A Railroad to the Top of the Verdugos

A few weeks ago, I wrote of a plan to develop the Verdugo Mountains back in the 70s via a roadway along the ridgetops. But there had been a plan earlier than that –1912 to be exact – to bring people to the summit via a “funicular railway” similar to the Mt. Lowe Railway in Altadena, at that time a major tourist attraction. But first, I should explain what a funicular railway is.

Funicular, from the Latin funis or “rope,” generally describes railroads specifically designed to carry passengers or freight up a steep incline via a weighted cable. This system has been in use for hundreds of years all over the world and in booming early 20th Century Los Angeles, there were several in operation. Notable were Angels Flight and Court Flight in downtown L.A., the Mount Washington Railway just north of downtown, two in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, and the granddaddy of them all, the Mount Lowe Railway above Altadena.

Mt. Lowe, opened in 1893, was the modern-day equivalent of Disneyland to tourists and was a must-see for California vacationers. The funicular portion of the route, the “Great Incline,” gave riders a spectacular 2000-foot elevation gain. Riders can today ride a modern funicular at Magic Mountain or better yet, the restored 110-year-old Angels Flight on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles.

But back to our story.

With funiculars popular in old L.A., it seems only natural that one should be planned for Glendale, then a fast growing city. In 1912, an entrepreneur with the flamboyant name of Colonel Lewis Ginger proposed a funicular railway to be called the Glendale and Mount Verdugo Railway. Glendale’s Casa Verdugo Restaurant was a wildly popular tourist destination of that era, playing off the romantic California Mission theme that was attracting thousands of visitors to Southern California from the east coast.

The Mexican restaurant was located at the end of the Pacific Electric trolley line that ran up Brand Boulevard, and Col. Ginger had a vision of construction a connecting railway from the restaurant to the top of Mt. Thom. Ginger initially proposed that the big trolley cars would drive straight onto a platform on the funicular’s tracks and would remain level as they lifted up the incline to the summit, with the passengers never having to leave their seats. PE owner Henry Huntington was not thrilled with this scheme and Ginger then planned for angled and stepped cars similar to the Mt. Lowe incline or Angles Flight. The route was to have four or five stations along the way and a big visitor’s center at the summit.

Imagine the spectacular views from the top! Unlike the view from Mt. Lowe which was only toward the sea, the view from Mt. Thom would have that, plus views to the north and west, across the undeveloped Crescenta-Cañada Valley, and deep into the ranges of the San Gabriel Mountains.

What a day great trip it would have been! One could take the trolley up from Los Angeles, have lunch at the Casa Verdugo and then board the Glendale and Mt. Verdugo Railway to ascend to the top of the Verdugos for a drink and some amazing 360-degree views.

After a few months of attempting to wrangle a deal with the difficult Henry Huntington, Col. Ginger shifted his funicular plans east to the Verdugo Canyon. Verdugo Park was then a popular picnic spot, and a rail line brought hundreds each weekend to the stream-fed verdant “wilds” of Verdugo Canyon. The line would have run again to Mt. Thom, this time from the northern end of Verdugo Park, basically following the route Sunshine Drive takes today.

But after over a year of financial wrangling, Colonel Lewis Ginger’s scheme to make the Verdugo Mountains a tourist attraction was running out of steam and the plans were abandoned. The Verdugos were to remain the urban wilderness they still are today.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.