by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On a day when getting high is a burning issue, we look back nearly a century to another way to trip: taking the thrilling excursion up the steep slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains on the Mount Lowe Railway. The audacious and remarkable project above Altadena was built by the eccentric and brilliant Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, whose earlier method of flying high was through his pioneering efforts in ballooning.
Lowe was “chief aeronaut” of the Union Army during the Civil War, employing his skills in building balloons to spy on the Confederates, in addition to using them for early aerial photography and mapping and for weather monitoring. After he contracted malaria and soured on his connections with the military, Lowe continued with his ballooning interests, as well as efforts in developing gas for heating, lighting, cooking and other home uses.
His innovations expanded to such areas as refrigeration for ships and railroad cars (a topic recently mentioned here with respect to Edwin T. Earl) and steam-powered submarines. During the famed Boom of the 1880s, Lowe visited Los Angeles and, as with so many who came from the East and Midwest, he was enchanted with the region and its possibilities for his enterprises with gas.
Settling in Los Angeles and then Pasadena, Lowe created several gas companies and embarked on banking. Through the latter, he met Perry Green (Green Street in Pasadena is named for the banker), who enticed Lowe’s creative energies for an idea to build a railroad into the local mountains.
While the initial idea was to build a incline cable line to Mt. Wilson, which was already a popular spot for hikers and campers (see tomorrow’s post for more on Mt. Wilson and another remarkable project), it was decided by 1891 to build to Oak Mountain, because of difficulties securing rights-of-way to Mt. Wilson, and the peak was later renamed in honor of Lowe.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, projects as daring as this wind up costing far more than initially thought and it didn’t help that the post-boom years were difficult ones for the national and local economy, including the Depression of 1893. In fact, the Mount Lowe Railway opened on Independence Day that year. In succeeding years, a hotel and observatory were established, followed by the Alpine Tavern.
By 1895, when the latter was completed, though, Lowe was in dire financial straits and he lost control of the enterprise two years later. After a brief period of ownership by Spokane, Washington mining magnate Valentine Peyton, the Mount Lowe system was acquired by Henry E. Huntington, the street railway and real estate mogul whose Pacific Electric Railway would own Lowe’s project for over thirty years.
Under the PE system, Mt. Lowe was a very popular tourist attraction as millions of visitors thrilled to the steep incline cable ride and then the twisted, curving trip through the mountains to the lodgings, tavern and other areas. The destination was easily among the most visited and photographed of tourist locales in greater Los Angeles during the first three decades of the 20th century.
With the onset of the Great Depression, however, tourism in the region slowed and visitation to Mt. Lowe declined. Always subject to the threat of fire, which occasionally roared through the site and destroyed portions of it, the facilities were ravaged by fires in 1935-36 and the end was near. Massive flooding in 1938 destroyed more of the Mt. Lowe complex and, nearly a decade later, it was sold to the federal government as part of Angeles National Forest.
Today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection come from the glory years of Mt. Lowe’s operation and consist of four photographs purchased and taken by a tourist on this day in 1922. One published image shows the remarkable incline with a PE streetcar at the left delivery and taking guests to and from the complex and one of the open cars loaded with passengers ready for the stunning trip up the steep mountainside, while other stand nearby.
The second photo, appearing to have been snapped by the tourist, shows a portion of the narrow-gauge track as it curves round a bend, while, at the top, is one of the famous hairpin turns where the track is elevated from the slope providing another thrilling experience.
The third image, also a snapshot, is of rustic and charming “Ye Alpine Tavern,” a cozy wooden structure built against the mountainside and within towering oak trees. Two women stand with uniformed employees of the PE system on the steps of the structure, which had large decks for enjoying the scenery and other amenities.
Finally, there is a panoramic view of the portion of the San Gabriel Valley from Mt. Lowe with a portion of the railway visible down slope. This image also appears to be a snapshot and note how relatively rural the “flat land” area looks compared to what it would be in later decades and today.
The Homestead has several dozen photographs, pamphlets and other material related to the Mt. Lowe Railway and complex, but those who want detailed information about it should check out the website and Facebook page of the Mount Lowe Preservation Society, which also has a staggering collection of artifacts relating to the site, Thaddeus Lowe and related elements.