The History of Mount Lowe

David MacPherson
David MacPherson
Thaddeus S.C. Lowe
Thaddeus S.C. Lowe

David MacPherson was born in Canada West on January 12th, 1854. He graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York as a civil engineer and began work as a city planner in San Antonio, Texas. His work on railroads became highly recognized, including his work on tracks from Ciudad Juárez to Mexico City and the Santa Fe Railroad. At the age of 31, he moved to Pasadena, California and began to venture through the foothills while exploring ideas of a scenic mountain railroad leading through the majestic San Gabriel mountains. This idea had been brought up by many locals however the feat seemed impossible until David was introduced to millionaire entrepreneur, Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe.

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe was born in Coos County, New Hampshire on April 20th, 1832. Born in humble surroundings, Thaddeus would eventually make his way to New York where he attended school to learn sciences including medicine. He married Leontine Augustine Gachon on February 14th, 1855 and they would have 10 children together. Two years later, he had become a balloonist and had plans to fly across the Atlantic, however the Civil War erupted and he was unable to begin the journey. Instead, he formed a balloon corps for the Union army which provided valuable intelligence during battles at Fair Oaks, Chancellorsville, Mechanicsville and Chickahominy.

To learn more about the life and adventures of Professor Thaddeus Lowe, please click here.

The Lowe family would eventually move to Pasadena, California in 1890 where Thaddeus built a 24,000 square foot mansion in which to retire. However, when David MacPherson approached him with an idea for a steam powered railroad to the summit of Mount Wilson, it sparked his interest and the two began a seemingly impossible endeavor together.

In 1891, MacPherson and Lowe, incorporated the Pasadena and Mt. Wilson Railway. Unfortunately, the land near Mount Wilson was unavailable, so they decided to alter their course towards the summit of Oak Mountain (later renamed to Mount Lowe by Andrew McNally). Lowe ran electric trolley cars through Altadena into Rubio Canyon where a pavilion transfer station and hotel had been built. Passengers could get off and explore the various wooden staircases that led through several breathtaking waterfalls, or they could wine and dine at the pavilion below.

The Great Incline"The Great Incline" was the most daring engineering aspect in Rubio Canyon and it provided an impressive view of the canyon below. Designed by Andrew Halladie, cable car inventor, the incline was California's first electric cable hoisting mechanism. It measured upwards of 3,000 feet in length and made an ascent of 1,300 feet. It was also the steepest railway in the world at the time. The incline funicular began its ascent at a 60° grade until passing the turnout where the grade changed to an amazing 62° (by comparison, the rollercoaster Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain sports a 61° drop), later the grade changes to 58° then again to 48° as it makes its way to the top of Echo Mountain. The grade was so steep that during construction of the Great Incline most of the materials had to be carried on the backs of its laborers.

Many challenges were overcome during this phase of construction, including carefully blasting and clearing a path through the most difficult section of the incline in the mountain ridge later named Granite Gorge. Much of this back-breaking work was done by hand and workers spent 8 months clearing this path before ties could finally be laid. The next challenge was the deep canyon just beyond Granite Gorge. MacPherson designed a 200 foot long (and 114 foot high) trestle that was later named the MacPherson Trestle, which was completed on January 19th, 1893. It was one of the greatest engineering wonders at the time.

The incline used an electrically powered endless cable to move two counterbalanced cars. So as one incline car went up, the other came down. The two original cars were named Echo and Rubio and in 1920 a backup car was named Alpine. The incline had three rails with an automatic passing track in the middle known as the Turnout. In March 1893, an endless cable was installed which required it be pulled up by a huge manila rope drawn by 4 horses hitched to a winch which wound the rope on a spool as the cable was drawn up. The cable was 1¼ inches thick and weighed over 6 tons (12,000lbs) and was tested to withstand a strain of 100 tons. At the top of the Incline the traction cable is wound around a driving drum or "bullwheel" three times.

A second steel cable 1½ inches thick was attached as a safety cable. The grip for the traction cable is placed beneath the front platform of the car and the safety grip is under the middle of the car. The moment the traction rope is released the safety grip instantly closes on the other cable making a descent impossible. Tests were frequently made to test the safety cable and the cars were expected to stop within two feet. The best manufactured friction brakes and speed regulators were also attached to the machinery controlling the cable should the operator fail to stop the car in the proper place. Fortunately, the safety grid never had to be deployed while the incline was in operation.

