by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As greater Los Angeles underwent the famed Boom of the Eighties, peaking during 1887 and 1888 when William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was mayor of Los Angeles, tourism was a significant part of the region’s economic growth. Beach resorts, fine inland hotels and other offerings grew dramatically to lure visitors to enjoy the diversity of the area’s landscape.
In 1893, another prominent attraction was completed that, over the next four decades, became one of the best-known attributes of the region: the Mount Lowe Railway. The remarkable narrow-gauge line climbed steep inclines up the rugged San Gabriel Mountains, then still commonly referred to as the Sierra Madre range, starting from a junction at the end of Lake Avenue in Altadena.
The brainchild of Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, previously well-known for overseeing the Union Army’s balloon corps during the Civil War and who came to Pasadena during the boom and shortly thereafter incorporated in 1891 what was originally designated the Pasadena and Mount Wilson Railroad. Unsuccessful in getting rights-of-way to that peak, Lowe and his associates, including engineer David Macpherson, turned to Oak Mountain, renamed Mount Lowe, and the nearly Echo Mountain.
In July 1892, The Californian, a magazine recently established in San Francisco and which was like many periodicals of the time, mixing poetry, fiction, travelogues and others with abundant use of photographs and drawings, ran a feature by Olaf Ellison, a linguist and writer, titled “A Southern California Mountain Railroad” and discussing the Mount Lowe project.
The piece began with the statement that “the Sierra Madres of Southern California are called the Alps of America” but lacked something many European peaks had, namely “the mountain railroad that is the delight and joy of the tourist.” While there were two such lines in the United States, to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and Pike’s Peak in Colorado, the Mount Lowe line was being built by Lowe who “has now in the process of construction one of the most comprehensive roads of this description, including fine mountain hotels, in the world.”
Ellison added that such lines were also financially desirable, observing that none so far built “ever failed to return handsome dividends” to investors, even as most lines only ran for limited periods during the year owing to weather. He noted, however, that there was a larger regional population surrounding Mt. Lowe than other railroad locations and stated that traveling to the upper elevations of the mountains was very challenging, “but the views to be obtained are of such extent, variety and beauty as to induce the beholder to return again and again.”
Not only, though, was there a large and rapidly growing regional populace, but tourism was booming and many of these, Elliott continued, “represent the wealthiest and most cultured classes of our country and their number is rapidly increasing from year to year.” In addition, “the resident population is as stated an exceptionally intelligent one . . . [and] the proportion of discriminating travelers among [them] is exceptionally high.”
Ellison waxed poetic about the mountains and surrounding scenery, writing
The summits are often robed in the lofty splendor of snow-white mantles contrasting strongly with the permanent dark evergreen forests of the central ranges, while at the base, the odor of oranges and roses contend for precedence. This fragrance comes from the many orchards and flower gardens constituting the outer garments, as it were, of the lower spur of the mountain . . . beautiful forest dells, bounding cascades, deep mysterious cañons, ideal waterfalls, acres of picturesque ferns, rivers full of speckled beauties [fish], while level areas of forest reserves exist beyond the front summits, combining facilities for driving, hunting, and fishing, equal to the best of the Adirondacks.
As to those views, Ellison marveled at the valleys as “a kingdom by themselves in wealth and extent” while the orange belt cities from San Gabriel to Redlands were “like so many semi-tropical isles” of “beautiful deep emerald-colored orange groves.” The wealth and “exceptional culture and refinement” of the denizens of Pasadena is coupled in his telling with “the chimes of the old San Gabriel Mission” of which “the romantic traditions . . . are singularly interesting.”
Elsewhere, one could easily see Santa Catalina Island, including “the houses and the shipping scenes of the harbor at Avalon” and there was “Los Angeles, probably the most attractive city of its size in the Union, as well as one of the most active and enterprising.” Other mountain areas mentioned were Eaton Canyon, the San Gabriel River, Mount San Antonio (Baldy). Mount San Bernardino and Mount San Jacinto.
Adding to the importance of the mountain region was the scientific value of the elevation for observatories. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University (and who had that position when William W. Temple completed studies of the famed law school there in the mid-1870s), visited the area, including Mount Wilson, just a few weeks prior to Ellison and was said to proclaim that, for astronomical observation “the Sierra Madre summits the peer of any known in the world.” Shortly afterward, Throop Polytechnic University, later renamed the California Institute of Technology, led the movement to develop the world-class observatories still there today.
As for the building of the Mount Lowe railroad, Ellison reported that “this will consist of a double-tracked cable road, with balanced cars and safety appliances, and will be operated with a stationary electric motor, power being furnished by a neighboring waterfall.” Once the road was finished, “the passenger will be landed directly on the piazza of the Echo Mountain Hotel” and, beyond this was a second division.
