From Point A to Point B: The Second Street Cable Railroad, Los Angeles, ca. 1886

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The rapid transit age came humbly to Los Angeles in 1874, during the town’s first significant growth boom, when the horse-drawn Spring and Sixth Street Railway, which had F.P.F. Temple as its treasurer, opened.  The line was followed by other similar ones in succeeding years until the advent of the cable system about a decade later.

While San Francisco is famed for its still-operative cable car lines, Los Angeles did have a few, as well.  The first was the Second Street (or West Second Street) Cable Railroad Company, which opened in October 1885, on the heels of a larger and better-known boom, the Boom of the Eighties, than the earlier one that spawned the horse-drawn systems.

The photo from the museum’s collection highlighted in this post is a stereoscopic image by Frederick H. Rogers and is dated about 1886.  The view is looking southwest from the east side of Spring Street, down the middle of which the track of the Spring and Sixth line ran, just above Second Street.

The two story brick commercial structure at the southwest corner of Spring and Second was the Hollenbeck Block, completed in 1884, by John E. Hollenbeck.  A native of Ohio, Hollenbeck was migrating to California for the Gold Rush when he was stranded in Central America after he contracted a fever and then sold his steamer ticket to California.

Remaining in Nicaragua, he owned a store, ran a hotel, operated transit companies and survived an American filibustering invasion by William Walker.  He married the hotel’s manager, Elizabeth Hatsfeldt, and the couple had a son, who they sent back to live with his parents in Illinois though the child died there.

Hollenbeck, having made a significant fortune in Central America, came to Los Angeles in 1874 and invested heavily in local real estate, including the new community of Boyle Heights, where he built his home (the property is now Hollenbeck Palms, an assisted living facility endowed by his wife in his name).  He also bought 3,500 acres of the Rowland family’s share of Rancho La Puente and Hollenbeck Avenue commemorates his name today.

The Hollenbeck Block, including a hotel, remained a two-story structure just a few years and when the Boom of the Eighties exploded, the structure was expanded to four stories.  Its founder, however, died in September 1885, at age 55, his health affected by his years in Nicaragua.

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This stereoscopic photograph by Frederick H. Rogers in the Homestead’s collection shows cars from the first cable railway system in Los Angeles, the Second Street line, parked on Second and Spring Street in front of the Hollenbeck Block.

As the photo shows, the main occupant of the first floor was the store of Benjamin F. Coulter, a native of Kentucky, who ran a store in Clarksville, Tennessee before coming to Los Angeles in 1872, during that first boom. He was a partner in a hardware business for six years before opening his dry goods store in late 1878.  His store was in the Downey and Baker blocks until 1885, when he relocated to the new Hollenbeck structure.

The Coulter store remained in the Hollenbeck for thirteen years and moved several times subsequently before it was acquired by The Broadway in 1960.  Its founder became an ordained minister in the Church of Christ, founded several missions, and became a practicing physician late in life.  Coulter died in 1911 at the age of 79.

The Hollenbeck building stood until 1933, when it was razed.  Today, the site is an open parking lot as part of the parking area for the Los Angeles Times complex, which is north of 2nd.

As for the Second Street Cable Railway, it was inspired by the success of San Francisco’s cable lines.  Its promoters, the Los Angeles Improvement Company, created the line because of its growing developments in Bunker Hill to the west and the ability of new residents there to travel down to the commercial district. In addition, the cable system was quieter and cleaner than the horse-drawn predecessor, which could not navigate the steep hills that the Second Street line negotiated.

The line opened in October 1885, the Temple Street Cable Railway began service the next summer, and was a single-track line of just under 7,000 feet (a mile and a quarter) in length.  It terminated where the photo shows two of its cars stopped and then traveled west up Bunker Hill, where its grade of 27.7% was once the steepest cable grade in North America.  The power station was at Second and Boylston, just west of today’s 110 Freeway.

The line ran 16 hours a day every 12 minutes for about 80 round trips per day on a single line with turnouts to allow cars to pass.  The line, however, though it helped raise property values along its route, never was profitable.  When it rained, moreover, water damaged the conduit, which was not well drained, and caused havoc with the cable and pulleys.  A few major incidents in 1888 and 1889 involving damage to the equipment and a Christmas Eve storm the latter year was so strong that repairs were too costly and the line closed.

Still, the Second Street Cable Railway was a first and other cable systems, notable the Los Angeles Cable Railway Company, which will be covered here later, operated successfully until electric systems made them obsolete by the late 1890s.  For more on Los Angeles’ cable cars, click here and here.

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