Where the Rubber Met the Rails
How the Metz Automobile drove the Mount Lowe Railway
When Charles Metz came up with the idea for the gearless transmission for his automobile, he thought his car would be lighter and cheaper than the competition and have the ability to go anywhere. Metz proved he was correct and probably had little idea in the beginning where this claim would take him and his product in the end.
Charles Metz was born in Utica, New York while the American Civil War was still going on, in 1863. Being of German heritage, he had a strong work ethic and by the time he had reached the sixth grade, he quit school to help his father with the family contracting business. It was here that Metz got the opportunity to work with his hands and prove himself not only with his father, but later on when the bicycle craze hit North America in the 1880s.In 1885 Metz won the High Wheel Bicycle Championship in New York State and only a year later was designing and manufacturing his own bicycle parts. Metz would hold more than two dozen patents for bicycles in the years that followed and take that early technology and apply it toward the opening of the Orient Bicycle Company in 1893. This led to the quadricycle and eventually a motorized bike and an early automobile.
Meanwhile, on the west coast, another man with just a fourth grade education and several hundred patents to his credit for heating and illuminating gas would open an electric incline railway in the hills above Pasadena, California. This man was Civil War balloonist Thaddeus S. C. Lowe; former Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army, under General George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln.
Being an aeronaut, Lowe constructed seven balloons for the Union Army to spy on the Confederates. During his tenure he also invented the portable hydrogen gas generator, launched balloons off barges to make the first aircraft carrier, took Civil War photographer Matthew Brady in the air for early aerial photography, and shortly after the war took his know how public by inventing a type of artificial refrigeration and also a cheap way to manufacture heating and illuminating gas. This gas production was so successful that by the 1880s, Lowe Gas heated and illuminated nearly seventy percent of all the homes in the United States.
On July 4th, 1893, Thaddeus Lowe opened his incline railway to the world. It was met with much fanfare and would serve nearly four million passengers by the time it ceased operation in 1936. It was the steepest incline railway in the world with a 63 percent grade at the steepest part and would climb nearly 3,000 feet in length as well as 1,250 feet in elevation. It would be an electrically augmented funicular, meaning that the two incline cars would counterbalance one another and pass in the middle, both on the ends of a 1.5” steel-braided cable.
The Mount Lowe Incline Railway would boast four hotels, a petting zoo, miniature golf, a bowling alley, billiards, tennis, spectacular views of Southern California, a one million candle power searchlight, horseback riding and a dance hall. It truly was Disneyland of its day.
Once at the top of the incline, at Echo Mountain, passengers would get off the incline cars and get on another electric trolley on the Alpine Division of the railway, taking ticket holders on yet another scenic experience that none would forget.
The conductor on the Alpine Division trip would tell the passengers,
“Friends, you are now starting the last three and a half miles of this trolley trip on which you will cross 18 bridges and pass around 127 curves, the longest piece of straight track being but 225 feet in length.”
If that were not enough to grab the attention of the passengers, hearing names like Devil’s Slide, High Bridge, Cape of Good Hope, Sentinel Rock, Circular Bridge and Granite Gate surely would.
The conductor would also tell the passengers about Horseshoe Curve:
“It is a 120 degree curve which means that for each 100 feet of the curve, we pass 120 degrees, or one third of a circle.”
About Circular Bridge, the conductor would say
“As we come out of this grove of live oak trees into the open, we can see the city of Long Beach, some 30 miles away. Looking beyond may be seen the Catalina Channel with Catalina Island in the distance, nearly 60 miles from us. We are now approaching the world famous Circular Bridge. As we approach it, the precipice on the right is a sheer drop of almost 1,000 feet. This bridge was the first bridge in the world designed for both the curve and the ascending grade. It is almost a complete circle nearly 400 feet in length with better than a four percent grade. Looking to the right and below us, we again view the Los Flores Canyon and Echo Mountain where you all changed from the incline car into this one.”