The cast iron, 9 foot diameter bullwheel had 72 automatic grip sheaves around its circumference which employed 45 at one time to grip the great traction cable, reducing wear on the cable. A 100 horsepower motor operating at 500 revolutions per minute was reduced down by a series of gears and pinions so that by the time it reached the grip sheaves on the bullwheel it was reduced to 13 revolutions per minute. By this means the cars could be pulled up the Incline at approximately 4 miles per hour. It took 6 minutes to complete the ride to the top. Water and electricity that powered the motor was also kept in the Incline Powerhouse.

The incline ride may have been a frightening experience for some, yet many marveled at its ingenuity and were awestruck by the beauty that opened up before them as they rose into the sky. The movement of the car was smooth and easy as it rose above the platform at Rubio Station revealing the Rubio amphitheater. As the incline passed the MacPherson trestle, the San Gabriel Valley unfolded its splendor and passengers held their breath at the incredible drop that laid before them at either side of the car. As passengers neared the top, far down in the valley they could see the serpentine San Gabriel River winding its way to the ocean, Signal Hill at Long Beach, and the Twin Peaks on Catalina Island.

On June 21st, 1893 the Incline was operated by electricity for the first time. On July 4th, 1893 the Mount Lowe railway was officially opened to the public. A few thousand people were on hand to witness the event and many paid the $5 fee to ride the rails. The Pasadena City Band was given the honor of the first ride up to Echo Mountain playing "Nearer My God to Thee."

The incline traveled 1/2 mile to the Echo Mountain summit where Lowe built a powerhouse, the Chalet, the Echo Mountain House, a casino (used as a dance pavilion and dormitory), an observatory, residential car barn, gardens, gas holder, tennis courts, a zoo and water system.  "The White City on the Mountain" was world famous. 


The Echo Mountain House rose 4-stories with a 400 foot wing providing office space, social and recreational halls, a dining room, curio shop, shoeshine stand and 70 rooms.  A massive dome crowned the structure.  The interior was finished in natural wood. When all was said and done, $55,000.00 was spent to complete the Echo Mountain House, and another $8,000.00 was spent in furnishings. The rooms were of the best that mountain hotels offered in the world. Some were "en suite" with private bathrooms and lavatories, boasting the finest in porcelain and marble equipment. The rooms were electric lighted, gas heated, and carefully ventilated. Fireplaces had specially constructed andirons for cheery fires. To top it off, each of the rooms in the 400-foot southern exposure, had a spectacular view of the valley floor below. There were seventy sleeping rooms, and the cost for an evening ran $5.00, and $17.00 to $25.00 per week, depending on the selection of the rooms. One could make reservations from nearly anywhere by telegraph at the hotels expense. Mark Jayner from Western Union Telegraph, approved the site in early August, and Edward Swift operated the telegraph.

Other areas were devoted to recreation. There were billiard rooms, a bowling alley, ladies drawing room, a barbershop and shoe shine stand, along with a wonderful forty by eighty foot social hall, in which the fumes of a cigar were never allowed to intrude. In the splendid lobby, Anna Miller ran the photograph, curio, and souvenir department known as the Echo Mountain House Bazaar. Here one could purchase, postcards, cabinet photos, souvenir booklets, silver spoons, china, and many other items to cherish as a memory of this grand place. Richard Scott was the clerk, and Thaddeus Lowe Jr. was appointed Notary Public, to afford the guest that convenience. The spacious kitchen was designed to handle the largest order of meals, and was backed up by a cement basement under the hotel, storing perishables, ice, solid and liquid refreshments.

The Alpine Division began in front of Echo Mountain House. Eleven bridges stretched 1 1/4 miles, then the line continued to the west edge of Echo Mountain. Transversing north, the rail bed was chiseled from the Las Flores Canyon walls and given wooden trestle side washes. At the Cape of Good Hope, the line turned sharply into Millard Canyon.  To span the "Grand Canyon of the Millard", MacPherson's huge circular bridge crossed a precipice of 1,000 feet.  Blasting through a large granite outcropping, the walls were kept intact so trolley cars could pass through picturesque "Granite Gate."  A mile further, a small Swiss-style hotel became the premier hotel on the line.  Alpine Tavern offered cozy rooms, a dining room, a parlour warmed by a cavernous fire. Lowe hoped to raise funds to continue the line and build another hotel, but economic and physical disasters ended development at Crystal Spring. Between 1897 and 1901, Lowe lost the railway and ownership changed several times. Fire destroyed the Echo Mountain House on February 5, 1900.

