New Book on Mount Lowe

Coming in June from the Mount Lowe Preservation Society and Arcadia Press: Mount Lowe Railway by Michael A. Patris.

How many Americans, even among aviation enthusiasts, might be able to answer quickly as to the name of the key figure present at what may be considered the birth of military aviation in the United States? Certainly not many will have been aware that Thaddeus S.C. Lowe was the man who pioneered the use of hot air balloons for military purposes at the outset of the Civil War, and converted a coal barge on the Potomac River into the world’s first aircraft carrier by using it to launch those balloons.

The above serves as only one example of how history has sometimes overlooked this larger-than-life genius, whose other early accomplishments produced stunning improvements in American life, affecting business, industry, technology and the very manner in which Americans navigated their daily affairs at the turn of the 20th century.

But Southern California’s Mount Lowe Railway and Resort, which operated roughly from 1893 to 1936, were the crowning achievements of Lowe’s “Golden Years”, and Michael A. Patris of the non-profit Mount Lowe Preservation Society has teamed with Arcadia Publishing and its “Images of Rail” series to produce an appealing new 128-page visual history of this remarkable undertaking. The twisting chronicle of Lowe’s dream of transporting tourists to the dizzying heights of the Sierra Madre Mountains above the Los Angeles area (now known as the San Gabriel Mountains) metaphorically parallels the magically engineered railway journey that more than four million visitors enjoyed on “Earth’s Grandest Mountain Railway”.

Over the years of its operation, Lowe’s fascinating alpine destination attracted continuous worldwide attention and afterward gained nostalgic respect as “the Disneyland of its time”. The appellation was well deserved; at its peak, it not only boasted the world’s first electric incline railway, but also nine waterfalls, four hotels, four-star-quality restaurants, a dance hall, a post office, a zoo, the world’s largest searchlight, a world class observatory and astronomer, a daily newspaper (the Mount Lowe Echo), a gold mine, the world’s first circular bridge, a pool hall, a gift store, miniature golf, tennis, horseback riding, live music and entertainment, seasonal snow, and a fox farm. All of this was available within a few hours of travel from Los Angeles.

But the success with which the courageous, driven Lowe and his imaginative engineer, David J. Macpherson, conquered seemingly impossible physical challenges was frequently not mirrored by a sustained ability to master the Herculean financial feats needed to keep the project ascendant on the steep slopes of Lowe’s outsized dreamscape. Plans sometimes had to be scaled back along the way, and eventually Lowe lost control, with the venture ending up in the hands of Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway. As it evolved slowly toward the end of its history, the pace of loss was hastened by series of natural catastrophes that reflected poignantly on the astonishing scale of the challenge that Lowe had originally had the fortitude to undertake.

With over 200 photographs and an artfully illuminating text, this new visual history provides a clear and informative overview of the entire project, from the earliest conceptualizing to the years of aftermath, in which nature’s eternal embrace gradually reclaimed the mountain. But it’s in the story of more than 40 years of visitor fascination that the book best describes the remarkable scope of Lowe’s ability to construct mesmerizing reality from the elaborate dreaming of a restless mind. As presented here, firmly within the context of Lowe’s overall lifetime accomplishments in an array of disparate endeavors, the story of the Mount Lowe Railway and Resort amounts to far more than just icing on the cake of an amazing personal journey. From start to finish, Lowe’s was a great life lived, and those who benefited from it are counted by the millions. Small wonder that he spent more than one night at the White House, at the invitation of Abraham Lincoln. Too bad Lincoln couldn’t have lived to have the favor repaid with a ride on the Mount Lowe Railway.

— Orel Obsidiakis

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