Back when the 14-meter (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.
Second electric-powered subway in the country
In 1907 railway magnate E.H. Harriman hatched a plan that centered 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.
On December 1, 1925 (about two years after the 107-meter (350-foot)-long Hollywood sign was placed in the hills) the 1.6-kilometer (one-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.
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
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 travelers daily (some estimates put the tally at upwards of 50,000). The six-meter (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 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 INSH article…
The tunnel’s afterlife
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.
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 1,770 kilometers (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.
- Williams-Ross, L., 2008.LA History: The 1925 “Hollywood Subway”
- Loomans, T., 2014. What Happened to Los Angels’ Streetcars?
- Harvey, S., 2009. The colorful saga of Los Angeles’ first subway tunnel
- Meares, H., 2013. Stunted Progress: Belmont Tunnel and the Repurposing of a Faded Los Angeles Dream
- Chiland, E., 2016. Did a Conspiracy Really Destroy LA’s Huge Streetcar System?
- Gilbreath, A., 2013. The Hollywood Subway: Against the Horizontal City
- Masters, N., 2015. Inside L.A.’s Dark Network of Deserted Underground Railways