Urban archeology: Lost Underworld of Los Angeles


Gale Banks (legendary Southern California hotrodder and auto engineer) shares this photograph of the old Los Angeles Subway Terminal. This image of unknown date and origin is remarkable to me, as an LA resident, in part because our city is not thought of as a "subway city." Throughout the 20th century, the growth emphasis here was all about freeways and cars, and public transportation sucks.

Gale's personal story about this "internet-found" photo follows...

I actually broke into this terminal many floors below the Subway Terminal Building on Hill Street south of 4th, in 1962. The entry hall was boarded-up with plywood so it took a little covert effort. At the time this area was full of Civil Defense Jeeps and 6 by 6 trucks plus drums of water and crates of K-rations. Every thing was lit by a single overhead light bulb (probably signed by Thomas Edison) and the tires were flat on the vehicles.

I walked all the way to the end of the tunnel (used as a set for the movie "MacArthur") near Belmont High, lots of vermin and dripping water...real nasty and quite a challenge for my 2 cell non Mag-lite. All the rails had been removed. When I was a kid I rode the street car out of this place to my uncles shop on Glendale Blvd. Check out the hi-tech control tower.

I have no idea of the photo's origin, but it was probably shot in 1925-'26, as this is (I believe) when the whole thing was built. There are high rise building foundations now blocking the tunnel. The last train was in 1955.


  1. …our city is not thought of as a “subway city.” Throughout the 20th century, the growth emphasis here was all about freeways and cars, and public transportation sucks.

    Look at the bright side, at least L.A. doesn’t have to deal with mutant turtles and C.H.U.D.s and all the other riff-raff that come with a robust underground transit system. (Though I probably would have preferred dealing with those critters from “Mimic” to the traffic on the 110.)

      1. @Jonathan:

        I know, I’ve used it too. Unfortunately it’s functionally worthless unless you live and work in a relatively small corridor of the downtown area (or at least that was the case when I lived in L.A.)

      2. I don’t think it’s any lack of knowledge that keeps people away from the red line or gold line trains. I think it’s that they are inconvenient. Unless you’re very close to a station, you have to take the bus (a whole different set of problems) or drive. To my mind, once you’re in your car, you may as well just drive to your destination.

        I’ve been on all the subways because my kid is completely obsessed with trains. We’ve ridden them all from one end to the other. For cheap entertainment, I give them a thumbs up. But for getting to any useful destinations or being reached easily from chez moi, they get a big zero.

        I’d love to not have to drive in this city, but as brainspore pointed out, it takes hours to get anywhere if you have to rely on public transit. I live 4 miles from where I work. Driving takes about 10 minutes. Or I can walk to the bus stop, take a bus, transfer to another bus, walk some more, and be at work in about 45 minutes. It’s faster to ride my bike, and I have a cruiser.

        I know they are working on expanding the light rail system now, but it’s still nowhere near me and it’s not going nowhere I need to go.

  2. About a year ago, I volunteered for the Natural History Museum and I was given a tour of these secret tunnels underneath the museum. The museum actually uses part of the tunnel as storage for discarded and/or damaged museum pieces. The tunnels are massive and quite windy. Supposedly, they connected somewhere in downtown. I don’t know how long the tunnel went, but I can only assume that it was for quite a while. I’ve also tried to do some research but have failed to come up with anything really significant.

  3. I had always assumed the reason for El Lay’s lack of underground metro system was because of earthquakes. That should not rule out a great above-ground light rail system. Problem now is where to put it? If there’s one thing our fair city has excelled at, it’s using (abusing?) every single conceivable open space.

    There are so many corridors that would make excellent light rail thoroughfares, but it would require shutting down major traffic arteries for a long, long time. Our forefathers saw fit to build around the automobile, and we’ll be paying the price for years to come.

    It’s impossible to imagine ever being walkable. Missing Persons knew that 20 years ago.

    1. Actually L.A. used to have one of the best above-ground mass transit systems of any American city. The film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” provides a decent primer to what happened to the Red Car (though the real scheming involved more automobile industry lobbying and fewer cartoon characters).

