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L.A. THEN AND NOW

'Railway to the Clouds' Captured the Imagination of California

June 09, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRI TER

In the decades known as the "Great Hiking Era," from the 1890s to the 1930s, a visionary and avid hiker built a "Railway to the Clouds"--which for a time became Los Angeles' foremost amusement ride.

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe and a partner conceived the world's first electric-powered mountain railway, the Mt. Lowe Scenic Railway above Altadena, which was considered one of the world's greatest engineering feats of the 19th century. They carved out a wonderland of hotels, a zoo, an observatory, a grand pavilion, a searchlight that played on the valley below and trails in the San Gabriel Mountains. The seven-mile railroad traversed severe mountain slopes and transported millions of sightseers willing to pay as much as $5 each round trip. For four decades, it was Southern California's leading tourist attraction. But fire, flood, an earthquake, a rockslide, the Great Depression and the decline of rail transit led to its demise.

The railway idea began in 1888 when Lowe, a gifted scientist and devoted family man, moved from New Hampshire to Pasadena with intentions of retiring at age 55. He built a 24,000-square-foot showplace on Orange Grove Boulevard, where he dreamed and gazed longingly at the snow-capped peak of Mt. Wilson.

He had served the Union forces as a reconnaissance balloonist for President Lincoln during the Civil War. Demonstrating the value of the balloon, he took the first aerial photographs and pioneered aerial mapping.

Despite only a fourth-grade education, he made a fortune from inventions and patents dealing with steel, hydrogen gas and refrigeration. He also helped organize two banks.

But retirement didn't come easily to an inventor who could not stop inventing. Lowe hooked up with a civil engineer, David Joseph Macpherson, who had been looking at the same mountain with an eye toward constructing a railway.

Together they hiked the ridges and canyons and fished the streams. Inspired by the beauty of this hikers' paradise, where roaring waterfalls carved the cliffs of Rubio Canyon, both men decided that other sightseers should experience it. Two Mt. Wilson landowners who operated a toll road to rugged camping grounds refused to give Lowe and Macpherson the right-of-way. Undeterred, the pair moved their ambitions four miles east to Oak Mountain, later renamed Mt. Lowe.

Soon, the majestic mountains proved more challenging than restful. In 1891, with Lowe's imagination and money and Macpherson's engineering skills, they began their project.

A crew of 50 men blasted through rock with dynamite, dangling from ropes over the cliff face to chip out holes for explosives.

In less than two years, the railway spanned about three miles, from the Altadena Junction on Lake Avenue to Echo Mountain. In two more years, it reached the base of Mt. Lowe, nearly four more miles.

The idea soon captured the imagination of Pasadena too: The peak was officially renamed Mt. Lowe in December 1892.

On July 4, 1893, the Mt. Lowe Scenic Railway opened to music played by the Pasadena City Band, which rode in the first cable car from Rubio Canyon to Echo Mountain. Eerie echoes reverberated off the canyon walls as the white railway car disappeared into a low bank of clouds while the band played "Nearer My God to Thee."

More than 400 white-knuckled passengers held on tight as the car began its ascent from Altadena Junction, north through the poppy fields and into Rubio Canyon. There, they disembarked to enjoy the amenities at the Rubio Hotel and pavilion.

Guests danced in the moonlight and ventured up the sunlit canyon on wooden walkways to marvel at the landscape and waterfalls. Others boarded two "airships," aptly named Echo and Rubio, on the great cable incline for a breathtaking 3,000-foot ride up a 62% grade to the Echo Mountain resort area.

Atop Echo Mountain stood Lowe's "White City," so named because the white electric lights of the hotel, zoo, power plant, observatory and the world's largest searchlight could be seen as far away as Catalina Island.

Guests thrilled to the sound of their voices reverberating around Echo Mountain, enhanced by a metal megaphone on a stand. Visitors could enjoy the surrounding scenery on more than 30 miles of hiking trails.

In December 1895, Lowe completed the final 3 1/2 miles of the railway to Crystal Springs, a forested cove at the base of Mt. Lowe. The line followed the natural contours of the mountainside over 18 trestles and 127 hairpin curves, including the Grand Circular Bridge and Horseshow Curve, to the Ye Alpine Tavern, which was flanked by cozy private bungalows.

Visitors watched sunsets from Inspiration Point, where a number of telescope-like sightseeing tubes pointed to spots in the valley below. Others walked to a nearby farm where silver foxes were bred for the fur market, or rode horses on the trails.

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