Henry E. Huntington (owner of the Pacific Electric Railway) bought the railway in 1900 and incorporates it in 1901. "Red Cars" ran from Los Angeles to Rubio Canyon.  Huntington strengthened the bridges and upgraded the track of the Mount Lowe Line. The casino collapsed during a severe gale storm on December 9, 1905. The roof flew 60 feet, landing on the powerhouse. Huntington constructed a modern incline mechanism in a new powerhouse. For the Alpine Division, he built open-air crossbench cars and expanded the Alpine Tavern. Amenities included a dining room, billiard room, music room with floor, card room, circulating library and souvenir shop. Recreation included croquet, tennis, riding, hiking and miniature golf. Bungalows surrounded the hotel. A nearby silver fox farm added ambiance. For the next 30 years, the Mount Lowe Line was Southern California's favorite lodestone. Another windstorm destroyed the observatory in 1928. September 15, 1936, fire completely gutted Alpine Tavern. Although Pacific Electric weighed rebuilding the hotel, the Depression destined the end of the line. On December 5, 1937, the last run carried "The Railroad Boosters" who promoted preservation of the landmark. In March, 1938, heavy rains destroyed the circular bridge and two others. Washed-out track dangled in mid-air. Rails were later salvaged for a WWII scrap drive. The last recognizable ruins of Alpine Tavern was demolished by the Forest Service in 1959, and the powerhouse in 1962.

Timeline | The Scenic Mount Lowe Railway

1832 -- August 20th, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe is born in Coos County, New Hampshire
1854 -- January 12th, David Joseph MacPherson is born in Canada West
1885 -- MacPherson moves to Pasadena
1887 -- Professor Lowe and wife move to Los Angeles
1890 -- Professor Lowe and wife move to Pasadena
1891 -- Lowe and MacPherson build the Pasadena and Mount Wilson Railway from Altadena station to Rubio Canyon
1892 -- September 24th, Oak Mountain was renamed Mount Lowe
1893 -- July 4th, Grand Opening of the Great Incline
1894 -- A 12 room hotel known as the Echo Mountain House was constructed
1894 -- August, the great searchlight makes it first appearance on Echo Mountain
1894 -- September, the Lowe Observatory was constructed
1894 -- November 24th, a new 40 room Echo Mountain House was constructed, the previous hotel was renamed The Chalet
1895 -- December 14th, the Alpine Tavern was constructed
1899 -- April, the Pasadena & Mount Wilson railway was renamed the Pasadena & Mount Lowe railway
1899 -- July, a new powerhouse is built on Echo Mountain just East of the original powerhouse
1899 -- Professor Lowe was broke, railway went to receivership and was taken over by the Pasadena & Los Angeles Electric Railway
1900 -- February 5th, a fire destroys the magnificent Echo Mountain House
1900 -- June 1st, Henry E. Huntington (owner of the Pacific Electric Railway) purchases the railway
1901 -- November 10th, the railway is incorporated into the Pacific Electric Railway
1901 -- The Rubio Canyon powerplant and dining area are removed due to flooding
1905 -- The Pacific Electric built the Altadena Substation next to the original powerhouse and demolished the old one
1905 -- December 9th, winds blew power lines together and ignited a fire which burned the two powerhouses, the Chalet and all other buildings except the Observatory, winds blew the roof off of the casino
1906 -- The Incline Powerhouse was rebuilt with reinforced concrete. The searchlight from the 1893 World's fair is mounted on top
1909 -- Electrical storm and landslides cause giant rocks to crush the Rubio Pavilion
1913 -- January 16th, Professor Lowe dies in Pasadena, California
1916 -- April 23rd, first service held at Easter Rock at sunrise
1925 -- Inspiration Point shelter and picnic shelter were built
1927 -- Octobert 16th, David Joseph MacPherson dies in Pasadena, California
1928 -- Gale force winds blew down the Observatory
1936 -- September 15th, the Alpine Tavern burned down
1937 -- December 5th, the railway made its last official run, actually continued til March
1938 -- March, record rains and floods destroyed much of the lines and trestles, Pacific Electric abandons the Alpine Division
1941 -- land was sold to the Angeles National Forest
1949 -- March 10th, the Sierra Club erected monument and bronze plaque in honor of Sam Merrill
1950 -- Late 1950's the two shelters at Inspiration Point were gone
1959 -- Alpine Tavern ruins were destroyed to allow for construction of Mt. Lowe trail camp
1960 -- Part of the rock at Granite Gate was removed to widen the trail
1962 -- April 14th, Forest Service blasted the Incline Powerhouse and removed the remaining buildings on Echo Mountain
1992 -- The Scenic Mount Lowe Historical Railway Committee (aka Mount Lowe Volunteers) were formed
1993 -- July 5th, the Mount Lowe Volunteers (aka SMLHRC) held a centennial celebration atop Echo Mountain
1996 -- March 29th, the Mount Lowe Volunteers begin reconstructing the pavilion at Inspiration Point, construction is finished at the end of July
1998 -- The Mount Lowe Volunteers reconstructed the Dawn Mine waiting station
1998 -- The Mount Lowe Volunteers have completed installing 35 information kiosks (weighing 180lbs each) from Echo Mountain up to Inspiration Point
2003 -- June 28th, The Mount Lowe Volunteers repaint the Dawn Mine waiting station, the pavilion and viewing tubes at Inspiration Point
2005 -- August, the Mount Lowe Volunteers are given the opportunity to excavate around Echo Mountain in an effort to uncover hidden artifacts
2009 -- September, the station fire burns down the Dawn Mine waiting station, Inspiration Point is not affected

