Thaddeus Lowe, a professor and pioneer aeronaut who founded the Army Balloon Corps during the Civil War, came to reside in Pasadena in 1888 and turned a 6,100-foot mountain into a major tourist attraction between 1893 and 1938.
The first segment of the trip to Mt. Lowe was made by Pacific Electric Railway from Los Angeles via Pasadena. Beyond Altadena, the ascent was made by the Mount Lowe Railway on a funicular that was 3,000 feet long.
With a growing number of visitors taking the ride on the "Mountain Railway," Lowe proposed extending the railroad to Mt. Wilson but was unable to get the rights of way.
He also envisioned an airship to take passengers to Mt. Lowe, and in 1910 his dream seemed close to being realized when the Lowe Airship Construction Co. was organized and subscriptions were sought to finance the project. The plans were jubilantly endorsed by the Pasadena Board of Trade.
Los Angeles was still experiencing its growing pains when Lowe first conceived his resort project. The ornate, three-story Echo Mountain House was opened on a point high above Rubio Canyon in 1893, and it was reached by the skillfully engineered Incline Railway, destined to become world famous.
The mechanism of the Great Incline was the invention of Andrew Smith Hallidie of San Francisco, who had previously solved the transportation problems of that city.
The cars on the incline were permanently attached to an endless cable and were so balanced that in descending and ascending they passed each other midway at an automatic turnout operated by means of a giant bull wheel driven by an electric motor that simultaneously gripped the cable.
Above the Power House, visitors could check out the Great Searchlight that had been exhibited at the World's Fair in Chicago and then bought by Prof. Lowe. The reflecting lens projected 3 million candle power light and could be seen from 150 miles at sea.
A fire on Echo Mountain destroyed Mt. Lowe Tavern in 1936 and only a heap of ashes, broken masonry and twisted pipes remained.
It was the beginning of the end. Within a short time the little mountain railway and the dreams of Prof. Thaddeus Lowe would yield to tough competition from new scenic highways.