The Mount Lowe Incline Railway
“Earth’s Grandest Mountain Ride” was not at the forefront of Thaddeus Lowe’s thinking when he first came to Los Angeles in the summer of 1887. He’d already had quite a full life and had raised half of his ten children. What he was looking for was a place to retire and a warmer climate for the lingering symptoms of the malaria he had contracted during the Civil War.
But who was this larger-than-life character, and what allowed him to come to California in his retirement years? This short biographical sketch and historical introduction will endeavor to reveal how this forward-thinking Easterner became such a celebrity in Southern California, leaving behind a legacy that would outlive many of his descendants.
Born August 21, 1832 in Randolph, New Hampshire, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe was one of four children born to Clovis and Alpha Green Lowe. Early in his youth, Thad’s mother died and his father remarried, giving the youngster seven more half-siblings. It was during these early years that he had to be bound out to a neighboring farm as a laborer because his father and stepmother could not afford to keep him fed and clothed.
Just before he turned eleven years old and with no more than a third grade education, young Thad ran away from his indentured servitude to work with an older brother in Portland, Maine. It was here that Lowe became interested in ballooning and came to believe that currents of air could carry a balloon all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Ballooning was not entirely new and his concept was not altogether original, but by 1856, a year after he met and married his French wife Leontine, Lowe had begun building his own balloons for test flights. By 1859, Lowe had built one of the largest balloons ever, nearly 200 feet in height with a gas capacity of 725,000 cubic feet. This balloon, by all accounts, could have crossed the Atlantic Ocean under the right conditions.
By 1861, Lowe had soared into the record books with a flight of 900 miles in nine hours in a smaller balloon, from Cincinnati, Ohio to Union, South Carolina. Upon landing, Lowe was detained under suspicion of being a Yankee spy, as this flight took place just a week after the firing at Fort Sumter and the commencement of the Civil War. Lowe thereby became one of the first prisoners of the Confederacy.
Although he was a pacifist, Lowe’s dedicated patriotism compelled him to volunteer his services to Abraham Lincoln. He was well received, and spent the night at the White House on several occasions. He was given a civilian position as Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army and eventually built seven balloons to spy on the Confederates. He also invented and built portable hydrogen gas generators for inflating balloons in the field, developed a system of signal flags to direct artillery fire on distant targets, and outfitted a barge for the launching of balloons, essentially creating the world’s first aircraft carrier. Some of his other wartime achievements included sending the first telegraph from the air while tethered above the White House (to give real time enemy troop movements), aiding in the first aerial mapping and photography, and monitoring meteorological events for what was to later become the National Weather Bureau. Lowe also invented one of the first altimeters to be used without a horizon.
Frustration with military red tape and his contraction of malaria in 1863 brought Lowe back to civilian life just outside New York City, where he built his Balloon Amphitheater near Central Park and charged admission for rides. Within a few years, the Lowe family moved to Philadelphia. It was there that Lowe began to apply his vast balloonist’s knowledge of gas to civilian purposes. He patented a method for extracting gas from anthracite coal, and the Lowe product would eventually heat and illuminate more than two thirds of all the homes in the United States. This then led to the production of gas heaters, ranges, boilers and gas lighting fixtures.
Lowe would eventually hold more than 200 patents, and his innovations reached well beyond just applications for the use of gas. The Franklin Institute soon recognized his remarkable scientific vision and its potential impact on the future of mankind, and honored him with its bronze and silver medals in 1885 and 1886, respectively. Lowe was also responsible for inventing a type of artificial refrigeration that could be used to transport produce and meat in ships and railroad cars, and later a steam-powered submarine that could outrun most surface ships.
When Thaddeus Lowe first traveled to Los Angeles in 1887, he was amazed by the climate and the surroundings. But he was also astonished at the price of heating and illuminating gas, and he was confident that his prosperous Eastern business would do just as well in the West, if not better. While he thought it would be a great move for him and the family, Leontine was not initially convinced. She didn’t want to leave the three-story home they had built in Norristown, Pennsylvania or leave their first-born children, who were now grown and married. Eventually, Thaddeus prevailed and by 1888 they were established in Southern California.
Lowe was invigorated by his new homeland and opened a gas company in Los Angeles, then one in Pasadena, and then others. Not completely satisfied with how he was spending his time, he then opened the Los Angeles Safe Deposit and Trust Company and Citizen’s Bank of Los Angeles. It was this splash in the public spotlight, and with the California Banker’s Association, that drew the attention of banker Perry Green in Pasadena. Green came to admire Lowe’s dynamic energy and intelligence, and decided to draw him in on a pet project: to find a way to get the public into the local mountains by rail.
As early as the mid 1880s there had been those in Pasadena who thought it would be grand to travel to the heights of the Sierra Madre Mountains (now known as the San Gabriel Mountains) on a trip that would not take all day. In September of 1885, Dr. Hiram Reid of the Pasadena Union newspaper told the story of how a mountain railroad could be run into Las Flores Canyon; “We showed that the water coming down the canyon could be utilized to drive the machinery for a cable road and that it is not impossible that with this power a cable road or elevator may be carried to the top of the mountains.”
While most people thought this plan was pure folly, one individual took it upon himself to prove otherwise. The June 11th, 1886 edition of the Pasadena Union says, “On Wednesday George Swartwout secured the franchise for the cable railroad up Prospect Avenue (now Lake Avenue) to Las Flores Canyon. At Colorado Street it will connect with the street railway, and at Olivewood with the San Gabriel Valley Railroad, and at Las Flores with a mountain pack train, or eventually with some kind of mechanical up-you-go to the top of the mountain.”
