It didn’t take much, by modern standards, to dazzle the first movie audiences. Some of the earliest films were simply footage of trains running along their tracks.
The locomotives were vast and dramatic, churning their wheels and spewing steam. As the trains roared toward the camera, looking as if they were about to burst through the screen, panicked moviegoers were said to have screamed and fled the theater.
The 12-minute-long “The Great Train Robbery,” released in 1903, “was the ‘Titanic’ of its day,” says Marc Wanamaker, a Hollywood historian who owns and curates the Bison Archives, a production and research consulting organization. “Going all the way back to the beginning of the film industry . . . many films had plots that involved trains or used trains for crucial scenes. There’s a constant fascination with trains. In some films, the train itself was the star.”
Such movies will be the focus of a Tuesday presentation, led by Wanamaker, in conjunction with the debut of the new exhibit “Hollywood -- Trains, Streetcars and the Movies” from the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. The night starts about 5 p.m. at Philippe’s, in the rear dining room (a.k.a. the train room), where the exhibit -- a 16-foot long display case filled with 14 archival pictures and 26 models of freight cars, passenger cars, street cars and locomotives -- is located. That will be followed by a 7 p.m. presentation at the MTA Metro Board Room in downtown L.A.
As one of the few railroad enthusiast organizations dedicated to public outreach, the foundation has installed similar displays at six other locations in Los Angeles and Orange counties over the past decade.
“Ten years ago, no one in Los Angeles was reaching out to the public about railroads,” president Josef Lesser says. “And the movies are one of the most common places, especially nowadays, that people see trains.”
Nowhere did the mythography of America’s railroads come into sharper focus than in Los Angeles. While trains hauled in lumber that was crucial for building the burgeoning city isolated by desert, sea and mountains, L.A.'s nascent film industry cemented the train as a symbol of adventure and freedom. All that iconic potential came to a head in the city’s train and trolley stations.
According to Wanamaker, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin used the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad station, located on the east side of the L.A. River on 1st Street, and the Santa Fe Railway station, just across the river on the west side, as sets. When Union Station opened in 1939, that too became a frequent filming location, most famously in 1950’s “Union Station,” starring William Holden as a house detective who tries to foil a kidnapping. With its high ceilings, ornate waiting room and Art Deco flourishes, it seems perfectly made as a backdrop for noirs like “Criss Cross” (1949) and neo-noirs like “Blade Runner” (1982).
“Those were big stations,” Wanamaker says, “but all around Los Angeles there were beautiful little 19th century style stations -- Hollywood, Culver City, the San Fernando Station at Chandler and Lankershim [in North Hollywood], which is still there. I would say that almost every little station that was a railroad station, a trolley car station or both were in a film at some point. Over the years, people around the world really got to see what L.A. looked like.”
The exhibition is not the only chance for locals to get a glimpse of L.A.'s rail history; the foundation will also hold an urban archaeology adventure, a tour by bus -- not train -- of the Pacific Electric Western division from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Led by train buff Ralph Cantos, the tour begins at Union Station before heading to the Belmont Station Apartments at the corner of Beverly and Glendale boulevards, where the foundation has installed one of its satellite displays in the lobby. From 1925 to 1955, that corner was the functioning PE Subway Terminal / Toluca Yard. You can still see the original portal to the tunnels where the trains ran; it’s now painted over with a mural of a train.
The tour winds past Angelus Temple, stops in Edendale and Atwater Village, heads west on Sunset Boulevard past the PE substation near Silver Lake Boulevard, stops at Sunset Junction (formerly Sanborn Junction) where the Hollywood and Santa Monica lines once converged, and heads down Santa Monica Boulevard, one of the only streets in L.A. that had track all the way along its length.
After a pit stop at Formosa Cafe, a portion of which is built out of a working PE passenger car that was in service until 1940, the tour stops in Beverly Hills before returning to downtown L.A. via Venice Boulevard. At every stop on the route, Cantos, who’s an expert on the history of trolleys and public transit in Los Angeles, has prepared archival photos of that location from decades past. Along the way, Wannamaker will hop on board for a brief presentation about Hollywood movie landmarks involving trains and streetcars.
With much of Los Angeles’ rail history largely forgotten or ignored, and with the railroad foundation celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, there was no better time to focus on L.A.'s sometimes hidden rail history.
“There are literally hundreds of miles of trolley tracks buried just one inch below the pavement of one of the many streets in Los Angeles,” Cantos says. “People would be flabbergasted if they knew.”