      The earthquakes are a problem but definitely not an insurmountable one- San Francisco has a pretty good underground rail system and it survived the 1989 Loma Linda quake better than the bridges freeways and bridges did. The real obstacle to decent L.A. light rail system is the lack of political will to build it.

  4. There was actually some kind of tv show on this. I can’t remember if it was PBS, History Channel or what.

  5. I would hesitate to say that public transit “sucks” in LA. Sure there is no westside subway yet (or for 10-40 years), but in other parts of the city transit is quite good. If you live in central LA there is rail going to the Valley, Pasadena, and Long Beach, and every major street in LA has a bus line that runs frequently (although these can be quite crowded). The transit is ertainly better than many cities, but needs a lot of improvement. You can help by supporting the current plans for a bus lane on Wilshire Boulevard, which will be a BIG help until that mythical “subway to the sea” gets built.




    1. I would hesitate to say that public transit “sucks” in LA.

      If I had any such hesitation it disappeared when I got back to L.A. from my last trip to Europe. It took me a couple of hours and three buses to get from LAX to my house in the Palms district less than ten miles away. Figuring out how to get to my own home was more complicated than using the Paris Metro, and I don’t speak a word of French.

  6. I’ve attempted to use the LA transit system and found it to be unusable except for things within 10-20 miles. Forget about going from the Valley to Long Beach or some other such distance unless your looking for 3-4 transfers and that many or more hours. I always felt wise in abandoning the prospect and renting a car.

    LA did once have a world class transit system. Here’s an excerpt of an article from a friend of mine. The rest goes through the economics of transportation around CA. This was sent to me by mail and I can’t find it online atm:

    “In the early 1940s, as the Japanese Empire was conspiring to destroy ships and planes at Pearl Harbor, an automobile interest group conspired to destroy trains and trolley cars across the country. A front company (National City Lines) was formed to buy up rail lines and close them down (every full train represents 1000 potential cars and customers). Their way was the highway: LA went from having the world’s largest rail transit system (1920s-1940s) to having almost three decades of freeway mania, with a commuting choice of buses or cars. Now, only 12 per cent take public transport to work.”

    1. I barely remember the Jacksonville Union Terminal when it was still in use for regular passenger work (ca 1968). Before my family officially moved here, that’s how we visited.
      As for why public sucks, it’s a vicious cycle; as fewer people use it, routes are dropped. Eventually, you end up with the mess you see in many US cities. Jacksonville should have a great mass transit system (this city is the size of Rhode Island). We don’t; it gets fought every length of the way (hell, the fought putting sidewalks in some areas where they were dearly needed!). Public transportation will improve when more people use it. Unfortunately, in our automobile-centric society, it will be some time before that happens.

  7. Pittsburgh is the same — the city has a subway system, but no-one living here knows about it!

    The reason is that it sucks.

  8. I believe this tunnel was also in the film “Union Station.” The heroes escape down this tunnel with lots of electric sparks. The best part of the movie.

  9. My family moved to LA in 1955 and I had the pleasure of riding the streetcars, including the pictured subway, for about a year and a half. Angels Flight was also in service at that time for those not wanting (or able) to hike up the rather steep hill around the civic center. Travel then within the area from downtown LA to about Hollywood was, as I remember it, about like travel in San Francisco today.

  10. Huell Howser did not one but two fantastic episodes on the LA Subway Terminal building. It’s now a residential building. The tunnel is still intact though most of it is filled in with dirt and concrete.

  11. Here’s a link to a fairly recent photoset in the Subway Terminal building and tunnel, from my husband Richard Schave, who was also the guide on the recent History Channel “Cities of the Underworld” episode exploring defunct underground speakeasies in the Historic Core. It’s a very strange and beautiful ruin, and much bigger than you expect.


    The last public event held in the space was Collage Dance Theatre’s 2000 performance of SubVersions, which is excerpted on Youtube and in better quality on Collage’s website (scroll down)


    There are also numerous pedestrian tunnels surrounding City Hall, which are in active use by staffers taking exercise breaks.

    But the most interesting tunnels in LA are the much more dangerous storm overflow passages that end at the LA River–after sixty-some years of steady dripping, these contain a scattering of Cthulhu-faced mineral deposits that will live in your dreams for a long while if you dare make the hot and stinky trudge out towards Eagle Rock to see them. If you do, please bring friends and tell someone where you are going, and check the mountain weather reports.

