The Mount Lowe Observatory

Huge obstacles in life many times will make persistent individuals hugely successful in their field of endeavors – and like Thaddeus Lowe, such was the case of Lewis Swift.

Injured by a fall as a teen, which fractured his hip, this once active child was considered useless or “lame” by his parents since he couldn’t work a 12 to 15 hour day on the family farm in Monroe County, New York.

Swift’s “opportunity” came when he was allowed to attend school, which he did, by hobbling on crutches two miles each way, carrying his book, to a small academy in nearby Clarkston. It was here at 13 years of age that science and particularly astronomy whetted his appetite to explore the heavens. At this time he witnessed the Great Leonid Meteor Shower of 1833.

Some ten years later the heavens still held his attention and about that time he witnessed the “Great Comet of 1843.” After reading as many books as he could find on astronomy, it wasn’t until 1860 when he could purchase his first telescope – a 4 ½” refractor form fellow New Yorker Henry Fitz. Now all Swift needed was a quiet place to set up his instruments; a place where he could work undisturbed. For a while, working outside of his barn in his hometown of Marathon, New York was okay. Soon he wanted a better place and to his mind there was none better for height and quiet than the roof of Duffy’s Cider Mill in Rochester. After convincing the owner of the building this would be the perfect platform for his telescope, Swift was now truly in heaven.

In the summer of 1862 Swift discovered his first comet, known as “1862 III.” At first he thought it was “1862 II,” old news for astronomers; but when an independent confirmation came from Harvard Observatories Horace Tuttle, three days later Swift’s life long obsession to discover comets was well under way. This is how the Swift-Tuttle Comet got its name.

While astronomy was still an avocation, the opening of a hardware store paid the family bills. The local hardware store became kind of a hang out; the store’s owner, Lewis Swift, held court to discuss his recent discoveries of comets, which was averaging about one new comet each year. This achievement did not go unnoticed especially by patent medicine king H. H. Warner, who offered to build an observatory for Swift if the local townspeople would raise the money for a 16″ refractor telescope. Finally in 1882, the Warner Observatory opened its doors at a cost of more than 100,000 dollars! Swift became its first director. The telescope made by Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the fourth largest in the United States at the time and said by Alvan Clark himself to be the best work he had ever produced.

As director of the Warner Observatory, Swift opened the doors to the public on Tuesday and Friday evenings to those who had bought a .25-cent ticket from Warner’s Patent Medicine Store. This was the first time an Observatory had been opened to the public and was considered by many to be quite an evening out.
Whether it was Warner the promoter or Swift the showman, this combination of astronomy and entertainment caught the eye of another promoter and showman – Thaddeus Lowe. Although 3,000 miles away, Lowe was quite the amateur astronomer himself and marveled at the works of Lewis Swift; who by this time had discovered more than 900 nebulae and hundreds of comets.

The great financial panic of 1893 had Swift wondering what he would do as Warner, his benefactor, had lost nearly everything – and astronomy was no longer the darling of the community.

Almost without skipping a beat Thaddeus Lowe invited Swift to bring his astronomical equipment to California and be the first head of the new Mount Lowe Observatory. Lowe wanted the best of everything – and having Swift on top of Echo Mountain was considered by Southern Californians as quite a coup. Swift would still have evening lectures open to the ticket buying public, would bring and use his 16 inch refractor telescope, and have a new location with a higher altitude and less city smoke and lights to distract his work.
Lowe Observatory Brochure circa 1914.
Lowe Observatory with darkroom on right.
Lowe built the observatory with a 32’ central diameter tower and light dome and two unequal wings – the smaller of which was a photographic darkroom, the larger to house the extensive library and reference material of Swift and his years of research.

While Lowe lost control of the Mount Lowe Incline Railway by 1897, Professor Swift stayed on as the head of the Observatory. Interestingly enough, the Mount Lowe Observatory was not considered part of the railway holdings and Lowe maintained control of it until he sold it later to Henry Huntington and the Pacific Electric Railway.

By 1900 Lewis Swift was nearly blind and almost deaf. He gave up the position as head of the Lowe Observatory and retired back to Marathon, New York, leaving his beloved telescope and making way for the second astronomer to take over the Lowe Observatory, Edgar Lucien Larkin. Earlier in 1900, January to be exact, the famed Echo Mountain House burned to the ground while employees and patrons hopelessly watched.

