From Crown Hill to the Belmont Tunnel
Story By Mr. RTD
50mm Staff Writer
From its humble beginnings as part of the Gabrielino Indian Village, into ownership by the Witmer family in the late 1800’s, and the location of Edward L. Doheny’s oil strikes in 1892 the area in and around Second and Lake Shore (Changed to Glendale Blvd) located in the area known as Crown Hill has been richly immersed in Los Angeles legend.
In the prelude to the Pacific Electric buying the land parcel in 1924 for its ambitious Subway line promoted as the solution to Los Angeles travel problems, the location that became the Toluca Yard was used as a pipe and supply storage yard for the burgeoning oil industry that had the entire area peppered with oil drilling derricks. During the period of oil drilling the area would succumb to periodic flooding from oil gushes and runoff. This is one of the reasons Lake Shore Park (Located across Second Street adjacent to Lake Shore Dr/Glendale Blvd) was ruined and forever unsuitable for recreation. To this day oil and methane gasses fester underground.
Pacific Electric’s Toluca Yard was opened in conjunction with the Subway Terminal Building at 4th & Hill built as LA’s first true subway line. The line was opened on December 1, 1925 to regular service, with the entire line and 1100 office Subway Terminal Building (Downtowns largest office building at the time) was built in just under 19 months from groundbreaking to opening.
At the time the subway opened the PE had ambitious ideas to extend the Subway into an underground line extending as far as the Vineyard Division (16th & San Vicente), and possibly Hollywood but ultimately the original 1 mile double track segment would live on as the only PE investment into Subway construction. The yard at the portal to the tunnel near Beverly Blvd was known as Toluca Yard and served as daily car storage and light repair during its tenure of operation.
The Subway was the portal for several Pacific Electric lines that included the Glendale-Burbank Line, Hollywood Blvd-Gardner Jct, Santa Monica Blvd line, and San Fernando Valley Line’s.
One by one the big red streetcar lines the were converted to motor coaches and on October 1, 1953 Jesse Haugh’s Metropolitan Coach Lines took over remaining PE passenger operations.
The day before Metropolitan Coach Lines took over, a special run was made over the entire Glendale-Burbank line by Pacific Electric Business Car 1299 (See photo at right). The beautifully restored car 1299 was saved by “Walter” (Mr. Pacific Electric) a man who’s vision to save PE equipment lives on 50 years after the fact. Still intact and flawlessly restored the 1299 now operates at a museum in Perris, Ca after Mr.Pacific Electric painstakingly restored this car over a period of more than 40 years.
For a brief period after the Hollywood Blvd and Santa Monica Blvd Line’s were abandoned in 1954 through end of service in June 1955 the Toluca Yard was able to support repairs on cars operating on the Glendale-Burbank Line after MCL closed the West Hollywood shops to rail operations.
The last regular service car left the cavernous, brooding subterranean trainshed early Sunday morning June 19, 1955. With its rear markers went the hope of Angelinos for a true rapid transit system. Following the last regular service cars ran two excursions for rail enthusiasts to get a last chance at riding the line. This included running with black flags and the placement of the famous “To Oblivion” sign posed on various locations on the line.
Shortly after abandonment the line served as the location for the Fritz Lang movie “While the City Sleeps” (Using PE equipment doctored up as New York Subway cars) and eventually the tunnel served as dead storage for most of the PE/MCL PCC cars that were later removed some of which were sent to Buenos Aries Argentina thus closing the final dismal chapter of LA’s first Subway.
In the period following abandonment the yard fell into a state of forgotten ownership until the City of LA decided to start a feasibility study for turning the tunnel into a “People Mover” line. Seeking information on the owners of the line it was discovered that the property had reverted back to the former Pacific Electric’s parent company the Southern Pacific Company who on July 6, 1966 deeded the land title to the City of LA. The “People Mover” concept never happened and the tunnel itself remained LA City property as it is today.
In the late 1970’s a high rise development was planned to go up at 3rd & Lucas thus severing the tunnel. This project also tanked when property values nose dived.
The later history of the Toluca Yard that became known as the Belmont Tunnel by many who found the location to be a fantastic canvas to display their creative talents with a spray can began in the early 1980’s when graffiti writers found the location to be suitable for painting. With the tie in to its earlier history as a Subway yard the west coast Graffiti Writers had something that they could identify with in the same sense as New York writers who brought the medium to international attention with the famous Graffiti Trains of the New York City Transit Authority.