  12. The account of the Pacific Electric Red Cars’ demise in “Roger Rabbit” is utter ahistorical nonsense, and National City Lines had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

    Those are frequently-repeated urban legends.

    The Pacific Electric routes were mostly built by land developers, and they only ran where it suited the developers’ purposes. Riders back in the day continually complained that the trains didn’t go where they were needed, ran so infrequently as to be practically useless, and were desperately overcrowded and poorly maintained.

    And they didn’t provide anywhere near the level of transit service that LA has today. Today’s Metro service provides more vehicles operating longer hours and running more frequently on more routes than the PE Red Cars and the LARy Yellow Cars ever did.

    For a factual account of the demise of the Pacific Electric, written by a real historian, see Martha Bianco’s Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of The Decline of Urban Mass Transit [PDF].

    LA’s Metro System currently has two heavy-rail subway lines from Downtown through Hollywood to the Valley and from Downtown to the Wilshire District; light-rail lines from Downtown to Long Beach and Pasadena; a cross-town light-rail from Redondo Beach to Norwalk; three major dedicated busways, from Downtown to El Monte and Wilmington, and across the San Fernando Valley; 24 limited-stop signal-priority Rapid Bus lines; and over 2000 local and express buses running at peak hours.

    In addition, various agencies run a wide assortment of local circulators, long-distance commuter bus lines, paratransit services, and a three-county, seven-line heavy-rail commuter system.

    And there’s more on the way – a major extension of the Gold Line light-rail, from downtown to East Los Angeles (including a two-mile subway segment) opens November 15; a brand new light-rail line, the Expo Line, from downtown to Culver City, is currently under construction, the Orange line busway is being extended north to Chatsworth, and there are many other plans in the works, including an extension of the Purple Line subway out to the coast.

    LA’s transit system today is far, far better than the Red Cars in their heyday. Even though the Red Cars ran on rail, many of the lines spent much of their time operating in mixed traffic on surface streets, no faster or more efficient than today’s buses.

    The starry-eyed faux-nostalgia induced by fictions like “Roger Rabbit” entirely ignores not only the real history of the Pacific Electric and early LA transit, but its modern-day realities as well.

    1. @Glen:

      I’m sure there is much more public transit infrastructure in L.A. than there was in the 1930s but compared to the growth of the freeway system (and the urban sprawl in general) it’s been relatively stagnant, not to mention a confusing mess.

      The vast majority of public transit in L.A. is in the form of buses which are prone to all the same traffic problems that plague cars. What light rail exists doesn’t fill the commuting needs of most people in the area. Or even most tourists for that matter- there aren’t any trains to the beach and the westside is a virtual island. Hell, you can’t even take light rail all the way from Union Station to the freakin’ airport.

      Maybe some of us are guilty of a little “starry-eyed faux-nostalgia” but that doesn’t excuse the current state of public transit in the city. I’ve used it, and compared to what’s available in places like Paris, NYC or San Francisco it remains a joke.

  13. I’ve lived less than 20 miles from downtown LA for the entirety of my life, and I still find it completely vexing to get anywhere other than Union Station via mass transit without using half a dozen transfers and taking three times as long as driving.

    Getting from Covina to Ventura took 3 hours via car, metro, and amtrak, and cost about $30 in total. That’s about 5x as long as it would take to drive by my guess, and far more expensive. It’s also nearly twice as long as it took to fly all the way to Humboldt county at the north end of the state, and for 1/3 of the price, at that. All this, just to get from Los Angeles county to another directly adjacent and equally as developed county.

    When people say the mass transit sucks, it’s not coverage that we’re usually complaining about… it’s that the entire thing is so protracted and impractical that it seems to have been designed by a malevolent supercomputer, for optimal human frustration.

  14. the reason mass transit in LA will never be able to satisfy people who live in LA is that the metro area is just way way way too big, spread out and decentralized.

    Public transportation will ONLY work well in cities that are densely populated in centralized areas, i.e. San Francisco and New York city.

