Henry Ford Visits the Incline Railway at Mount Lowe

The advent of the twentieth century brought many changes to people around the world and none greater than those right here in the United States where mass transportation was becoming more and more affordable for the common man. Everything from the electric trolley to the automobile was proving to be more than a mere passing fancy and people by the thousands were venturing out of their hometowns and cities to take a look at the wondrous world around them. These people were from all parts of the globe and from every socio-economic background.

Automobile mogul Henry Ford was not only responsible for giving the common man a way to tour about, but was also one of those who did the touring as well. Henry Ford and wife Clara were among the richest people in the nation and took to traveling around the world to view its great wonders. Mass production of the Model T in 1908 brought millions of dollars to the Ford Empire and in 1914 the automobile assembly line was born. Henry Ford was so proud of his accomplishment he decided to put the assembly line on display for the world to view at the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915. It was a smashing success.

While on the West Coast, the Ford family, accompanied by young Edsel Ford, would visit places in Southern California such as Universal City, Cawston Ostrich Farm, Catalina Island, and the Mt. Lowe Incline. For many years the Ford family would return to the San Gabriel Valley as Clara’s sister and brother-in-law lived in a craftsman styled home near the corner of Santa Rosa and Alameda Streets in Altadena. George Brubaker and Eva Bryant Brubaker played host and hostess to not only the Henry Fords, but also Mr. And Mrs. Harvey Firestone (Firestone Tires), Luther Burbank (botanist), Mr. And Mrs. (Commander) Sir Percival Perry, and Thomas Edison. These well known figures were just like the rest of an emerging population, who wanted to explore the world around them, especially wonders like the great Mt. Lowe Incline.

Henry Ford had always been an imaginative tinkerer and admired the work that went into the making of the incline. He would return many times between 1907, when his sister-in-law and brother-in-law were married, and the late 1920’s. The auto magnate would marvel at the incline cars going up a 63% average grade for nearly two-thirds of a mile. He wondered how such an engineering masterpiece could operate so flawlessly and provide so much pleasure. One of the things that tickled Mr. Ford the most was taking the tour of the Cable Room, the area just below the winding station and power house. It is rumored that this was Ford’s favorite part of the trip, to see the great grip wheel turning and the teeth opening and closing on the steel cable that carried the incline cars up and down the mountain.

In the name of education, Ford sent moving picture camera crews to hundreds of locations around the globe to bring an unfamiliar world to the eyes of young and old alike. One of the first locations chosen for the FORD EDUCATIONAL WEEKLY was none other than the great cable incline at Mt. Lowe. Ford himself came along on this particular trip, giving Pacific Electric Patrons the wonders of the San Gabriel Valley and an arms distance look at a world famous mogul enjoying a simple outing with his family.

Henry Ford always insisted he was a simple man; man of nature, bird watcher, and an amateur astronomer. A far cry from his 1300-acre estate, “Fair Lane” (namesake of his 50’s and 60’s automobiles) which in 1915 boasted a $1.9 million dollar price tag.

The powerhouse at Echo Mountain is said to have served as a model for his own powerhouse at Fair Lane, the sole supply of electricity to run the massive estate. Ford insisted his estate fit in with the surrounding landscape and that is just one aspect he loved so much about the incline railroad. So little of the San Gabriel Mountains were disturbed upon completion of the railway from Rubio Pavilion all the way up to Alpine Tavern. The little white opera cars could be seen traversing the hill from time to time and a few buildings dotted the top of Echo Mountain; just enough visually to make the people down below ask themselves what it must be like to go up the hill for a ride.

Although the Ford’s were on vacation all the gentleman wore dress shoes, suits, and ties – and don’t forget your hat! The women still wore high top shoes and long dresses.

There is no evidence that Henry Ford met Thaddeus Lowe, but the two pioneers had quite a bit in common. Lowe made and lost several fortunes and died nearly broke trying to have fulfilled his mountain railway dream. Subsequently he had lost control of his trolley line by the time Henry Ford had come to admire it. Ford had made and lost a few small fortunes of his own trying to perfect an automobile fit for the masses. Both men were amateur astronomers, naturalists, and visionaries. Both were dedicated family men. Too bad Ford and Lowe hadn’t met earlier. Perhaps Henry Ford could have altered local history with his love for the Mount Lowe Incline and the necessary money professor Lowe lacked to fulfill his mountain dream.

The photographs included with this story have been documented by the Henry Ford museum to have been taken during the winter of 1915-1916. The Ford’s commonly spent the winter months in California sightseeing and visiting family so as to escape the inclimate east.

On this particular trip Clara Ford brought along friend Rose Flint. Rose was married to Dutee Flint, head of Ford Motor Companies New England sales office in Providence Rhode Island. Her father accompanied Rose on this trip as it was frowned upon for a woman to travel unescorted in that day and age.

None of the other people in the photograph could be identified, however the owner of Pasadena Ford, Lewis J. Hampton, may be among those photographed, as Hampton and Ford were long time personal friends.

While Henry Ford was most likely the biggest automotive celebrity to ride the Mount Lowe Incline Railway, his automobiles were not the first to drive along the right-of-way to Alpine Tavern. In 1912 a White “Gasoline Torpedo” touring car made the trip along the Alpine Division with tire chains as a publicity stunt and then again in 1914 a Metz automobile made the trip along the rails as well. It is believed that the Mount Lowe incline car bodies were removed from their platforms to allow the automobiles to be chained to them and brought up to Echo Mountain. This was routinely done in other circumstances when larger cargo had to be brought up the mountain, such as the case when the water tanks were brought to Alpine Tavern on the PERy 1520.