New technology in modern transportation has assisted the weary traveler in many ways. Today, we can zip around the city in high-powered vehicles, and on high-speed rail, along with a bounty of other practical and innovative options for efficient travel. But there’s something about the slow wind of a trolley car, cabin open to the quickening breeze and creaky wheels gamely pressing onward and upward a steep mountain incline, that will continue to beguile.
The Mount Lowe Railway captured the hearts and minds of Pasadena and Altadena residents when it opened on July 4, 1893, with nearly seven miles of track beginning in Altadena at the Mountain Junction station.
It lasted 45 years and was traveled by over 3 million people. Once called “The greatest mountain enterprise in existence,” it was more than a tourist attraction. Mount Lowe Railway and its series of trails, buildings, hotels, waterfalls and scenic overlooks embodied the bourgeoning spirit of trailblazing and entrepreneurship that gripped the nation in the latter part of the 19th century.
In 1885, David J. MacPherson arrived in Pasadena and began to envision a train that would reach the top of Mount Wilson.
MacPherson turned to wealthy businessman and professor, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a former balloonist in the Civil War, and convinced him to finance the venture.
In 1891, the newly incorporated Pasadena & Mount Wilson Railroad Co. was formed by MacPherson and Lowe, with an eye toward extending their railway system to the summit of Mount Wilson.
Disheartened at being unable to secure the rights-of-way for the Mount Wilson plan, the resourceful men instead designed their tracks to lead toward Oak Mountain. The line consisted of three divisions: The Mountain Division, the Alpine Division and The Great Incline.
The Mountain Division’s trolley traveled up Lake Avenue, turned near Las Floras Street, and ran through the Poppyfield District. The line served the community with several local stops before making its way on into Rubio Canyon and the foot of Echo Mountain. Trekkers to Rubio Canyon could enjoy a stay at Rubio Pavilion, a 12-room hotel, or enjoy any of the 11 named waterfalls.
The Great Incline’s design was the brainchild of San Francisco Trolley car inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie. It reached 1,900 feet in elevation and was the first of its kind to utilize three rails and a four-railed passing track at the halfway mark. Echo Mountain’s distinctive white buildings stood in contrast to the scenery around soon gained the moniker “The White City in the Sky.”
Visitors to the top of Echo Mountain delighted in the shops, available picnic lunches, observation decks and trails. Just beyond Echo Mountain Ridge stood a 16-inch telescope in the observatory, the remnants of which can still be seen today in the cement stand used for the telescope and foundation fragments.
Opening day ceremonies took place on July 4, 1893 at Mountain Junction on the corner of Lake Avenue and Calaveras Street in Altadena and were a rousing success.
Hundreds lined up to pay the $2.50 roundtrip fare and experience the wonder of climbing and winding around a mountain in an open trolley with Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley hundreds of feet below.
Despite its grand scale, the trip to the summit was by no means leisurely in its entirety. Since the cars couldn’t reach the top of Mount Lowe, passengers had to disembark and hike the remaining 2 ½ miles to the summit.
Despite the many successes and the popularity of the railway, Lowe was never really able to rest easy with his venture. Eventually, the railway fell into receivership and much of it had become the property of Jared Sidney Torrance, founder of the city of Torrance.
The Mount Lowe Railway was continually plagued by misfortune. A kitchen fire in 1900 destroyed Echo Mountain House, and another blaze in 1905 consumed the remaining buildings, with the exception of the astronomer’s cabin and observatory. A flash flood in 1909 devastated Rubio Canyon, Santa Ana winds destroyed the observatory in 1928, and an electrical fire in 1936 marked the demise of the tavern. After limping along for another two years, the Mount Lowe Railway gasped its last breath after torrential rains and flooding washed away much of the area. The railway was finally sold at auction to Valentine Peyton. After the deaths of two successive astronomers running the observatory and the destruction of the Echo Mountain House in a fire, the railway was sold to Henry E. Huntington, where it then became part of the Pacific Electric Railway. Almost immediately PE began improvements, most notably the addition of a casino, which was really more of a dance hall, and completed only months before the 1905 fire that claimed all the buildings on Echo Mountain, save for the observatory and astronomer’s cabin.