Author James Barlett Illustration Graham Roumieu
The ride on Angels Flight, “the shortest railway in the world,” is so brief (it clocks in at under a minute) that someone stumbling across the crowd that forms early one spring morning at the bottom of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles might rightly wonder what the big deal is. But these are train buffs, most of them, and they’re here to bear witness to the return of a beloved miniature rail line after nearly a decade-long absence.
“It’s as beautiful as I remember it,” says native Angeleno John Wyatt, as he steps inside Olivet, one of two distinctive orange trams (the other is named Sinai). A bell sounds, and electric motors whir. Olivet climbs the 33-degree slope to the top of the hill. Applause erupts.
Angels Flight first opened in 1901, and though the distance covered is only 315 feet, in the line’s first 50 years of operations the trams were said to have carried more passengers per mile than any other railway in the world—more than 100,000,000. The original version closed in 1969, when the neighborhood was demolished as part of a citywide replanning. It reopened to grateful passengers in 1996.
“There was a crowd of us waiting then, too,” Wyatt adds.
The most recent hiatus came after an accident in 2001, after which a group of dedicated preservationists raised $3.5 million for the renovation.
Angels Flight has been featured in novels by John Fante and Raymond Chandler and was the inspiration for Michael Connelly’s 1999 mystery Angels Flight. It’s also (naturally) been a regular onscreen, from the 1920 silent film All Jazzed Up and Dragnet to the video game Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland.
“The only part of Bunker Hill that remains now is Angels Flight,” says John Welborne, president of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation. Best of all? It costs only 25 cents.