Highlights | The Scenic Mount Lowe Railway

The Mount Lowe Railway line was divided into 3 divisions: the Mountain Division, the Great Incline, and the Alpine Division.
The Mountain Division entered Rubio Canyon and traveled along Rubio Creek to Rubio Pavilion (Mountain Junction).
The Great Incline carried passengers up the steep canyon from the Rubio Pavilion up to Echo Mountain.
The Alpine Division began atop Echo Mountain and led visitors up to Ye Alpine Tavern resort just below Mount Lowe.

Mount Lowe Railway operated from 1893-1936
Echo Mountain to Alpine Tavern was 3.5 miles long, 18 bridges and 127 curves, 114 straight segments, longest track was 225 ft
Echo Mountain House rate: Per night = $5, Weekly rate = $17 - $25 (based on which room is selected)
The Hotel cost $65,000 to build
The Mount Lowe Railway consisted of four hotels, an astronomical observatory, a petting zoo, miniature golf, a bowling alley, billiards, tennis, the "World's Fair" searchlight, a dance hall and horseback riding.
Echo Mountain House amenities: 70 bedrooms, office space, social and recreation halls, a dining room, curio shop, Western Union office, bowling alley, billiard room, barber shop and shoeshine stand.
The Chalet amenities: (originally called the Echo Mountain House when first opened on July 4, 1893)
12 bedrooms, Post Office and Dining room.
One Man and Mule operated from 1917 to 1935
Sam Merrill, Conservationist, 1868-1948

The Scenic Mount Lowe Railway Historical Committee

The Scenic Mount Lowe Railway Historical Committee (aka Mount Lowe Volunteers), an adjunct of the Pacific Railroad Society in San Marino, CA, began a rigorous project in 1992 of clearing away brush and debris from the remaining foundations of the Echo Mountain site. Working directly with the forestry archaeologist from the Arcadia offices of the Angeles National Forest, these volunteers were allowed to uncover hidden foundations of structures long gone from the hilltop in preparation for the upcoming Mount Lowe Railway Centennial (July 4, 1993). The Mount Lowe Volunteers continue to preserve and maintain this wonderful piece of history for future generations. If you would like to assist us in an upcoming project or would like to join our next event, please contact us.

The words of Professor Lowe shortly before his death:
"I lost the road and with it my fortune, because I was ten years ahead of the times of the country, and the time for such a venture was not ripe. Therefore I lost, although I have no regrets, for I realize that many millionaires would sacrifice their fortunes to attain a monument for themselves such as Mount Lowe will be to my name when I have passed away."

So lets all do our part to conserve this historic site so the name Mount Lowe may outlast eternity.

Videos of Mount Lowe

 AOL explores the 'Then and Now' of the Mount Lowe Railway