  15. oh america you never fail to amaze and disappoint. you ripped up all your urban rail infrastructure at the same time as other cities in the world became successful because they built train and tram lines.

  16. Thanks, GlenBank, for your commentary, which provides a much-needed alternative viewpoint. I read the paper you linked by Dr. Martha Bianco, though, and I am not convinced that it is without its own bias – one which may stem from semantics and misunderstanding. I agree that most people probably glorify the old mass transit systems, but I don’t think those people are fundamentally wrong to believe that there was collusive intent on the part of auto manufacturers and related industries to supplant rail transit with motor transit.

    One error the article makes is in placing so much weight on the judge’s quote that “it is not unlawful to make a requirements contract.” This is a truism of contract law, not a ruling. A requirements contract has a special definition in contract law, where the critical quantity term – how much the buyer will buy – is not a number, but is defined by they buyer’s total requirement: he agrees to buy all of a particular article or service that he needs from the seller exclusively, and from no one else. It is not merely a contact that “requires” a party to do something; all contracts require both parties to do something. Thus, the fact that this was a requirements contract is irrelevant to the fact that people still take issue with it today. The author appears to be an expert in urban planning, but may have had no reason to know this legal definition. The quote does not support her conclusion that the case’s holding is unassailable.

    What is more interesting about the contract is something the author gives little weight: that the “contracts also specified that thereafter the operating companies would not purchase any new equipment using means of propulsion other than gas [and, later, diesel].” This clause rightfully is interpreted as prohibiting rail companies from even upgrading their existing lines. The effect would be that the lines were shut down. Is there really any question that that this was a calculated effort by National City Lines – which was controlled by GM – to supplant electric rail lines with buses and other motor vehicles?

    And to be clear: GM, Standard Oil, NCL, and other defendants were in fact convicted of conspiring to eliminate competition in one market (motor buses) in violation of antitrust laws. Is is such a stretch to consider that they were engaging in other anticompetitive behavior? The question of whether these companies conspired to eliminate electric streetcars as competition for their products, buses and automobiles, was not before the court. It is error to try to slap the case’s holding onto the situation with streetcars as if the matter had already had its day on court and lost.

    The author makes compelling arguments that existing streetcar lines were in a state of extensive disrepair and required replacement; that ridership was down and populations dispersing to suburbs; and that public transportation companies were required by government to maintain unprofitable routes, which contributed to their demise. I do not dispute the paper’s suggestion that buses were, for many reasons, better options than trackless streetcars (think SF Muni) or new electric streetcars, despite the fact that they were and continue to be unpopular. I found this historical discussion illuminating and balanced.

    What I take issue with is the paper’s conclusion that those who believe that the auto, oil, and tire industries are in large part responsible for the absence of public rail transportation today may be dismissed as “conspiracy theorists.” This is a loaded term, implying that those who subscribe to it are delusional or hold extranormal views unsupported by facts plainly available to the rest of us. The paper posits that some fundamental human weakness makes us receptive to conspiracy stories: “the conspiracy story claims to show that all along control has been in the hands of a few who have used it to their benefit and concealed it from the rest of us.” It characterizes those who believe that companies worked together to hasten the demise of the Red Car as intellectually weak and paranoid. Yet the author readily concedes:

    “[I]n order for GM and other bus manufacturers and suppliers to be successful in developing a market for diesel buses, they had to carry out an aggressive campaign… [which] required working together to foreclose competitive technologies, i.e., electric vehicles. The implication… is that GM and the other defendants coerced or otherwise unscrupulously caused transit companies to implement widespread conversion to the inferior motor bus. This implication is the crux of the conspiracy theory.”

    Where is the dispute here? This is exactly the allegation that people continue to make, and it is apparently a valid one. A conspiracy, in the negative but non-criminal and non-kookoo context, is an agreement among parties to work together to do something wrong or gain an unfair advantage. GM, Standard Oil, and others did just that, as long as you accept that “wrong” and “unfair” are not just legal terms but subjective ones. They wrote contracts clauses and engaged in conduct to foreclose – to get rid of – electric streetcars. They were successful.

