Many L.A. transit systems never got a move on

When the black-and-orange funicular cars of Angels Flight resumed rattling up and down Bunker Hill two months ago, they were justly hailed as a link to the city’s past.

After all, the 298-foot-long ride — dubbed “the smallest railway in the world” — dates to 1901.

Don’t expect comebacks, however, from some other past transit systems, such as the San Pedro-L.A. camel train, the Aerial Swallow monorail, the Pasadena Cycleway and L.A. River Cruises. Each flamed out.

L.A.'s brief camel era began in 1863 after the city was given 28 of the creatures from the 1st U.S. Army Camel Corps. The experimental unit had been downsized because of the Civil War.

The beasts’ entrance into the city on Main Street drew “no little attention from all classes and ages,” the Los Angeles Star reported.

The animals were enlisted to haul mail and baggage, and “any passenger foolhardy enough to mount one,” from the harbor to the city, The Times later recalled.

Strong and durable as they were, the camels were not a success. They terrified horses and mules. Their lurching gait made some riders seasick. Handlers complained they were nasty and didn’t understand English.

And these “ships of the desert” didn’t take to city life. At one point, they were resettled near a school on the current site of the Los Angeles Times building, “where the neighbors complained bitterly,” according to a newspaper report.

So the camel service was discontinued and the animals were sold off to circuses and ranches. Some were released into the desert.

Topsy, described as the last offspring of the Camel Corps, died in 1934, though there were unconfirmed sightings of later stragglers “drifting through the desert like a ship with ragged sails,” as one author put it.


A Burbank farmer named Joseph Fawkes was inspired by another type of critter — a bird — for his transit dream.

Fawkes envisioned a vehicle that could fly through the air on one rail at speeds of up to 60 mph. He called it the Aerial Swallow.

He declared that his propeller-driven monorail could cut commute time from the San Fernando Valley to downtown Los Angeles to 10 minutes.

Alas, it disintegrated on its 1910 maiden run after achieving a top speed of 3 mph. The Aerial Swallow became better known as Fawkes’ Folly.

The monorail idea, of course, never died. In the 1960s and ‘70s, plans were drawn up for elevated “people-movers” in L.A.'s Civic Center. Drawings showed what looked like “Star Wars” vehicles zipping over traffic on Spring Street.

But the concept was opposed by San Fernando Valley legislators who thought their region was being left out. (Even the Aerial Swallow had included the Valley in its plans.) L.A.'s “people-mover” idea didn’t go anywhere.


A more traditional method of moving people was given a boost on Jan. 1, 1900, with the unveiling of the first leg of the Pasadena Cycleway, a 1.4-mile-long wooden freeway for pedalers.

Promoter Horace Dobbins envisioned the route extending to downtown Los Angeles. But ridership fell swiftly. After all, there was a 10-cent road toll (and no monthly passes were offered).

Several months after its opening, the unextended cycleway shut down. But, four decades later, its proposed route would be adopted by builders of the Pasadena Freeway.

And in 1986, bicycle enthusiasts would unveil plans for another version of the cycleway: the West Los Angeles Veloway, a 17-foot-high concrete track from Santa Monica Boulevard, near Westwood Boulevard, to Westwood.

Bill Keene, then KNX radio’s traffic reporter, reacted by wondering if there would be a bike-pool lane “for bicycles built for two.”

But the veloway never got off the ground.


River transit isn’t something that Los Angeles is known for.

Hence the excitement when local officials were approached in 1985 by the makers of a hovercraft. The company said the vessel could travel the length of the L.A. River on a “bed” of air, which is about the only way the concrete-bed waterway could be navigated.

But, at a test run near the mouth of the river in Long Beach, the hovercraft’ s engine wouldn’t start. It was towed away, never to be seen again.

Undaunted, another new company, Los Angeles River Cruises, sent out invitations in 1990 for a “VIP voyage” on the waterway.

A prospectus said that the Yorty and the Bradley, two “river barges patterned after the famed Rhine River crafts,” would soon be making daily trips between the “Commercial Street Landing” downtown and Universal Studios.

“Your five-hour voyage will be fully narrated by our courteous crews,” the prospectus said, and would include such highlights as “cruising under the world’s greatest freeway system.”

Neither the Yorty nor the Bradley made its “VIP voyage” — or even appeared. Their absence might have been related to the date listed for the event: April 1.