After several years of operation, the Mount Lowe Incline would become known as “Earth’s Grandest Mountain Ride.” People would come from around the world to see the sights and experience a trip that would almost never be rivaled by standards in those days. By 1897 Lowe lost control of his railway due to a nationwide recession, and by 1902 the railway would find a new owner: Henry Edwards Huntington and the Pacific Electric Railway.
Henry Huntington was the nephew of Collis Huntington, one of the “Big Four” railroad barons of the day. Under his leadership, Henry expanded the Pacific Electric Railway to more than one thousand miles throughout the Southern California area, creating cities and opportunities along with it. Many of these opportunities came to average people who wanted to make a good living and worked in outlying areas of Southern California as the region expanded. One of these men was Herbert Brown, manager of Alpine Tavern, the hotel at the terminus of the Mount Lowe Railway, Alpine Division.
Mr. Brown had heard of the great Metz automobile and had probably been to the new factory plant that had opened in downtown Los Angeles at 1821 San Pedro Street back in April of 1913. No doubt the salesman would preach the benefits of the gearless transmission and the dual chain drive that could hold any hill. Any hill? Well, the sales literature said it climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire and successfully climbed the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In fact, Charles Metz was so convinced that there was not a hill his 4 cylinder, 22 horsepower roadster could not climb, he offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could show the company a hill on any traveled highway which a Metz 22 could not climb.
The manager of Alpine Tavern was quite taken by the sales pitch given by Fred Wing, the sales manager for Metz, and he decided to buy the car. When asked what address the car should be delivered to, Brown chidingly said, “Alpine Tavern.” Wing knew a challenge when he heard one, and this would bring all the publicity to Metz that the company could want. Wing agreed, “You’re on!”
Wing drove the car from Los Angeles through South Pasadena, Pasadena, and what is today Altadena and on to the right of way for the Pacific Electric Railway. Once at the platform for Rubio Pavilion, one of the incline car bodies was removed and the little Metz was chained to the flatcar.
Once atop Echo Mountain, Fred Wing was told of the crazy ride that lay ahead. Pacific Electric Railway photographer Charles Lawrence captured the photos, one of which are reproduced below, and the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to cover the event as well. With highly advertised 30” x 3” Goodrich Tires taking the little Metz to Alpine Tavern, and a fearless driver at the wheel, the trip on the railway would be bumpy, but a complete success.
The Metz Model 22 had a 96” wheelbase, weighed 1,150 pounds and cost $475.00 when new. By 1915 Metz produced their all time yearly production record of 7,200 cars and was the best selling American made car outside the United States, beating out Henry Ford and his Model T.
Even though Charles Metz was a pioneer of the gearless automobile and won the Glidden Trophy in 1913, his success was not to last. Being of German extraction and the onset of WWI, Metz turned over his factory to the government to manufacture airplane parts. Following the war, Metz never received repayment enough from the government and reorganized for only a few more successful years. The post-war recession hit the United States hard and Metz was no exception. By August of 1922 Metz had filed for bankruptcy.
In 1925 Charles Metz moved to Glendale, California, and opened a woodworking business and a mill. Following limited success he would then open Glendale Sash and Door Company, which would operate until his death in 1937. Charles Metz was 73 at the time of his passing, and is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.
In 1937 the Pacific Electric Railway made their last trip along the right of way to the remains of the burned down Alpine Tavern. Previous to the burning of the tavern, the three other hotels on the mountain succumbed to fire and were never rebuilt. In 1941 the Pacific Electric Railway abandoned the right of way and property associated with the Mount Lowe Railway and the land reverted to the National Forest Service.
This article was prepared by Michael Patris, President and founder of the Mount Lowe Preservation Society, Inc., and a member of the HCCA.MLPSI currently owns two 1914 Metz Model 22 roadsters, one of which has under 10,000 original miles and will be restored as a parade car and show piece for their organization. It is planned to take the restored Metz along the right of way and to the remains of Alpine Tavern and when they do, the camera and the stories will follow.
The HCCA currently has only nine 1914 Metz model 22’s listed in their directory. Obviously not many have survived.