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Looking Back at Court Flight, Downtown LA's Little Lost Railway

Court Flight in 1918; images via Los Angeles Public Library photo archive
Court Flight in 1918; images via Los Angeles Public Library photo archive

Most Angelenos are familiar with historic Angels Flight, the tiny incline railway that's whisked passengers from the Historic Core to the top of Bunker Hill for the better part of a century. It wasn't always the only game in town though—Los Angeles experienced a bit of a funicular fad in the early Twentieth Century. Just a few blocks down from Angels Flight, another incline railway ran successfully for almost 40 years: Court Flight brought passengers up and down an even steeper hill than Angels Flight, from 1905 until October 20, 1943, when it was destroyed in a fire. While Angels Flight thrived (off and on) over the decades, Court Flight became just a footnote in history. Today, on the anniversary of its demise, we look back on Downtown LA's forgotten flight.

Originally conceived by RE Blackburn and Samuel G. Vandegrift of the Observation Tower Company, Court Flight began construction in 1904 on Broadway in between Temple and Hill Street, according to KCET. Bunker Hill was considered at the time to be the tallest peak in Downtown, and the Observation Tower Company planned on operating the train as a tourist destination. Signs at the bottom of the hill advertised 100-mile views in each direction.

Court Flight began operating on September 24, 1905 and soon found a greater use as a public utility. At the time, Bunker Hill was a neighborhood of Victorian mansions that overlooked the Downtown courthouses and civic offices below; the only way to get to and from the neighborhood was by a rather tall and steep staircase. Court Flight became invaluable to the wealthy residents of Bunker Hill who loved the view, but hated the commute. For the cost of a nickel, the train would bring riders up the 180-foot hillside at a 42 percent grade. Riding down was free.

In later years, as the wealthy left the Bunker Hill neighborhood and cars became more fashionable, the train became more of a shuttle for courthouse employees who parked at the top of the hill. During World War II, Court Flight struggled with ridership woes, fuel shortages, and a lack of engineers in the job market. For the last few years of its existence, the railway was operating at a loss, and since Court Flight was considered a public utility, the owners petitioned the city to shut it down in the early 1940s. Not long after, on October 20, 1943, a discarded cigarette ignited a fire that shot up the hillside. The overgrown weeds and leaves covering the neglected tracks fueled the blaze, and when it was all over, fire had destroyed all that was left of Court Flight.

Here are photos of Court Flight in its better days:

· Incline L.A.: Angels Flight and Its Lost Sibling, Court Flight [KCET]
· Three Forgotten Incline Railways from Southern California History [KCET]