angels Flight began climbing the eastern flank of Bunker Hill in 1901. The hill's controversial redevelopment closed the railway in 1969, but 27 years later the funicular--its equipment carefully preserved in storage--reopened 300 feet south of its original location.

Unlike street railways, funiculars work like an obliquely angled elevator. Cables attached to a pulley system raise or lower the cars along the grade, and two cars are paired at opposite ends to act as each other's counterweight. Without the need for traction between the wheels and rails, funiculars are capable of scaling much steeper slopes than traditional rail cars, whose wheels can slip on precipitous inclines.

Funiculars thus opened up to sight-seeing and real estate development landscapes offering breathtaking views and secluded respite from the flatlands below. In the days when a typical automobile packed only 20 horsepower, the funicular's only alternative to a hilltop was a breathless hike.

Although funicular travel was never a common mode of transportation in Los Angeles, Angels Flight and the Echo Mountain incline were hardly alone. Three incline railways from Southern California history have largely escaped the public memory: one in downtown Los Angeles, one in Mount Washington, and one on Catalina Island.

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Court Flight
Court Flight, circa 1920s. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Conceived by residents of Bunker Hill's northern reaches as a way to boost property values, Court Flight connected the civic center with the otherwise inaccessible neighborhood perched above. The neighborhood--sometimes referred to as Court Hill--lay between First and Temple streets above Hill Street, which tunneled underneath the homes. The hill no longer exists; today it is the site of the Stanley Mosk Memorial Courthouse and Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.

Promoted as the shortest railway in the world, Court Flight opened in 1905 and ascended 200 feet of hillside at a grade of 43 degrees--steeper than Angels Flight. The uphill fare was 5 cents; downhill was free. In early years, Court Flight catered to sightseers, advertising 100-mile views of the ocean and flatlands below. In its later years, Court Flight shuttled courthouse workers between their jobs and inexpensive hilltop parking.

The funicular operated for 39 years, but World War II spelled its doom. Low ridership depressed profits, and the railway struggled to find engineers and conductors in the wartime labor market. In 1943, unable to keep the line profitable, owner Annie Vandegrift closed Court Flight. It would never reopen.

Postcard depicting Court Flight, circa 1930. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Loyola Marymount University Library, Department of Archives and Special Collections.

Men at the lower entrance to Court Flight. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

The site of Court Flight in 1954. The tracks have been removed, but a staircase still ascends along the old right-of-way. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.


Los Angeles and Mount Washington Incline Railway

The Mount Washington Incline Railway on opening day, 1909. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Before 1909, the 940-foot summit known as Mount Washington was largely uninhabited. Its steep slopes rising between the Los Angeles River and Highland Park made real estate development an unlikely prospect--until the arrival of the Los Angeles and Mount Washington Incline Railway.

The railway was the brainchild of developer Robert Marsh, who thought a funicular could transform the inaccessible land into valuable real estate by connecting the hilltop with the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway streetcars (Yellow Cars) running on Marmion Way below.

The railway, which opened to the public on May 24, 1909, scaled the western slope of Mount Washington. For a nickel, passengers could disembark from a Yellow Car at the intersection of Marmion and Avenue 43 and ride the funicular to the top of Mount Washington. There, they could stay at a grand hotel or explore the vacant housing lots awaiting a home.

Marsh's plan worked. Tourists from Los Angeles disembarked from streetcars and lined up, on busier days, for blocks to ride the funicular cars, which Marsh named Florence and Virginia after his two daughters. Many of them liked what they saw and purchased houses from Marsh's real estate company. The Mount Washington Hotel, meanwhile, became a favorite gathering place among film actors working at some of the early studios surrounding nearby Sycamore Grove Park. The hotel survives today as the international headquarters for Paramahansa Yogananda's Self Realization Fellowship.

Although it had transformed Mount Washington, the railway did not operate for long. In 1918 city inspectors declared the railway unsafe, citing a worn cable. Instead of replacing the cable, Marsh closed the railway and challenged the inspectors' authority, arguing in state court that his proper regulator was the state railroad commission. Marsh lost his challenge, and despite the protests of local residents the funicular never reopened.

1910 view of the railway's terminus at Marmion Way. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

View from the top of the Mount Washington railway. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Early view of the Mount Washington Hotel, today the international headquarters of Paramahansa Yogananda's Self Realization Fellowship. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.


Santa Catalina Island Incline Railway

Catalina's incline railway climbs above the Avalon Amphitheater, circa 1914. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

In 1905, funicular travel arrived in Catalina with the opening of the Santa Catalina Island Incline Railway.

Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley would later purchase the island twenty miles off the coast of Los Angeles, but in those days it was owned by the heirs of Los Angeles businessman and Wilmington port booster Phineas Banning. Banning's sons had purchased the island in 1891 and developed Avalon into a destination resort. When it opened in 1905, the incline railway was the latest tourist attraction along the shores of Avalon Bay.

The railway consisted of two separate funiculars. One began at the base of the now-abandoned Avalon Amphitheater and ascended the hill on the southwestern side of Avalon Bay to a point known as Buena Vista Point. The other descended the opposite side of the hill to Pebbly Beach on Lovers Cove. Passengers could disembark at the summit for refreshments in a small tea house or continue on to Lovers Cove for a ride in a glass-bottomed boat.

Variably known as the Santa Catalina Incline Railway, the Island Mountain Railway, and--confusingly--Angel's Flight, the railway closed in 1918, several years after a fire devastated Avalon and depressed the tourist business. The railway briefly reopened in the 1920s but closed finally in 1923. Its ruins are still visible along the old right-of-way to this day.

Circa 1905 view of Lovers Cove on Catalina, showing the funicular descending from a tea house at the summit. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Catalina's incline railway in 1910. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1911 postcard depicting Avalon Bay on Santa Catalina Island. The incline railway climbs the seaside hillside in the bottom-right. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Loyola Marymount University Library, Department of Archives and Special Collections.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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Colonel Griffith wanted to build a funicular that would travel up to Mt. Hollywood, which I've often pictured in my mind when tramping up the trails of Griffith Park. Before I knew there was ever an intention to build one there, I had a feeling someone had thought of it already long ago but the opportunity had passed. I only confirmed that in recent years while reading about Griffith Park, mainly via the excellent research of Mike Eberts (http://english.glendale.cc.ca.us/gphome.html).
I knew about Court Flight though, since my mother grew up on Court Street on Bunker Hill and had mentioned it to me. Before the Interwebs we used to have to visit photo archives and special library collections in person to even find traces of evidence of such things.

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Great post. For a time both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd rode Court Flight during their lunch breaks. You can see a great 3-D map of Court Hill, and Court Flight, on my blog post about silent movies and the Bradbury Mansion.

http://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/the-artist-locations-part-4-bradbury-chaplin-and-lloyd/