George Swartwout incorporated this enterprise as the Highland Railroad in 1888. He was a cashier and manager of the Pasadena National Bank and happened to live on the north end of Prospect Avenue, where he thought land values would rise with the promise of a new railroad. Construction commenced and the line eventually ran from Raymond Station north on Broadway (now Arroyo Parkway), just north of the Raymond Hotel and up past the Pasadena Grand Opera House via Palmetto Street, then north on Raymond Street to Colorado. It never made any money and was sold to creditors who later in turn sold it to the Pasadena and Los Angles Electric Railway Company in 1894.
At the same time Swartwout was putting together his railroad, R. Williams, Byron Bates and C. S. Martin formed a company to survey the possibilities for a cog railway to Wilson’s Peak. This was at about the same time the Mount Washington Cog Railway opened up in the Great White Mountains of New Hampshire. These California men thought if it had already been done elsewhere, it couldn’t be too difficult. After securing some land claims and undertaking several surveys, they discovered otherwise and abandoned their project.
Others thought Mount Wilson seemed the most popular choice, as it already had a trail to the top and sufficient spring water to sustain thirsty travelers and their animals. There were already two camps on Wilson’s Peak, where hikers or horseback riders could stay in relative luxury. Camping outdoors cost 25 cents a day per person, $1.00 per week, and $3.00 for a month. Unfurnished 10’ by 12’ tents for one person were $1.75 with a dirt floor or $2.50 with a wood floor. Furnished tents ran a bit more, but included a bed, mattress, blankets, linens, towels, wash bowl and pitcher, mirror, table with two chairs, a lamp and dishes. In the late nineteenth century, this wasn’t bad at all, for the “Alps of America.”
In 1889 the Pasadena Board of Trade approved the appropriation of funds to widen the Mount Wilson Trail and make it a toll road for the purpose of conveying a 40” telescope to its peak for Harvard University. Judge Benjamin Eaton headed up this group, which raised the needed money, and following the widening of the trail came more thoughts of a railway to the summit.
In January of 1890, a former Santa Fe Railway engineer named David J. Macpherson (MacPherson?) made some surveys for the possibility of a mountain railway above Pasadena. Macpherson had recently come out from Texas with his mother for better living conditions, following the deaths of the Macpherson patriarch and most of his siblings due to tuberculosis.
This Cornell-educated engineer poked around in the local mountains for several months, in the interest of developing a project and some work for himself. Upon reading the local papers and hearing the buzz in town, Macpherson thought if there was going to be a mountain railway project, he wanted to be part of it. So off he went with a crew of six assistants to survey, set stakes, and prepare a route with special notations about cuts and fills in the landscape. With this report in hand he would be able to speak more directly about the possibility of a mountain railway.
Shortly after completing his survey, Macpherson had plenty of people interested in listening to him, but no one really wanted to write him a check. There had been a land boom and subsequent bust, so money was tight. He shared his woes with banker Perry Green, who had himself put up some initial dollars for Macpherson to survey the proposed right-of-way, and the two men discussed the possibility of meeting with this Pasadena newcomer, Thaddeus Lowe. Green favored the idea and wrote the young Macpherson a letter of introduction.
Lowe and Macpherson got along immediately and agreed on a trip into the mountains together to look at the railroad possibilities. Lowe had grown up in the shadow of the Great White Mountains of New Hampshire and jumped at the chance to go up into the beautiful Sierra Madre Mountains with a knowledgeable guide.
The trip went well and it was not too long until the Pasadena and Mount Wilson Railway Company was incorporated. On the incorporation papers, filed June 3, 1891, the officers were listed as:
T. S. C. Lowe, President
Perry Green, Vice President
A. P. West, Secretary
T. W. Brotherton, Treasurer
Shortly after incorporation it became apparent that the railway, which almost immediately began construction, would not be building to the peak at Mount Wilson, due to a lack of cooperation in settling rights-of-way. The new terminus would be Oak Mountain, later to be named Mount Lowe, in honor of the builder of the Railway. The railway itself was eventually renamed the Mount Lowe Railway.
At the same time that Lowe was building his railway, he was building a home on South Orange Grove Avenue, also known as Millionaire’s Row. Shortly thereafter he purchased another piece of property, the Pasadena Grand Opera House, to accommodate the offices of his many businesses.
But perhaps Thaddeus Lowe had finally spread himself a bit too thin. Bond sales for the railway fell flat and there were mounting expenses with which to contend. The railway was costing Lowe far more than expected and he was forced to liquidate personal assets or mortgage them just to keep the workers paid and the project afloat.
By 1897 Lowe had lost control of his railway and was in financial ruin. The Mount Lowe Railway went into receivership and did not settle down with a bona fide new owner until Henry Huntington purchased it and made it part of the Pacific Electric Railway system in 1902.
Fire and flood slowly claimed all of the buildings of the world-class resort that Lowe had built at the top of the mountain. By 1936, the last of the structures, Mount Lowe Tavern, succumbed to fire and was never rebuilt. The right of way was abandoned in 1941, at which time the land reverted to the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1959, the Forest Service dynamited the remains of the buildings on Echo Mountain and at Crystal Springs, and by 1963 the railway was given a historical marker. The remaining right of way in Altadena was renamed Macpherson Parkway, and in 1993 the railway was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many individuals and groups have worked hard to keep the memories of the Mount Lowe Incline Railway in place, among them the Scenic Mount Lowe Historical Committee.
The Mount Lowe Preservation Society, Inc., was formed in March of 2000 to keep the photos and artifacts of “Earth’s Grandest Mountain Railway” together for the public to share. This book has been assembled with materials solely from our archives, which have been acquired over nearly the past twenty years. Due to limited space, only an abbreviated story can be told here. It is our goal to continue our research and to tell a more complete story as time goes on and research uncovers more information.