Inside L.A.'s lost subway

I always forget that Los Angeles has a subway at all, let alone the fact that it used to have a much more extensive one.

Parts of that old subway have sat, abandoned, beneath streets and buildings for decades. They've become part of the stratigraphy of the city, as humans do what humans have always done — build the new on top of the old and forget about what we covered up under there. It's no different than the way Rome was built, with the columns of old buildings serving as the foundations of new ones.

Back in May, blogger Gelatobaby got to go on a tour of one part L.A.'s lost subway, exploring a secret world exposed by renovations on a building that was once the city's main subway terminal. Her photos — including the one posted above — are amazing. Go check out the whole thing.

Via Scott Galvin


    1. I’ve take a tour of the abandoned Cincinnati Subway, and I’ve taken a tour of the ossuary catacombs under Paris… the Cincinnati one is much spookier. Mainly because of the far greater risk of stepping on a used needle.

      It is pretty mindbending to enter through the little metal trap doors in the middle of Central Parkway, go down a small wooden stairs, then find yourself at the top of a grand staircase leading to an enormous vaulted multi-track terminal right beneath downtown Cincinnati.

      I felt like I had wandered into a Neil Gaiman story.

  1. Why is the author’s main reaction to turn the facility into grocery stores or a dance club? Wouldn’t a much wiser investment be to survey the tunnels for their potential to be used once more for a subway?
    I assume the tunnels aren’t contiguous anymore as private owners will have destroyed some pieces for new construction, but maybe there’s some long chunks that could be of use.

    1. Nah, as timquinn notes below, it’s just one short tunnel.  Also, the foundation to L.A.’s largest hotel is currently blocking the way. The current Red Line tunnels are about half a block away.  Nobody’s really missing any lost opportunities at mass transit with this particular tunnel.

      Oh, and the “world’s shortest incorporated railway,” the 315-foot funicular Angel’s Flight, is a half-block away.  And if you play the L.A. Noire video game, set in Los Angeles in 1947, you can see both Angel’s Flight (in its old location, before it was dismantled in 1969 and later rebuilt a half-block away due to redevelopment) and you can enter the tunnel that leads under the Subway Terminal Building.  You can even get run over by a train if you want.  I love that game.

  2. As a onetime visitor to LA (and therefore having had to drive) WTH doesn’t the city refurbish the tunnels and get shit moving again? I’d have loved a PT option when I was there–anything to avoid/alleviate the horrendously world-renown traffic.

  3. Yeah, isn’t it hilarious that the city with some of the worst traffic (not to mention smog issues) in the US is sitting on one of the largest abandoned subway systems? 

    Don’t you love humanity?

    1. Yeah, about that. Los Angeles, like several US cities, had an extensive light rail system, but not an extensive subway. It is not sitting on a large abandoned subway system.  See timquinn’s comment below for more info.

  4. Maggie, I’m so tickled you found and posted this.  I’d thought the whole building had been remodeled as condos a few years back, and I’d thought the remodeling would have included (or sealed off) the basement levels.  I “toured” the terminal and tunnel myself about sixteen years ago while working on a movie shoot at the building.  Almost all of the building was vacant and gutted to the superstructure due, I believe, to earthquake damage from the ’94 Northridge quake.  The lobby was still intact (including its life-size replica of Rodin’s Thinker near the gorgeous elevator doors), as was most of the 12th floor where the building management offices were.  The rest, as I say, was gutted right down to the beams.  You could see that PacBell had been a recent tenant, due to some signage remaining in one of the stripped floors.  The movie I was working on was a fun little 2-story horror anthology for the Fox network entitled Quicksilver Highway, based upon short stories by Stephen King and Clive Barker.  On the evening in question, we were shooting part of the movie based on Barker’s “The Body Politic” story, so we had a scene or two (supposedly in a “hospital room”) shot on the intact 12th floor, and then we shot a stunt wherein a guy leaps off the roof of the building, followed by a shower of hundreds of severed human hands.  (You kinda have to see it, but it made sense at the time.)

