Los Angeles Times

Lowe's Lofty Pursuits Included Mountain Railway

Date: June 20, 2004

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe once controlled a mountain, a railway, a posh Pasadena mansion and even the skies, becoming known as "the Grandfather of the Air Force." Little remains but Mt. Lowe -- so named because he became friends with a noted mapmaker.

His mountaintop complex included four hotels, a zoo, an observatory, his own power plant, a tavern, a grand pavilion, tennis, miniature golf and his "Railway to the Sky," Los Angeles' first funicular. Travel and promotional literature often referred to his vertical railway as the "eighth wonder of the world."

The property is part of Angeles National Forest today. A few building foundations, a concrete staircase, a stone love seat and railroad spikes still can be found in Rubio and Millard canyons and on Echo Mountain, a smaller peak below Mt. Lowe. Hundreds of other relics are in the Alhambra home of Michael Patris, a founding member of the Mt. Lowe Preservation Society.

Patris' collection includes a lock of Lowe's hair, letters, photographs and furniture from Lowe's mansion on "Millionaire's Row," South Orange Grove Boulevard. The mansion, too, is long gone, demolished by subsequent owners.

Lowe held more than 200 patents, including for artificial refrigeration. He also built what was then the world's largest balloon and used it to spy on the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Lowe was instrumental in founding the Army Signal Corps and the National Weather Bureau. He was the pilot in what the New York Times said was the first recorded "marriage ceremony in the air."

For all that, he made and lost several fortunes -- along with the faith of his friends. He mortgaged all he owned, including his wife's jewelry, and died bankrupt and forgotten.

Lowe was born in Jefferson Mills, N.H., in 1832, a descendant of a Mayflower pioneer. When he was 9, his mother died. His father, who couldn't afford to feed all his children, sent him to a neighboring farmer as an indentured servant.

Patris recounts how Lowe ran away after a year of abuse. "I did not feel that I was running away from duty or obligation, for I had been too young to know anything about the arrangements which bound me to the farmer or to have any voice in the matter," Lowe wrote in a letter. "The blood of Revolutionary ancestors was in my veins, and I had an intuitive belief that freedom was my rightful heritage."

While working odd jobs, he read an Edgar Allan Poe story about an airship crossing the Atlantic. Lowe began experimenting with soap bubbles, injecting hydrogen gas into them.

As a teenager, he built a 5-foot-square kite to which he attached a cage and a lantern. He put a black cat inside and left the contraption tethered to a hitching post. Mystified locals reported strange lights in the sky that night.

In the morning, Lowe freed the terrified cat and, chastened by its fear, promised himself that he would be the next to fly.

For a while, he worked for a snake-oil salesman, then in 1855 settled in New York City, where he met his wife, Leontine.

He continued experimenting with flight and, in 1857, built his first balloon. He took passengers aloft, charging $1 for a tethered flight and $5 for an untethered one. Soon he was manufacturing the balloons.

In April 1861 -- a week after the Civil War began -- he set a record flying from Ohio to South Carolina: 900 miles in nine hours and as high as 18,000 feet. The Confederates captured him as a spy, but he talked his way out.

They would regret releasing him. Two months later, Lowe hovered 500 feet above the White House and sent a telegraph to Abraham Lincoln via a wire from his balloon to the presidential mansion: "The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have the pleasure of sending you the first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station."

Lincoln asked him to head up a balloon-reconnaissance corps. Lowe made military history, observing troop movements and alerting Union forces by telegraph or signal flags. With the ability to hover at 1,000 feet -- and with binoculars -- he could scope out which were real cannons and which were log dummies painted black, and could discern campfires laid to give the appearance of numerous troops.

The Confederates put a $750 bounty on his head and sent sharpshooters into the trees to try to bring him down.

But Lowe had enough cable to ascend to 5,000 feet, way above the reach of artillery, and he lined his basket with lead as protection from snipers. Newspapers soon dubbed him "the most shot-at man of the Civil War."

But he refused to allow his balloons to drop bombs, Patris said; Lowe was a pacifist.

When the war ended, Lowe found happier uses for his air fleet. In 1865, Dr. John F. Boynton and Mary West Jenkins got married in front of thousands of New Yorkers in Central Park, then clambered into Lowe's balloon and flew above the city for an hour. Newspapers described it as a "wedding made in heaven."

Over the next two decades, Lowe pioneered coal gas plants on the East Coast and manufactured gas boilers, heaters and ranges, making a fortune.

In 1888, at 56, he retired to Pasadena, building a 24,000-square-foot mansion for his wife and some of their 10 adult children.

Looking up at the San Gabriel Mountains from his home, he got the idea for a railway. He hooked up with an engineer, David J. MacPherson, who had been looking at the same mountains.

With MacPherson's expertise and Lowe's money, they began building the 3-mile narrow-gauge railway in 1891. It took two years; they had to blast through the rock with dynamite. Eventually, as many as 1,500 passengers a day would make the trip.

Lowe acquired impressive friends, among them Andrew McNally, head of Rand McNally & Co., who wintered in Pasadena. It was McNally who renamed Oak Mountain "Mt. Lowe" in 1892, ordering his cartographers to change it on maps.

The Mt. Lowe Scenic Railway operated from 1893 to 1936, attracting tourists from around the world and carrying 3.1 million passengers. But fire, flood, an earthquake, a rockslide, the Great Depression and the waning popularity of rail transit contributed to its demise.

Lowe's huge ambitions had created huge debts. Henry E. Huntington bought the railway company in 1901.

In 1910, Lowe took his granddaughter, Florence (who would later become the legendary socialite and aviator Pancho Barnes), to the Long Beach Pike amusement park. There, Lowe, who had once sent a cat up in the air, punched the organ grinder for mistreating a monkey.

"Lowe threw five bucks on the ground and [the monkey] became his granddaughter's first pet," Patris said. "It was the first time anyone ever saw Lowe so angry."

Lowe died at 81 in 1913, a year after his wife. They're both buried in Altadena -- appropriately enough, at Mountain View Cemetery.

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

Author: Cecilia Rasmussen

Section: California

Page: B-4