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A Pasadena Tragedy: The Visionary Whose Dream Became Unmanageable

May 08, 1986|MARY BARBER

The setting is Pasadena 100 years ago. Heading the cast of characters is the most exciting visionary in the West, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, creator of the world renowned "Railway to the Sky" above Altadena.

Everyone else becomes a secondary character as Lowe plays out his fanciful dream of building a great resort in the San Gabriel Mountains. Lowe is the star of his own huge show as he carves out a wonderland of hotels, railways, a zoo, an observatory, trails and a grand pavilion.

But the dynamic entrepreneur goes too far. He overextends his credit, loses the faith and support of his friends, mortgages all he owns and dies in bankruptcy and obscurity.

The end--almost.

The mountain that bears Lowe's name is all that is left of the man and his dream. A few relics from old building foundations and railroads are visible in Rubio and Millard canyons and on Echo Mountain, and a Mt. Lowe Railway Museum is in the old Pacific Electric Substation at 2245 N. Lake Ave. that has been restored by Dickson Realtors.

Miles Clark, a retired Pasadena journalist, has created his version of Lowe in a play that Theater Americana will present June 13 and 14 as its contribution to Pasadena's Centennial celebration.

"The Testing of Professor Lowe" in Altadena's Farnsworth Park will not be a staged, costumed production. Instead, Clark said, local amateur actors will read the play against a backdrop of slides of early Pasadena and the mountainside developments.

Pasadena's early residents were fascinated by the mountains, Clark said, but it took a daring visionary to build rail lines on what were then popular hiking trails.

When Lowe arrived in Pasadena in 1890 at the age of 58, he had retired from highly successful careers, first as a reconnaissance balloonist for President Lincoln during the Civil War, and then as founder of several gas companies in the East. He built what was believed to be the largest house in the West on Orange Grove Boulevard for his wife, Leontyne, and some of their 10 adult children.

He acquired impressive friends, among them Andrew McNally, head of Rand McNally & Co., who wintered in Pasadena.

In short order he built a steep cable car line in Rubio Canyon to the top of Echo Mountain, a hotel and entertainment pavilion in the canyon and a 12-bedroom chalet to house guests on the mountaintop. Then came the much larger Echo Mountain Hotel, a miniature zoo, an observatory that had its own astronomer, a huge searchlight that played on the valley below, and a pavilion for dancing and viewing.

Despite financial problems, Lowe pressed on with a tortuous mountain railroad to Crystal Springs where he built the Alpine Tavern, another large resort hotel that led to his ultimate financial ruin.

It is on this point that Clark has focused his play, pulling together several historical events in Lowe's life in order to portray the tragedy of a visionary whose dream became unmanageable.

While local history abounds with reports and photographs of Lowe's enterprises, Clark said that his 15 years of research have produced almost nothing about the man. But after sleuthing and drawing conclusions from the paucity of personal records, Clark has exercised a playwright's license in his portrait of Lowe.

The result is a leading character who was a devoted family man, gifted scientist and fearless entrepreneur who "was obstinate, always had to be right and was in trouble all the time," Clark said. Lowe apparently adopted the title of professor from his early years when he lectured as an expert on several scientific subjects including astronomy, ballooning and the manufacture of gases.

Clark sees Lowe as "a visionary and a man of action--a dreamer with money to risk, a real Thomas Edison type."

Had Lowe been more generous in sharing credit for his accomplishments, if he had used political persuasion, his life story might have ended happily, Clark theorized from some of the documents he has uncovered.

The truth is that when Lowe was heavily in debt in the late 1890s he mortgaged all he owned--including his home, the Pasadena Opera House and several gas companies throughout the state--and still his Pasadena and Mt. Wilson Railway Company went into receivership and Lowe lost control of his empire.

Henry E. Huntington bought the railway company in 1900. In 1905 almost all of the Echo Mountain complex was destroyed by fire. Winds collapsed the Rubio Canyon buildings, and the Alpine Lodge burned to the ground in 1936. All of the property has since become part of Angeles National Forest and is slowly returning to its natural state.

Clark said he could track down only one of the Lowes' descendants, a woman who remembers meeting them in their home--they were sitting alone in the kitchen, she said.

Lowe died in 1913, one year after his wife's death.

Today, all that remains of Lowe is the mountain that bears his name, and that was McNally's doing. At the height of the professor's popularity, Clark theorizes, McNally simply ordered his map-makers to write Lowe on that spot on the map.

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