At Our Leisure: A Souvenir Photograph of the Mount Lowe Railway Incline, 3 May 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the most popular and striking the many leisure sites in greater Los Angeles for nearly a half-century between the 1890s and the 1930s was the Mount Lowe Railway, which included a breathtaking climb up a steep mountainside via an incline rail line and then an unforgettable trip by electric cars through gorgeous scenery to the Ye Alpine Tavern, the Mt. Lowe Tavern, the Mt. Lowe Observatory and other features.

A few years ago, a post here highlighted a trio of photographs taken by a tourist visiting Mount Lowe in April 1922 and we follow that with tonight’s entry in the “At Our Leisure” series with a souvenir photo and folder of the attraction with a penciled date of 3 May 1928. The image shows 43 visitors and a conductor with the Pacific Electric Railway (PERY), which owned and operated the resort standing in and next to one of the incline cars.

Times, 11 April 1928.

The folder’s front cover has a drawing of a car navigating one of the best-known features of the railway, the circular bridge that jutted out from the mountain side, providing quite a sensation for passengers not to mention some excellent views of the San Gabriel range and the valley far below. The back cover has a small oval-shaped image of a car navigating one of the narrow passages through the thick mountain rock, this being another well-remembered element of the experience.

The photo is mounted on the inside right panel and the date is written above a printed statement by photographer Charles S. Lawrence, who was the official shutterbug for the Pacific Electric system, that duplicates could be ordered by reference to the number written on the back of the image—in this case, 9777, which can also be made out in white and reversed at the top of the photo because it was inscribed on the negative.

Whittier News, 21 April 1928.

The left panel provides more drawings of important components of the resort, including the incline railway and the observatory. A brief statement noted that the railway was built at a cost of north of $700,000 by Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe (though it omitted that the expense proved insurmountable for the entrepreneur to overcome and he lost the enterprise by the end of the 1890s) and that it “has operated continuously since that date without an accident.”

There are also “salient facts” about “Mount Lowe And Its Wonderful Railway” including the distance, nearly twenty miles, from Los Angeles, that of the incline being 3,000 feet, and the line from Echo Mountain to the Mount Lowe Tavern being three-and-a-half miles in length. Elevations above sea level included Rubio Canyon, at the base of the incline, being not quite 2,000 feet, while Echo Mountain was more than 1,200 feet higher. Mount Lowe Tavern was above 4,400 feet, while the summit of Mount Lowe was 5,650.

Pasadena Post, 26 April 1928.

With respect to grades, it was noted that from Altadena to Rubio Canyon was 6%, but the incline was a remarkable 62%, while that from Echo Mountain to Ye Alpine Tavern was 9%. That incline length also had an ascent of 1245 feet and the strength of the cable used to lift the cars up that grade was tested to 100 tons, even though the largest load to date was only seven tons. From Echo Mountain to the Ye Alpine Tavern, there were 127 curves and 18 bridges, while the longest straight section of track was just 225 feet. Lastly, that circular bridge noted above had a 150-foot radius and a grade of 4 1/2%.

When this image was taken, the Pacific Electric had operated the Mount Lowe Railway for over a quarter-century and a great deal had changed with it came to transportation. While streetcars were long vital features in American cities, the situation had transformed dramatically by the late 1920s, particularly in Los Angeles, as the automobile became much more popular and ridership on streetcars declined.

Times, 27 April 1928.

A few weeks before this photo was captured, the California Railroad Commission, formed in 1911 as part of Progressive-era reforms to regulate large private railroads and utilities (it is now the state Public Utilities Commission), approved new rates for the PERY with a formula based on the value of the system’s property. While company President David W. Pontius told the Los Angeles Times of 11 April that the value of the PE at the end of 1926 was over $88 million, the return rate on that amount for the fiscal year ending in October 1927 was only about 2.74%.

Consequently, Pontius continued,

Certain economies in operation were recommended, also discontinuance of certain lines. With these economies it was estimated by the commission that the rate of return for the year 1928 would amount to 5.1 per cent. It was further determined that the company was entitled to a return of 6 per cent, or an additional revenue of $850,000 per year to reach such return.

The commission, he went on, divided operations of the system into the local or street aspect in one class and the interurban element in another, so that, with the latter, “the one-way and round-trip fares are decreased, varying from 20 to 45 per cent” while a 60-ride “commutation ticket” with a drastic discount was to increase by 10%.

Post, 1 May 1928.

Pontius pointed out, though, that the commutation ticket component only amounted to about a third of ridership and the remainder fell under the one-way and round-trip classification. He went on to tell the paper, “it is therefore obvious that a material reduction in revenue will result and that the only way to offset the same will be increased travel.” With growing competition from automobiles and the freedom of choice that these instilled, there were clearly immense challenges for the PERY.

There was, though, an experiment on a line to Glendale that foreshadowed the rate change and which was considered a success by the firm and its customers, so “as a means of increasing travel on the Pacific Electric [streetcar] lines and motor busses, Sunday passes for $1 good between all points of the system west of Upland with the exception of Mt. Lowe, will be sold.” That dollar fare would allow a traveler to go from the inland areas and to the beach communities from Santa Monica to Balboa Island at Newport Beach, while a $2.50 pass was good for the entire system, including east of Upland.

Times, 4 May 1928.

With regard to local service, the commission established a new zoning structure, including a 5-cent fare within each zone, while for several cities, such as Alhambra, Glendale, Long Beach, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Pedro, Santa Monica and Venice, fares were cut from six to five cents. In Los Angeles, however, City Council member Carl Jacobson, who underwent a bizarre trial involving a purported sex scandal, though he was cleared of wrongdoing, protested that this rearrangement of fares would “nearly double the rates now in effect” because the new 5-cent fare did not apply widely and should extend “at least to the extent of the former 6-cent zone” to be fair (!) to more riders.