    Anyway, it was a night shoot, and during our lunch break (around 1:00 am), I figured I’d poke around and try to find the subway terminal.  Through a side door in the modern lobby (which is fairly small), I entered the old, huge lobby, the one with the ornamental ceiling.  There was a grand staircase that used to descend to the terminal, but the stairwell had been filled with concrete, so there was the surreal sight of the old wooden banisters descending and disappearing into a level concrete slab.  But off to one side was a more-or-less man-sized hole in the wall, outside of which was a sloped corridor that descended two stories as it zigzagged around the perimeter of the lobby.  At one point you could see the grand staircase re-emerging from the concrete plug overhead.  This corridor was pretty dark, lit by sputtering fluorescent tubes, and maybe 20% of all the light fixtures actually worked.  Down this particular hallway the walls were painted a sickly medical green, and there were medical offices and abandoned medical equipment, some with suspicious stains.  In retrospect, I honestly can’t say whether they were actual abandoned medical offices or just the remnants of a movie set, since plenty of movie companies have filmed at this site over the years.  I wouldn’t have thought they’d leave so many props and bits of set dressing behind, however, especially if they were rentals, which is customary.

    At any rate, I eventually reached the end of one hallway and stepped over the threshold into the terminal itself.  It looked much the same as it does in the linked pictures, only not nearly so well-lit.  (I guess when you’re not supposed to be down there, you don’t get the adequate lighting package.)  The whole area was dirtier and much darker and creepy as hell… and incredibly silent, some four stories below street level (and downtown L.A. at 1:00 am on a weeknight isn’t particularly bustling anyway).  I was totally creeped out, and also completely fascinated that such a place still existed beneath the streets… and that we were actually shooting a horror movie at that building and using the boring old 12th floor instead of this Lovecraftian abyss!  At first I thought the wall at the end of the tunnel was installed to prevent smuggling or some other form of underworld activity (ha ha), but then I found out it was to support the foundation of the Bonaventure Hotel.

    I was so hyped about the location that I wrote a short film that could have been shot at the location using only the set dressing assets already present, and it would have been cool.  Never bothered to look into getting a permit to actually shoot it, and when I heard they were remodeling to make the Metro 417 apartments, I figured there’d never be another chance to go down there.

    I’m so delighted to discover I was wrong.  Thanks again!

    1.  There’s a comment by Jerry Lem on the linked article that starts “I spent some time working at the VA Outpatient Clinic that was located on the ground floor back in 1980.” I guess that might have been what you saw leftovers of?

  5. Tunnel, singular, not very long even when new. Not in service for very long. Los Angeles did have a very extensive light rail system that was, for the most part, at grade, i.e.  on the same level as cars and people. The one tunnel, which came to be known as “the subway” was a short extension of an existing line through a tunnel and into downtown below grade where it stopped at the building spoken of above. Boop, about a mile. 

    We do have a subway now that is 14 miles or so and more on the way, but the new system is, like the old one, mostly at grade and growing very quickly.

    I could go on . . . 

  6. Intriguing.  The old photos of the station are sharp, vital, professionally and beautifully composed. These are juxtaposed with the author’s snapshots of indifferent quality, rather carelessly composed.

    I’m glad these pictures are available, I guess, but – sad to say – they appear to have been made with a so-so camera (mobile phone?) and not much thought.

    We’ve lost more than a subway, methinks.

    1. Well sweet-pea, your comment being one of many, many, examples — we’ve lost too much grace and class, me thinks. 

  7. Rochester, NY, is the smallest city in the US to have had its own subway, which ran from the twenties to the forties, largely in the path of the Erie Canal (which was shifted away from downtown in the teens). It’s popular with urban explorers, and inhabited somewhat by street people. The most interesting stretch goes under the downtown library, over the Johnson millrace, then crosses over the Genesee River under the Broad Street bridge — this exposed section of track bed is a popular, constantly changing, graffiti gallery.

    Parts of the subway were used by the newspaper for newsprint storage until about 1968. There are photos at the Rochester Wiki, and movies at YouTube. When they closed it down, much of it became I-490, so I often drive the path of the old tracks, which was the path of the canal before that.

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