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Maiden Voyage : Historic Angels Flight Railway Reopens to Public With Plenty of Revelry and a Wisp of Nostalgia

February 25, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 70-second ride is only slightly bumpy, a little noisy and a lot of fun.

Certainly worth a wait of 27 years.

That was the enthusiastic verdict Saturday from the first public round of passengers on the restored Angels Flight railway in downtown Los Angeles. After nearly three decades in storage and a $4.1-million overhaul, the funicular was welcomed back like a long-lost friend by the estimated 4,000 people who rode its two orange-and-black cars and celebrated at a sun-blessed arts festival.

"I'm so excited over this. Oh, it is so wonderful and everyone is in such a jolly mood," said 81-year-old Elena Wolfskill Thornton, a 1941 beauty "Queen of Los Angeles" who regularly rode Angels Flight in its last life and was one of the first passengers Saturday. "I think this is another thrust for us to revive Los Angeles."

Thornton and many other inaugural passengers recalled the melancholic closing of Angels Flight in May 1969. After shuttling up and down Bunker Hill for 68 years, "the shortest railway in the world" was dismantled to accommodate new skyscrapers, although city officials at the time pledged it would be back on track within a few years.

"We took that as a promise. That's the reason no one lay down in front of the bulldozers. And as years went by, the promise got fainter and fainter. Things got bleaker and bleaker," said Marti Ann Draper, a 45-year-old attorney from Alhambra who last rode Angels Flight during its final week in 1969.

"So we are really happy they have done this to honor our history, our roots. This is great. This is a resurrection," she added.

Draper was among a group of San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire residents who journeyed on three rail lines Saturday: first a Metrolink commuter train to Union Station, then the Red Line subway to 4th and Hill, across the street from Angels Flight.

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Their route, however, included waits of up to 90 minutes in two lines; one ran through a tent near Angels Flight's base, and the other atop the hill, alongside the fountain-dappled Water Court in California Plaza.

Delays were worsened by an awkward system that required both uphill and downhill passengers to pay fares at the same hilltop station house window, and funnel through a single gateway. Officials later changed the method.

(The one-way fare is 25 cents, compared to a nickel in 1969. Commuter discount books offer five rides for $1 and 40 rides for $7.50. The festival continues today from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.; plans call for regular operating hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. seven days a week, but officials said the first week or so may have shortened hours.)

The only other carping was at least one rider's wish for an authentically bumpier journey. David Cameron, chairman of the Los Angeles County Historical Landmarks and Records Commission, strongly praised the restoration but said it might feel more like its old self if the passage rocked and swayed more. "It's pretty smooth, but that's OK. It will get bumpy in time," Cameron remarked, half in jest.

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He is also the president of the Pacific Railroad Society and was a passenger on Angels Flight's last journey at 10:48 p.m. on May 18, 1969.

At 10:31 a.m. Saturday, Cameron was aboard the public's maiden revival trip, along with 6-year-old Elena Delvac of Los Feliz. Her father, preservation activist William Delvac, had won seats at a fund-raising auction. "It was kind of bumpy, but it felt kind of safe," pronounced Elena, a veteran of Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and Raging Waters. Other passengers included Leo Politi, 87, the former Bunker Hill resident whose books and illustrations kept memories of the funicular alive.

Several thousand people over the past few years claimed to have been on the last rides in 1969, said John H. Welborne, president of the Angels Flight Railway Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns it. Including standing room, each car holds 40. "People's memories of 27 years ago may not all be accurate," he suggested.

Funded by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the restoration moved the railway half a block south of its original site and built new trestles and beams. Named after Holy Land mountains, the wooden cars Sinai and Olivet were taken out of storage and given steel undercarriages. The original station house was revived as well, its delicate Victorian carvings in sharp contrast to the sleek glass of California Plaza skyscrapers.

Like any birth, Angels Flight's generated many statistics. Its track is 298 feet long (17 feet shorter than the original). It runs up a 33% incline at 3.5 mph. A 50-horsepower motor helps pull the cable cars, which run mainly on counterbalance gravity.

The revival effort also generated a lot of bureaucratic squabbling over how to better link flatlands shops and government offices to the high-rise business and apartment district uphill. More important now, backers say, is the lesson of perseverance.

In a message explaining his drawing on the cover of the commemorative program, artist David Lance Goines likened the rail cars to heavenly messengers flying up and down to preach harmony. "In the great city of Los Angeles, filled not with angels but with ordinary men and women, the example of this tiny railway may be taken much to heart: work together and the task becomes easy," he wrote. "You just need to overcome a little friction."

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