Sadly, while Lowe was no longer the owner of Echo Mountain House and the Pacific Electric Railway had yet to come into the picture, it was under-insured by the receivership that was running the business at the time. Because of this error in judgment, the renowned hotel would never be rebuilt. 1900 was also the year that Thaddeus Lowe would move out of his huge mansion on South Orange Grove Boulevard, which also had an observatory in the four-story tower.

Edgar Lucien Larkin was mostly a self-taught astronomer who was born in La Salle County, Illinois on April 5th, 1847. From his humble beginnings he managed to build a crude observatory in New Windsor, Illinois in 1879 where he used a six-inch Clark refractor telescope. By 1888 Larkin and his observatory moved to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he operated until 1895.

Larkin was looking for an opportunity to be involved in astronomy and with Lewis Swift becoming elderly, somehow Larkin was chosen to step into the picture.

Larkin would direct the Lowe Observatory for nearly 24 years and make it more available to the common person via the stewardship of the Pacific Electric Railway who owned, operated and maintained the facility. The PERy would boast in their brochures that it was the only observatory open to the public and even available to private parties, schools, and special car service if arrangements were made through their traffic department.
Swift telescope inside Lowe Observatory.

The Pacific Electric knew this was another tourist attraction and looked at Larkin as a type of director for public viewing of sorts. At this time the second wing of the observatory became the darkroom for famed PERy photographer Charles Lawrence. This is how Lawrence and Larkin became friends. Lawrence would sometimes take over the tour of the observatory when Larkin was working on one of his many published articles for numerous newspapers around the country.

The Pacific Electric Railway Lowe Observatory brochure contains the following paragraph:

The best way to reach the observatory is in connection with the great Mount Lowe trip, for which cars leave Main Street Station of the Pacific Electric Railway, Los Angeles, at 8:00, 9:00, and 10:00am, 1:30 and 4:00pm; leave Pasadena 50 minutes later. On the nights that the observatory is open (Saturdays, Sundays and holidays) a car leaves Alpine at 7:15pm and allows a stop over of 45 minutes at Echo Mountain to visit the observatory, after which passengers can leave Echo at 8:30pm and reach Los Angeles at 9:50pm or, better still, can return to Alpine Tavern for the night with a chance of finding themselves above the clouds when they awake in the morning.

In 1913 both Thaddeus Lowe and Lewis Swift passed away. George Wharton James eulogized the two great men, having known both of them as the publicist for the official paper of the Mount Lowe Incline Railway, the Mount Lowe Echo.

As Larkin became older and less active, Charles Lawrence took over more and more of the observatory duties and finally became the sole director for the Lowe Observatory in 1924 following the death of Larkin. Larkin’s ashes were scattered not far from the One Man and a Mule Railway at Inspiration Point by both Charles Lawrence and Larkin’s son Ralph, a local ordained minister.

In February 1928, a massive windstorm hit Echo Mountain and tore off the dome of the observatory. If it were not for the quick thinking of Charles Lawrence, damage might have come to the Swift telescope. Lawrence took the sight end optics off the telescope and hid them when the windstorm began whipping things around and saved them from certain destruction.

Sadly the observatory was permanently damaged and the Pacific Electric Railway came up to Echo Mountain with a work crew to package up the Swift telescope and bring it back to the offices at 6th and Main. It sat in a vault for several years and was sold to the University of Santa Clara in 1941 for the sum of two thousand dollars.

The University of Santa Clara is home to the Ricard Observatory, which was named for Father Jerome Ricard, who taught at the University during the time of the observatory construction in 1907. Unfortunately the observatory never had a telescope until the Swift telescope was purchased and installed in 1942, where astronomy students up until a few years ago used it. The observatory is now awaiting costly asbestos and lead based paint abatement restoration and is sitting dormant.
John Haug and Michael Patris at Ricard Observatory with Swift telescope

The University of Santa Clara is home to the Ricard Observatory, which was named for Father Jerome Ricard, who taught at the University during the time of the observatory construction in 1907. Unfortunately the observatory never had a telescope until the Swift telescope was purchased and installed in 1942, where astronomy students up until a few years ago used it. The observatory is now awaiting costly asbestos and lead based paint abatement restoration and is sitting dormant.

As a footnote, Santa Clara University is built around the Santa Clara Mission, the 8 of the original 21 missions built by Father Junipero Serra. It is also the oldest University in the state of California, founded in 1851. It was started by the Jesuits and did not become co-ed until 1961.

In March of 2004 I had the opportunity to visit the observatory and take a look at the Swift telescope with the eldest living descendant of Thaddeus Lowe, John Haug of South Freeport Maine, who was visiting California with his wife Hope.