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The High of Mt. Lowe : Today Preservationists Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of a Historic Railway That Provided a Splendid Outing and Offered . . . : THE REGION

URBAN FOREST: The Angeles Turns 100; One in a series

July 04, 1993|BERKLEY HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first time Charles Seims hiked far into the Angeles National Forest above his home in Altadena, spooky ruins of a castle-like building loomed in the fog that shrouded Echo Mountain.

As a boy of 13 in 1958, he had no clue what once had been there. A few days later, on another hike, he found railroad tracks and power poles with overhead wires. "I was so excited I went down to Sears and bought a box camera on sale for $1.99 and went back up and started taking pictures," he recalls.

No one--his teachers, parents or librarians--could explain what he had discovered. But eventually a school buddy told him about a railway that had journeyed into the clouds.

With that, Seims began to piece together the story of the Mt. Lowe Scenic Railway, which operated from 1893 to 1937 before succumbing to fire, flood, an earthquake, a rockslide, the Great Depression and the demise of rail transit. As an all-electric railroad traversing severe mountain slopes, it was considered one of the world's engineering feats of the 19th Century.

Seims searched the canyons for buried treasure: railroad signs, trolley cars and the ruins of the railway's resort hotels, where the rich, the famous and the ordinary visited as part of a sort of Disneyland ride into the sky. In 1976, Seims wrote a book about it.

But since then, Seims and other Mt. Lowe enthusiasts have worried that an out-of-print book is not enough to ensure that the memories and rich stories associated with the unusual railroad will endure.

The 100th anniversary today of its opening has spurred a renaissance of energy and restoration work surrounding the railway, developed by the eccentric Pasadena inventor and entrepreneur Thaddeus S. C. Lowe.

This year, Seims, now 49 and an attorney in Portland, Ore., revised his book, which is being reissued. And he has produced a video with footage of the trolley operating in the 1920s and 1930s.

Based on an application by Seims, the National Register of Historic Places included among its listings this year the portion of the railway site in the Angeles National Forest.

A group of 50 volunteers made up of Boy Scouts and members of the Pacific Railroad Society, as part of an effort sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, have spent months clearing brush that obscured the foundations of trestles and the rail bed. The workers even found four sets of trolley wheels and eight feet of track still intact. And they have built a monument to the railway on Echo Mountain and are installing interpretive signs.

Today, at ceremonies in the Angeles National Forest and down below in Altadena, the Mt. Lowe enthusiasts will celebrate the centennial of the railway's official opening on July 4, 1893.

On that date, the Pasadena City Band had the honor of riding in the first car on the cable car incline portion that went from Rubio Canyon above Altadena to Echo Mountain.

"The group began to play 'Nearer My God to Thee,' a subtle but unmistakable reference to the 1,500-foot vertical ascension. . . . It was an eerie but wonderful sight as the brilliant white cable car disappeared into a low bank of clouds," Seims wrote in his book.

In an era of smoky, noisy steam engines, the electric-powered railway was seen as delightfully less polluting.

Restoring the few physical remains of the trolley is symbolically appropriate, said Seims, at a time when transit planners are trying to revive trains as a mass-transit option for Southern California.

And, Seims said, the restoration efforts are significant because the railway and its resorts were "the top tourist attraction in California after the turn of the century."

As many as 1,500 people would make the trip in a day. Along the seven-mile route from Altadena to the base of Mt. Lowe, there were four hotels, with amenities that included billiards and card-playing rooms, a tennis court, a small zoo and an observatory.

The trip was divided into three parts: the first was the trolley ride from Altadena to Rubio Canyon. Then passengers would transfer to the cable car incline, designed by the man who would later build the San Francisco cable cars. Atop Echo Mountain, passengers would transfer back to a trolley car that traveled along hairpin curves to the base of Mt. Lowe, where there was a hotel, dining room and horseback-riding trails.

During its more than 40 years, the narrow-gauge railway attracted tourists from around the world, carrying 3.1 million passengers.

Adele Barnes was one among the millions. Born a month after the rail line opened, she fondly recalls the two times she rode the open-air cars. The first time she had come from upstate New York to visit friends in Pasadena.

"Here you were, with no effort on your part, gliding up the mountain. Like magic, you were drawn up into the air. The air was clean and the sky, bright. You had the mountains and the exhilaration of being up there. The train was packed with people, mostly tourists, and there was a grand camaraderie."

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