Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader

Real or Rumor: The Hotel del Coronado

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.

(Image credit: Dirk Hansen)

Built in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado (or Hotel Del) near San Diego has been the site of ghost hauntings, movie filmings, celebrity getaways, and all kinds of other legendary stuff. Let’s separate the facts from the fiction.

RUMOR: In December 1904, the Hotel del Coronado lit the first electric outdoor Christmas tree in the United States.

TRUTH: The hotel itself makes this claim, but it’s unlikely. Electric lights on trees probably came sometime in the late 1800s. However, in 1904 the hotel did wire 250 lights to its 50-foot tree. It may have been the first in Southern California and was certainly done at a time when few people lit outdoor trees at all and indoor ones were still fire hazards with candles. The tree remained on display for a three hours each night from Christmas Eve through New Year’s.

RUMOR: Every U.S. president since Lyndon B. Johnson has stayed at the Hotel Del.

TRUTH: This is true. The hotel has been the temporary home to 15 presidents, including the eight since Johnson. Seven presidents before Johnson also stayed at the Hotel Del: Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. [Ed. note: this was written before the election of 2016.]

RUMOR: At a 1920 Hotel Del banquet in his honor, the 26-year-old Prince Edward of Wales met 24-year-old Wallis Spencer, a U.S. Navy captain’s wife who was destined to (scandalously!) become Edward’s Duchess of Windsor.

TRUTH: Years later, the couple did have an unsanctioned relationship (he had a thing for married women, and she was about to be twice-divorced). He briefly became King Edward VIII, but abdicated his throne to marry her, and…

Angels Flight: Up the Down Railroad

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.

Got a minute? In L.A., you can use it for a trip back in time.


On the morning of December 31, 1901, a new train opened for business in downtown Los Angeles. There were crowds and many speeches about progress, and Mayor Meredith Snyder took one of the first rides. Wealthy women who lived in the Victorian mansions atop Bunker Hill served free punch to the passengers. The new railroad’s official name was the Los Angeles Incline Railway, but a nearby metal archway already contained the words, “Angels Flight,” so that’s what everyone called it. Passengers paid a penny for a one-way ride that lasted just 50 seconds. Advertised as “The Shortest Railway in the World,” Angels Flight’s track was only 315 feet long. It wasn’t a typical train, either, and didn’t have an engine car, boxcars, or a caboose—there were only two small, 32-passenger trams.

The cars were named Olivet and Sinai (for two mountains in the Bible). They traveled on an incline between Hill and Olive Streets that was so steep their floors and seats had to be built on different levels like stairs, to keep people from sliding off their benches. Painted white with black trim, Olivet and Sinai worked in tandem: one car carried passengers up from the corner of Third and Hill to Olive, while the other car was heading down.

Some people complained that the ceremonies in 1901 made too much fuss over a train that just traveled a couple of blocks. But Angels Flight went on to carry more passengers per mile than any other railway in the world. More than 100 million people traveled on its tracks in the first 50 years.


The man who brought Angels Flight to L.A. was Colonel James Ward Eddy, a Civil War hero and a friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Eddy lived in the downtown area with his teenage grandson—a kid who often complained it would be a lot easier to climb Bunker Hill if the city would put in a cable car.

The colonel was an entrepreneur, always looking for a new business. He knew that the wealthy families who lived in the expensive Bunker Hill neighborhood would be willing to pay to not to have to climb the dirt road between Hill and Olive. Eddy had practiced many professions, including railroad construction and engineering. He knew that a cable car would be impractical on the short, steep slope to Bunker Hill, but certain types of railways might work very well.

In May 1901, the city gave Eddy permission to build the railway if he also included steps for pedestrians. By the end of the year, Bunker Hill residents returning from downtown shopping sprees could either haul their packages up 123 concrete steps or zip up the hill on Olivet or Sinai. Needless to say, Angels Flight was a success.

To entice tourists up to Bunker Hill, Eddy also built a 100-foot tower behind the Olive Street railway terminal. He called it Angels Rest and advertised its viewing platform as “grand beyond compare overlooking city, sea, and mountains.” Eddy also put a camera obscura in the tower. This dark room worked like the inside of a camera, using a pinhole light to project the view of the street outside onto the room’s walls.


Part of the…

Sticking Around: The La Brea Tar Pits

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.

(Image credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD)

How much do you know about the Angelenos of the Pleistocene? Yeah, us either. Read on.


Hancock Park, an affluent area of Los Angeles, is well known for its celebrity sightings, million-dollar homes, and the famous Hollywood sign in the distance. But some of the neighborhood’s “residents” are even cooler. World-famous fossils—like the extinct dire wolf, saber-toothed tiger, and Columbia mammoth—are among the millions of specimens that have been excavated from the La Brea tar pits. Located on Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile, the tar pits contain one of the richest deposits of late Pleistocene era (the last ice age) fossils in North America. The fossils date from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and more than three million of them—including plants, mammals, birds, lizards, and insects—have been excavated since paleontologists first began digging there in the early 1900s.

The tar pits on display today were once excavation sites where workers dug for asphalt or scientists dug for fossils. Over the years, humans dug more than 100 pits throughout Hancock Park, but most of them have been refilled with dirt, debris, asphalt, and water. About 13 tar pits remain—the largest, called the Lake Pit, measures 28 square feet and is approximately 14 feet deep.


The La Brea tar pits formed thousands of years ago, when gas and oil beneath the ground came under pressure. The molten mixture pushed up through vents in the earth’s crust. Once it reached the surface, the oil pooled in natural depressions aboveground. The lighter part of the pooling oil evaporated—left behind was a heavy, sticky oil. Then rain and underground springs added water, forming ponds and lakes on top of the oil and creating what we now call the tar pits.

The water on the tar pits’ surface was especially attractive to thirsty animals, and during the warm spring and summer, the thick oil underneath was especially sticky. Animals that ventured into to the pits couldn’t escape. Often predators chased their prey into the pits and got stuck too. Paleontologists once found a large bison fossil surrounded by a pack of fossilized wolves. The dead animals eventually sank completely, and their bones and teeth turned brown from the oil. But otherwise, they were almost perfectly preserved for more than 30,000 years.


Hundreds of years ago, local Native Americans used the thick oil at the tar pits as waterproof caulking for their baskets and canoes. When the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, they used it to waterproof their houses. In 1828 the tar pits were part of a Mexican land grant called Rancho de la Brea (brea means “tar” in Spanish). When the United States took over California in 1848, the area was part of the deal, and ultimately, it came into the possession of lawyer and surveyor Henry Hancock…