    I think what the auto, oil, and tire industries was good business: they saw an opportunity and they took it. Dr. Bianco convinces me that the time was right for a change, and cars and autos were that change. I do not believe them to be villains. But I don’t think there should be any problem in characterizing their actions as conspiracy. The facts amply support it.

  17. I’m sure there is much more public transit infrastructure in L.A. than there was in the 1930s but compared to the growth of the freeway system (and the urban sprawl in general) it’s been relatively stagnant, not to mention a confusing mess.

    That would have been true up through the 80s, but over the last 20 years the people of L.A. have finally figured things out and vastly improved the public transit here, opening three light rail lines, two heavy-rail subway lines, three dedicated busways, and the entire Metrolink system while greatly improving the bus system.

    No, it doesn’t serve everybody, there are a lot of places it doesn’t go, and getting places by bus often involves a lot of transfers. Don’t think that Metro isn’t very aware of those problems. But if the system *does* go where you need to go, it works pretty well, and with the passage of Measure R last November, it’s going to expand a lot.

    I work downtown, which is very well-connected to public transit, and I live far away in Woodland Hills, because my wife works in West Hills. I take the Red Line subway into work nearly every morning, and usually take the Orange Line busway to the Red Line.

    It’s true that in the absence of traffic (say, past 8:00 P.M.), it takes about half as long to drive as to take transit. But that’s not when I commute. If I really get out of the house early I can save some time by driving at least to the Red Line station in Universal City, but if I leave at a more comfortable hour the time difference between the two methods is either a wash or favors transit. But on transit, I can read or sleep most of the way, and I don’t have to pay for parking downtown.

    A couple weeks ago I left work at 5:00 PM on a Thursday and made it from Union Station to Simi Valley to visit a friend in 45 minutes via Metrolink. This during rush hour; even in the middle of the night you could probably only beat that time by 10 minutes at the most.

    Look, I’m not an anti-car zealot. I love driving (I recently drove to Montana by myself for no reason other than the fact that I hadn’t been there before) but nothing kills the fun of driving like being stuck in traffic, especially doing it on the same route day after day after day.

    Thank God we’re actually making progress on the transit system now and will continue to expand it. I’ve endured long commutes in traffic before, and now I choose where to live based on transit access. And you’ll see that much of the new development in Southern California is in areas with easy access to transit; just look at downtown Hollywood, while far-flung exurbs like Palmdale and Victorville are bearing the brunt of the housing collapse.

  18. Hell, you can’t even take light rail all the way from Union Station to the freakin’ airport.

    And why would you want to, when you can take the LAX Flyaway Bus?

    Using rail service means schlepping your own luggage on urban transit not designed for traveling with luggage, stopping to allow other passengers to embark/disembark every mile or so, transferring from subway to light rail to another light rail and finally to a shuttle bus.

    Even if the planned Green Line “Extension to LAX” is built (at a cost of nearly a billion dollars), all that will do is trim about three minutes off the shuttle bus ride. You’ll still need to transfer to a shuttle bus (or its planned replacement, the automated ‘people mover’), since the airport’s nine separate terminal buildings are scattered around the perimeter of a mile-long loop road; you’re really not going to want to walk to your terminal directly from the light-rail station, no matter how close it is to the airport’s entrance.

    The Flyaway Bus, by contrast, has comfy, upholstered airline-style seats, racks for your luggage, travels nonstop from Union Station via the I-110 and I-105 dedicated HOV lanes, circulates around the loop road dropping passengers directly at their terminals, and even has an optional luggage pre-check that saves you having to schlep your luggage through the terminal.

    Rail is not the best solution to every transit problem, and Union Station to LAX and back is one that has already been solved.

    (There are also Flyaway routes to Westwood and Van Nuys in the Valley, and to Irvine starting in November.)

  19. Make no mistake, though: I’m not claiming that LA’s mass transit system is comprehensive, convenient, fast, or easy to use.

    It’s better than it used to be, and it’s a great deal better than the PE Red Car system ever was, but LA’s widespread sprawl is simply not suited to mass transit. Mass transit needs masses.

    Ironically, it was the PE Red Car system that created this situation. Henry Huntington’s vision of “The City of Southern California” – “a city that grows outward, not upward” – is what virtually invented the phenomenon of the ‘commuter suburb’ – a place beyond the reach of horse-drawn transportation, where even a modestly-paid working man could afford a house with a garden and fruit trees, but still have access to the jobs and retail businesses of the downtown core.