By 1986 the yard was becoming more and more well known through its use as a movie location that through the years came to include many movies such as Tough Guys, C.O.L.O.R.S, V, The Running Man, Reservoir Dog’s, Masked and Anonymous, TV series The Shield, Red Hot Chili Peppers music video “Under the Bridge” among MANY other productions that used the Krylon embalmed area to the sad demise. One of the last known shoots to take place at the tunnel before the unauthorized construction began was for the Fuel Network.
Another phenomena that occurred on the lot was the playing of an ancient Olmec handball game known as "Tarasca" this game was nearly extinct when it was brought to life specifically on this site and played there all the way to the end.
Over the years various plans to develop the area including the tunnel and yard had came and went but in late 2003 plans began to solidify that would begin to spell doom for the yard and the entire area in general.
Under the blessings of a corrupt city politician one city council member Ed Reyes plans to develop the site as housing were made with little to no public announcement or knowledge.
In April 2004 a group of people met on the site of the yard and after exploring the area decided to form a group interested in preserving the location. The group would go on to be known as the Belmont Artpark United. The group began to hold regular events and rallies at the yard in the attempt to inform the public and anyone interested what had been going on behind the scenes with a story that would take roads nobody could predict.
The Belmont Art Park group envisions a urban sanctuary where legal graffiti walls would be provided to aspiring artists to tool their artistic skills without fear of reprisal, a paved court for use as a skate park/game area, a dirt court for use by Tarasca players, as well as a museum housed in the Substation building that would provide a history of the site as well as gallery space for smaller works of art. Ideas include building a historic trolley line that would operate into the yard and perhaps the tunnel itself.
As the group learned of the city hearings the group would bring capacity crowds to testify of how short sighted the city had become in its attempt to eradicate the location. The developers who were planning to build on this site had been caught with their pants down not expecting the amount of community objections to the plans.
Unfortunately the hearings were obviously rigged in favor of the developer in a saga that played out where nobody on these hearing boards would dare oppose the directives of the poster boy for “Affordable Housing” Ed Reyes. This would go on to include the recruiting of individuals from various socialist based groups to counter our protests.
Through the summer of 2004 what would go on to be the last great season of paintings and murals would go on the walls. Nobody expected the abrupt incidents of September 2004 when the developers “META Housing” sent in a group of clandestine construction equipment that descended on the yard and began attempts at destroying the yard.
At this time protesters from the Belmont Artpark Untied arrived as well as some artists who successfully blocked the approach as human shields of the bulldozers working without permits. The construction company was ordered to stop by Building and Safety inspectors as the status of the yard was still being decided with city officials.
The area of the yard that contains the Substation and Tunnel would become designated as historic with the impending development to encroach within inches of them.
From the time of the first destruction of the yard succumbing to the further demolition atrocities committed in November of 2004 the site became more and more in the public eye gaining worldwide media attention. Sadly however the construction continued back and fourth and ceased after the developers had illegally removed a hazardous waste gas tank from an abandoned gas station that was attached to the property.
Its proprietor who was a Cuban émigré that had once fought against Fidel Castro’s forces in the 1950’s had his radiator repair business destroyed before his very eyes in a “Grapes of Wrath” like demise of the business he had operated for so long and had yanked away from him by the backhanded City of Los Angeles government who approved the illegal sale of his part of the land parcel assuming he would not be able to stop them.
By early 2005 more and more of the walls would come down, and at the time of this article a few walls stand and the yard sits as a reminder of a time when the city was a much more far sighted entity that allowed a subway to be built for the future of its citizens.
This author’s interest in the history of this location was sparked by sighting it in 1987 when going by with his Mother who indicated that it was LA’s first subway. In 1994 this author’s Grandfather took me on a tour of the area, and in 1996 myself and a team of railfan/archeologists explored the tunnel from the Toluca yard side down to the point where it is severed by the Bonaventure Hotels foundation. It has been quite a ride meeting so many interesting people involved in this project that proves there is still spirit alive in people interested in what really went on when LA was a fantastic metropolis.