He continued that “the surveys for this have disclosed a line of less than seven-per-cent grade along natural ridges and curves clear to the highest summit desired.” Six miles of track were to be laid and operated by electricity with cars providing the maximum of exposure to the magnificent scenery. At the terminus, a second hotel was to be constructed and, like the first, be “a strictly first-class house,” while an observatory was to be built nearby along with homes for those working there.
Even with the complicated work needed for this second division, it was noted that “from this elevation, further extension of the railroad to the mountain plateau becomes comparatively easy, when so desired.” With Los Angeles the terminus of lines from the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific, bringing visitors from all over the nation, while the local Los Angeles Terminal Railway connected to Pasadena and then right up to where the Mount Lowe line began.
Ellison discussed the tent housing of the line’s workers and that “this encampment of engineers and workmen is destined to speedily give way to the foundations for the Echo Mountain House,” which would be the main hotel. He forecast that
every sound of the numerous trains, the locomotive whistles, and the church and school bells, the lowing of the herds [of cattle], the baying of the hounds, and the huntsman’s rifle, all rise on the soft air, and, mingling with the song of the lark along the green ridge, greet the dweller’s ear from sunrise to sunset.
Losing himself to further flights of fancy, Ellison envisioned that the Echo Mountain House locale was such “as if the Supreme Architect Himself was evolving an ever-renewing panorama of ocean, mountains and valleys” while a “Temple of Nature” presented itself in all its finery.
While daylight hours were sublime as stated, Ellison turned to the evenings which were “such moonlight nights as has made the Alhambra of Spain the synonym for all there is poetical and picturesque in the whole of Latin Europe.” He averred that the missionaries founding Mission San Gabriel “knew instinctively” that the “radiant sunshine of the day would be succeeded by nights lit by a moon that would recreate all the old, passionate romances of Spain and Italy, and add a fresh and potent spell to the old world guitar under rose-covered porches.” As to the indigenous people and their relationship to these missions, not a word was said!
Interestingly, Ellison claimed that, while oranges and lemons could not be raised in these upper elevations, plenty more would be, including olives, peaches, apricots, peas, apples and cherries, as well as “nearly all the flowers of the valley.” The steepness of the slopes simply meant that “the more picturesque will be the gardens that are to be terraced there.”
Again, the author claimed that the promoters would profit handsomely as “it is a well-established trait of human nature that mankind will pay more for the pleasures of life than its necessities.” He repeated the tourists, in winter or summer, would flock to Mount Lowe and could do so easily in concert with visits to coastal resorts, while locals “can be relied upon as permanent patrons of this railroad” and would build hordes of private cottages near the hotels at the resort. What would separate the line from its kindred elsewhere was its year-round access.
As to time frames, Ellison reported that “the first section of this road it is confidently expected will be completed to the Echo Mountain House by the early autumn” while “the construction of the second, or Electrical Mountain Railroad division from Echo Mountain House to the summit, will follow the completion of the cable without delay, and be traversed in forty-five minutes.
Avowing that the environment was every bit the equal of Yosemite, the author noted that the resort would provide an experience so novel that
the visitor may well say that he commands the impossible, for he can enjoy a sleigh ride at Christmas, pick strawberries and oranges, and bask in the Pacific, all in one forenoon—suggestive of the possibilities of the Golden State.
It is confidently believed that no other journey on the globe of less than an hour’s duration, will equal the one indicated on these pages, in the diversity and delicacy of exquisite landscape effects thrown directly against the background of majestic and rugged mountain scenery.
As he closed in rapture, Ellison opined that “the whole scene is brought into the closest human touch, by being on one side the theatre of the most authentic traditions and charming romances of the whole Pacific Coast” while the environs “also furnishes the ideal point of vantage for the latest and most consummate triumphs of scientific acumen.” This latter might, he added, provide the means by which “some future navigator of the clouds will direct his course in the upper spheres.”
Mount Lowe, he ended, would allow “the real artists of our land” relief from the cares of workaday life and, from the resort’s hotels, introduce “all the landscape grandeur, as well as atmospheric effects, that has immortalized valley and mountain in the great Mediterranean peninsula on canvas.”
As passionate a sales job as Ellison could muster, Lowe’s project, which opened on 4 July 1893, proved to be anything but the financial boon the article projected. By the end of the decade, which included a national depression the year of the line’s opening and local drought for much of the period, Lowe lost control of the enterprise.
After a brief period of ownership by Valentine Peyton, whose wealth came from gold mines in Canada and who later owned orange groves and ranch land in La Verne and Chino Hills, the Mount Lowe Railway and associated elements were acquired by Henry E. Huntington, whose streetcar system, later known as the Pacific Electric Railway, was integrated with it.
The PE continued to own and operate the railway and resort until the Great Depression and terrible floods in 1934 forced a closure just a few years later. Today, hikers can follow the route up from Altadena and see remnants of the Mount Lowe project. Meanwhile, the Mount Lowe Preservation Society works to preserve and interpret the legacy of this remarkable element of our regional history.