    It was a vision of something better, something a bit nearer to paradise, than the crowded, unsanitary tenements that infested the eastern seaboard metropolises of that day.

    Huntington, like many others of that time, made his fortune by acquiring cheap, distant parcels of land, supplying them with electricity, gas works, and roads; connecting them to the downtown core with electric interurban rail lines; and then subdividing and selling the resulting lots to home builders.

    The Red Car lines were not built to be a rational, comprehensive transit system, or even to be economically sustainable. They were built to make Huntington and his fellow developers wealthy men – and when they had succeeded at doing that, Huntington bought up and consolidated all the interurban lines into one vast, metropolis-spanning, money-losing system.

    And then he sold that money-sink to his hated rivals at the Southern Pacific, who had earlier deprived him of what felt was his rightful due as the heir apparent to his uncle Collis Huntington, the great robber baron of the Southern Pacific.

    The development pattern that resulted from that created the sprawl that even today bedevils LA transit planners, long before the automobile became a major influence.

    The transit system that LA has today is far from ideal – and it will remain that way despite all the additional billions of dollars that will be spent on it – but it’s still a heck of a lot better than it ever was before, even in the glory days of the Red Cars.

  20. I had the honor being on a tour of the Subway Terminal Station on the 30th anniversary of it’s closing back in June 1985. It was like going down into King Tut’s tomb.

    Friends and family told me how wonderful it was to take the Glendale/Burbank line to from the subway terminal to downtown Glendale to go shopping.

    Sadly, the greed of the politicians-of-the-day shuttered it for good a few months before I was born back in 1955. The areas surrounding the Subway terminal Building and Downtown Glendale fell into economic ruin immediately thereafter.

    The same happened to 6th and Main PE Elevated Terminal when the Long beach line closed. It simply closed down, paving the way for Skid Row escalation.

    But that’s progress, I guess…

  21. jklesser

    The Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation will present the 4th in its series of Urban Archaeology Field Trips and lecture on November 17th and November 21st. It’s all about the Pacific Electric Railroad System in Los Angeles. Contact JKLesser at jlatsf@gmail.com for all of the details.

  22. Whatever you think L.A.’s Pacific Electric system was compared to today’s transportation options, in its day the Red Cars represented the pinnacle of technological achievement and convenience. There’s a vivid documentary on the rise (and fall) of P.E. on DVD, which contains a fascinating montage of historical photographs of what the system looked like, compared with shots of the same locations today. It’s especially shocking how the terrain has changed so dramatically because the city systematically bulldozed the hillsides throughout what is now downtown.

    You can see a trailer of the film at LAtheEarlyDays.com. I have a copy and it’s an historian’s delight…especially the oldtime wax-cylinder music score! Check it out if you’re at all interested in street cars, the old subway system, or what Los Angeles might have become if not for the petroleum interests.

  23. You are quite right. The reasons why Pacific Electric declined is not because of any dark plot to make more money. The plot was with its founder, Henry Huntington from the very beginning. Huntington was rich, and the philosophy among rich people is that if you can’t make yourself richer, you might as well be dead. He didn’t make any money from his Pacific Electric which he owned until 1911. He made his money in real estate, and he made sure that his trolley lines served the homes that he had for sale. After they were sold, he could care less about the trolleys. The officials that inherited the PE complained as early as 1916 that the revenue was so low it could barely pay for the power to move the cars over the tracks. They began to cut back the trolley lines to save money. Only during the two wars did PE make a profit when gasoline was rationed. Most of the time, it operated at a deficit. It would have folded sooner, but the PE also operated a freight system that WAS profitable with electric locomotives pulling tank cars ironically full of oil. This is why the PE lasted as long as it did long after other railways in other cities were dismantled. People got prosperous after both wars and switched to automobiles. Nostalgic Angelinos may say that they missed Pacific Electric or that they even loved Pacific Electric. But they didn’t love it enough to ride it frequently and put enough money in the fareboxes. Sorry, but there is no Judge Doom.

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