PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLE

 

Los Angeles Times

Title: Ascending to Old Heights
Mt. Lowe Railway's Centennial Recalls High Times and Engineering Feats

Date: July 5, 1993

As a boom box played a scratchy recording of the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee," a chilly fog on Sunday morning enveloped about 350 people on a mountainside north of Pasadena.

The music invoked the main song from a celebration that took place there, in the San Gabriel Mountains of the Angeles National Forest, exactly 100 years before. For on July 4, 1893, to the strains of an orchestra that ascended in a cable car into the clouds around Echo Mountain, the Mt. Lowe Scenic Railway officially opened.

It was billed as the world's first electric-powered mountain railway. Consisting of a trolley and cable car, it was the foremost amusement ride of its day.

It took its last run in 1937.

At the centennial ceremonies, mountain bikers, parents with babies in backpacks, older people with canes and in wheelchairs, hikers with dogs, railroad enthusiasts and preservationists came to praise and to learn about the railroad that, for 40 years, traversed seven miles of steep canyons and ridge tops from Altadena to the base Mt. Lowe, 5,603 feet above sea level.

"Imagine building this. That would have been a back-breaking, gut-wrenching job," said John Robinson, author of several books on the San Gabriel Mountains, as he hiked to Echo Mountain early Sunday and walked on cross ties of the original rail bed poking through the earth.

"Imagine riding on it," said Edna Smith, 75, of Altadena, looking down the sheer canyon wall beside the path the trolley once took. "You'd have been scared to death."

The original path of the Mt. Lowe cable car incline rose 1,500 feet in elevation while going 3,000 linear feet.

Little now remains from the railway, except for the old ties, rusted trolley wheels and stone foundations of bygone resort hotels, built to accommodate trolley riders who wanted to stay overnight and enjoy the mountains.

But a group of railway buffs and preservationists want to restore a bit of what was considered one of the world's engineering marvels in the 19th Century.

Spurred by the 100th anniversary, the Mt. Lowe enthusiasts say the centennial should help them build momentum to re-lay a portion of track and erect power poles and overhead wires to illustrate how the railway looked as it traversed precipitous mountains.

"There are even some wild-eyed guys, sitting around the campfire, saying we're going to rebuild it. That may never happen, but think how nice it would be to hike up here and see a museum," said Paul Ayres, 41, a lawyer from Echo Park, who is secretary of a group involved in the preservation efforts.

"Southern California and Los Angeles has made a tradition of destroying its past . . . destroying its best buildings and its mass transit systems," said Ayres. "But we don't think the past is something you just throw away like a Dixie cup. We're trying to bring it back and the best values of what it represented."

In its day, the train carried 3.1 million passengers. But by the late 1930s, fire, flood, earthquake, the Great Depression and the demise of trolley transit had taken their toll, and it shut down in 1937.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Forest Service dynamited some remaining structures.

Forest Service officials, who attended the celebration Sunday, say that dynamite was the agency's response of yesteryear, not today. District Ranger Terry Ellis said he is doing all he can to support the volunteer efforts. The railway, he said, represents "an integral part of the history of the Angeles National Forest."

To that end, the Forest Service is working with the committee and has allocated $10,000 to help repair the trails and put up interpretive signs, replacing ones posted 17 years ago.

The railway idea began with Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, an eccentric, wealthy inventor and Civil War ballooning strategist for the Union forces, and David J. Macpherson, an engineer in Pasadena. In the late 1880s, Lowe moved to Pasadena to retire, building a mansion with a commanding view of the San Gabriel Mountains. Looking at the mountains, he got the idea for the railway and soon linked up with Macpherson, who had a similar idea but no money.

It took about four years for a crew of 50 men to blast through rock with dynamite and to work with picks and shovels to build the line.

Eventually, as many as 1,500 passengers a day would make the trip. Along the route, there were four hotels, with amenities that included billiards and card-playing rooms, a tennis court, a small zoo and an observatory.

In its early years, the trolley was expensive--$5 for a round trip to Mt. Lowe, while the trolley that ran between Los Angeles and Pasadena cost 10 cents. "The railway was strictly for the rich and famous. Robin Leach would have loved it," said Charles Seims, who grew up in Altadena and, in 1976, wrote a book on the railway.

The railroad was always crowded, Seims said, but the economy was suffering in the mid-1890s, and Lowe eventually lost the railway and resorts. They were taken over by rail and real estate magnate Henry Huntington, who merged them into his Pacific Electric trolley system and who lowered the fares.

At the ceremonies Sunday, many people talked about what it must have been like to ride the train. Only a few had ridden it or even knew anyone who had.

"I wish I had a time machine and could go back and experience what it was like," said Alan Hardey, 47, a court administrator, who lives in Altadena.

One man who actually rode the train had little to say. But he captured the adulation of the crowd. Donald Macpherson Sr., 95, of Palm Springs, rode it when he was 8. His father was the designer, David Macpherson. "It was quite thrilling," said Macpherson.

Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1993

Author: BERKLEY HUDSON

Section: Metro

Page: B-1


INDEX PAGE

BEFORE THE WAR

CIVIL WAR YEARS

INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY

NORRISTOWN PENNSYLVANIA YEARS

PASADENA CALIFORNIA YEARS

MOUNT LOWE RAILWAY

AFTER THE RAILWAY

LOWE FAMILY

BOOKS ABOUT LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

EVENTS AND REUNIONS

ARTIFACTS AND HISTORY

ENCYCLOPEDIA BIOGRAPHY

ACCLAMATIONS AND AWARDS

LINKS TO OTHER THADDEUS LOWE WEBSITES