Like many of the city’s early public works projects, the Hill Street Tunnels provided a solution to one of Los Angeles’ greatest topographic obstacles to regional mobility, the hills at Downtown’s northwestern edge. While of most of them had been covered by the street grid by the turn of the 20th century, their steep grades kept them inaccessible to streetcars and many automobiles. Their impassability only became increasingly problematic as the city grew; in order to bypass Bunker Hill and Fort Moore Hill, most traffic between Downtown and its northwestern suburbs followed a roundabout path through Main Street, leading to major bottlenecks between First Street and Sunset Boulevard.
In 1903, an association of businesses along Hill Street floated a proposal to build a tunnel between First and Temple Streets, allowing passenger rail cars and automobiles direct access to Sunset Boulevard from Downtown’s western sections. Although supported by the city’s Board of Public Works, the project was quickly beset by cost overruns and opposition from property owners, leading to its seemingly indefinite delay.
In 1907, the Los Angeles-Pacific Railway took matters into its own hands by successfully petitioning the city for rights to build a tunnel for the exclusive use of interurban rail cars. After nearly two years of boring and construction, rail service through the first Hill Street Tunnel (left of top photograph) began in September, 1909, resulting in a 15-minute reduction in travel times between Los Angeles and points northwest. The Los Angeles-Pacific merged with the Pacific Electric Railway in 1911.
It was not until 1912, following the creation of a tax assessment district, that the city of Los Angeles began construction on its own tunnel parallel to the Pacific Electric’s. The municipal Hill Street Tunnel opened in September, 1913, granting access to pedestrians and private vehicle traffic. In addition to its utility, the tunnel was praised for the quality of its construction; its roadway was paved with creosoted wood block, and the entirety of its interior was lined with white enamel tiles. The use of white tiling proved particularly successful in illuminating the roadway, and the design was subsequently applied to the Second Street Tunnel.
The Hill Street Tunnels were ultimately made obsolete after four decades of service, as the neighborhood’s hills were flattened to create the Civic Center’s main axis. Excavation crews began clearing the land above Hill Street in 1954, a massive undertaking that eventually removed around 700,000 tons of dirt. The tunnels were demolished in 1955, and Hill Street was reopened in its flatter and wider present form. Today, the former footprint of Bunker Hill’s eastern tip is occupied by the Los Angeles County Courthouse (1959) and Hall of Administration (1960).
1. “Bright, white way of light thro’ heart of Bunker Hill.” Los Angeles Times. 9 Sep. 1913. II1.
2. “Early start on Hill hole.” Los Angeles Times. 2 Oct. 1907. II1.
3. “Hill Street tunnel goes out of existence.” Los Angeles Times. 9 Jun. 1955. 4.
4. “Hill-Street tunnel will be expensive.” Los Angeles Times. 31 Oct. 1903. A2.
5. “Huge site being dug for courthouse.” Los Angeles Times. 8 Aug. 1954. 1A.
6. “Points of the news: in this issue.” Los Angeles Times. 3 Dec. 1910. I1.
7. “Quick start on new bore.” Los Angeles Times. 10 Dec. 1908. II1.
8. “Railway gets tunnel permit.” Los Angeles Times. 6 Jun. 1907. II2.
9. “To favor bore for Hill Street.” Los Angeles Times. 6 Oct. 1911. II2.
10. “Tunnel in use.” Los Angeles Times. 16 Sep. 1909. II1.
11. “Tunnel may be paralleled.” Los Angeles Times. 1 Nov. 1910. II2.
Original photo: Conner, Palmer. “Hill Street Tunnels north of 1st Street – 408162.” 1954. Palmer Conner Collection of Color Slides of Los Angeles. Huntington Digital Library. The Huntington Library. http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15150coll2/id/7712/rec/5