Los Angeles is a city known for its ongoing love affair with movie star glitz and fashionista glam. Perhaps even a hint of cheese adoration, depending on whether or not you’re discussing Hollywood films. But there’s a facet of L.A.’s broad history that never really gets to see the light of day. Fitting, since it’s a century-old tale ahead of its time that was born underground.

Back when the 45-foot high letters of the now iconic Hollywood sign were still just a twinkle in the eyes of area real estate developers hoping to bring some publicity to an upscale residential area being built, the region was of major interest for a much different reason.

Pacific Electric Subway
In this 1943 photo, a train departs the Subway Terminal for a fast and comfortable trip to Burbank. Image: Pacific Electric

Second electric-powered subway in the country

In 1907 railway magnate E.H. Harriman hatched a plan that centred on bringing an underground transportation system to Los Angeles, with hopes it would run through Hollywood and provide it and several other districts a direct line to L.A.’s downtown.

It took almost 15 years for that initial idea to gain serious momentum, and it wasn’t until L.A.’s ballooning automobile dependency was beginning to wreak havoc on its roadways that construction plans were finally in place.

This would be the crown jewel of the city’s already existing Pacific Electric Railway, considered by many to be one of America’s leading public transit systems. Not exactly an original moniker but one that did at least hit the nail on the head, locals referred to this as the ‘Hollywood Subway’. Along with New York City’s it was only the second electric-powered subway in the country.

Belmont Tunnel

Pacific Electric PCC streetcar no. 5026 is about to leave daylight as it enters the tunnel to the Subway Terminal Building in downtown Los Angeles. Image: Pacific Electric
Pacific Electric PCC streetcar no. 5026 is about to leave daylight as it enters the tunnel to the Subway Terminal Building in downtown Los Angeles. Image: Pacific Electric

On December 1, 1925 (about two years after the 350-foot long Hollywood sign was placed in the hills) the mile-long Belmont Tunnel, along with the Pacific Electric Railway’s signature Red Car trolleys, were up and clacking. For a mere 6 cents a ride it helped L.A. commuters cut approximately 15-20 minutes off their travel time budgets.

The Railway covered a wide swath of the Los Angeles area in 1912.
The Railway covered a wide swath of the Los Angeles area in 1912.

During that era the $4 million dollar price tag was a fairly hefty one, considering in 1925 a person could buy a dozen eggs for 55 cents. If that person happened to object to the transit expenditure it meant all they had to shell out was two bucks and they could whip three dozen yolk grenades at the subway’s main above-ground hub, the Hill Street Subway Terminal Building, to illustrate their displeasure. Talk about Hill Street blues.

L.A.’s Grand Central

Los Angeles Subway Terminal Building
Subway Terminal Building at 417 S. Hill Street. Image by mplstodd on Flickr

The Subway Terminal Building in appearance closely mimicked the look of Grand Central Station in New York, not surprising since both buildings shared the same architect, Leonard Shultze.

With its terra cotta columns and coffered ceilings, it served thousands of travellers daily (some estimates put the tally at upwards of 50,000). The 21-foot high Belmont Tunnel below it contained five lines with six platforms for the Red Cars to shuttle passengers on. So why was it then, after all this expense and effort, on June 19, 1955, the final trolley exited the Hollywood Subway with a dire ‘To Oblivion’ banner adorning it?

A Pacific Electric car with an ominous sign on the line's last day of service, June, 19 1955. From the Metro Transportation Library and Archive. Used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
A Pacific Electric car with an ominous sign on the line’s last day of service, June, 19 1955. From the Metro Transportation Library and Archive. Used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

A fateful takeover

If you’re familiar with the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit you’ve already seen a hyper-fictionalized version of the possible events that lead to the subway and Pacific Electric Railways ultimate demise.

The simplified plot synopsis, in case you missed it? Evil enterprise storms in, destroys all public mass-transit, then builds freeways out the wazoo for Los Angelenos to drive the automobiles on they are forced to use since streetcars no longer exist.

In the world that doesn’t contain an overalls-wearing talking rabbit, the evil enterprise would be National City Lines, financed by General Motors (along with some of its buddies like The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and Philips Petroleum), and the malicious deed they allegedly executed was buying Pacific Electric Railway and then proceeding to dismantle everything associated with it so commuters were forced to rely heavily on gas-powered GM buses and automobiles in general to get from point A to point B.

Please note the use of the word ‘alleged’ – there are many arguments on both sides of the debate, but that will have to be fodder for a future Interesting Shit article…

The tunnel’s afterlife

Belmont Tunnel in time
How the The Belmont Tunnel entrance changed over time.

The Belmont Tunnel lead a bizarre afterlife when the trolleys and their passengers took their leave, including acting as a garage for vehicles seized during drug busts and as a canvas for graffiti artists from around the globe who would make the trek just to tag the tunnel’s walls, floors, and ceiling.

The Subway Terminal Building is now condos, but look on the bright side – at least they didn’t try and bury an oil rig right down the middle of it.

Belmont Tunnel Station
Belmont Tunnel Station (left) now neighbouring condos. Image by Alissa Walker on Flickr

Los Angeles as a whole has bounced back from the loss of its first underground transit system, having in recent years spent $11 billion dollars on rail lines. However, it’s doubtful that anyone will be making a live-action film telling that story filled with animated talking rabbits and cigar smoking babies anytime soon.


Update: It seems we’re in need of some clarification on some of the specifics of the Belmont Tunnel, aka the ‘Hollywood Subway’, as well as L.A.’s rail system at the time. Upon completion, the Belmont Tunnel was approximately a mile long and was woven into the existing electric trolley lines aboveground.

Those lines covered an additional 1,100 miles. Perhaps in the ’20s people living in the Los Angeles area liked to work on their perma-tans, so a mile underground was all they could tolerate before they got their next infusion of sunshine. Our apologies for not making the Belmont Tunnel’s size and its specific role clearer.-J.M.

Sources

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Jay Moon

Jay Moon is a writer who has turned the wanderlust that found him backpacking around Canada and the U.S. as a young lad into a writing lust that has him embracing the opportunity to cover topics about anything (and everything) he can get his now middle-aged eyes, ears, and hands on.