In an editorial in its 21 April edition, the Whittier News opined that

The idea of making Sunday riding over the lines of the Pacific Electric so attractive that the flivver [car] will be left in the garage must have been in the minds of the rate makers in the recent schedule of reduced fares which is to go into effect at once . . . Perhaps the Sunday pass idea will become popular. Certainly it will be a money saver in comparison with the Sunday motor trip.

There were appeals to the railroad commission decision by the Los Angeles Railway Company (LARY,) a Pacific Electric subsidiary operating within Angel City limits wanting to increase fares to seven cents a trip, the City of Los Angeles on concern that the reduction from six to five cents would be an unreasonable burden on local riders, and the Venice Chamber of Commerce declaring bias against Venice and Santa Monica.

Times, 4 May 1928.

All three protests were, however, denied so, “as a result . . . the new schedule of rates . . . will go into effect on the 27th inst. unless one of the protestants takes the case to the State Supreme Court,” which, evidently, did not happen. The commission replied, with respect to the LARY appeal that its valuation of the company’s property at $42 million was reasonable.

The body added that a “fair rate-basis figure” was predicated on devoting “particular attention and weight to the estimates of reproduction costs new, less depreciation . . . [and a] fair allowance for claims of intangible elements of value in the light of all the surrounding circumstances.” The result, it offered, was an amount “considerably less than the figure which we have found as a base rate,” or about $36.5 million.

In turn, Pontius told the Times that the commission could hold new hearings and adjust the rates at any time and that, “in view of the fact that the revised rates are in the nature of an experiment, if they prove to be unfavorable to any community, the commission will make such readjustments as are necessary as fast as discriminations, if any, become apparent.” The PERY chief executive declared that the $1 pass “is the lowest electric railroad fare in the world” and the $2.50 edition “follows it as a close second.”

A proliferation of advertisements by the PERY in local papers discussed the reconfigured rates, cut from 10-45%. with one stating that “with the belief that lower fares will foster greater community development and bring mutual benefits to all concerned, one of the most sweeping reductions in interurban fares known in the history of electric railways has been established as a trial.” The round-trip fare from downtown Los Angeles to Mount Lowe was $2.50, but getting the $2.50 pass and traveling in from, say, Long Beach or San Bernardino, would mean significant savings.

It was noted that the expectation was that more riders, saving more money, would mean more revenue to the company, which, in turn, would “provide more funds with which to render a greater service to Pacific Electric patrons.” It added that, while stockholders never received a dividend, the firm’s property would continue to be improved so as to “make its equipment safer and more comfortable to its passengers.” The reduced rates were said to be the lowest possible and “if the Pacific Electric profits it will thus be from the increased number of passengers who avail themselves of the new fares. It cannot expect to profit otherwise.”

While the special experience of the Mount Lowe Railway was excluded from that new Sunday pass, the company took out ads in the Pasadena Post stating that a round-trip excursion fare from the Crown City was $1.30 for adults and just 75 cents for children from 5-12 years (and free to young ones under 5.) Notably, an ad from the 26 April issue of that paper addressed “Sixth Grade Scholars” and told them:

Visit Mt. Lowe and secure first hand information for your Fire Prevention Essay Contest sponsored by the Izaak Walton League [which celebrates its centennial this year. Mt. Lowe is considered by authorities to be fire-proof. Thousands of dollars are spent annually in building firebreaks to protect the resort. Scientific methods employed offer a splendid study to students for essay writing.

An ad in the Times on the 27th offered a two-day trip to Mount Lowe on five daily cars (three in the morning and two in the afternoon) from downtown Los Angeles, including a room at the Mount Lowe Tavern and Cottages and four meals at $7.50 for adults and $3.90 for children, though restrictions excluded holidays and some weekend. It was pointed out that visitors to the mountain resort could expect to see “56 Southern California cities in one vast panorama from Mt. Lowe.”

A targeted ad in the paper from a week later touted that deal, but added that the facility’s “true western hospitality” meant not just excellent meals and comfortable beds, but guests could “play tennis on a mountain top, take pony trips on mountain trails, hike, dance. You’ll be busy every minute.” That view of all those communities meant that “at night [there is] an electrical display—considered one of the wonders of the west.” In all, this was “a trip that’s different, thrilling yet economical.”

The inevitable dominance of the automobile for regional transportation was clear by 1928, but what was not anticipated was the ravages of the Great Depression, followed by the heavy rationing of critical materiel like rubber and gasoline during World War II. These conditions over some fifteen years actually prolonged the life of the streetcar (and bus) system operated by the PERY, though the postwar period accelerated its decline. The last of the streetcars ran its route in 1961 as our freeway system was growing by leaps and bounds and making long-distance commuting much easier.

In recent years, however, we’ve seen something of a reconstituting of much of the rapid transit network that the Pacific Electric created in the early years of the 20th century. With dramatically mounting climate change, rising oil prices and other conditions, we’ll see what the future of mass transit holds, even as the pandemic has caused ridership to plummet.

As for Mount Lowe, it only lasted about another decade and it was, despite the claim, hardly fireproof. Flames and flooding eventually caused, along with Depression-era economic struggle, the closure of the resort in 1936, with the right-of-way for the railway abandoned five years later and the land going back to the United States Forest Service. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mount Lowe, of which some ruins exist, can be visited by hikers, who can get just a brief glimpse into what was a western wonder in days gone by.

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