Up, Up, and Away! – The Adventures of Thaddeus Lowe

Once upon a boring Saturday, my husband and I retreated to the Echo Mountain hiking trail located in Alta Dena, California.  Like most trails around here, it was a good workout, and the views were staggering.  Then there was the summit, and I didn’t just love it for the view.  I’ve always believed that somehow, the history finds me.  True to form, when I wasn’t even looking for it, I stumbled on some amazing history on that mountain top.  Right there were the remains of a California mechanical marvel known as the “Railway in the Clouds,” or, the Mt. Lowe Railway.

Mt. Lowe Railway was the first electrical incline railway in the world, and it was designed and built in the early 1890s by a man named Thaddeus Lowe.  The line’s terminus was the beautiful “White City,” all-white buildings that contained an astronomical observatory, a power station, an operating station, a casino and tavern, and the very impressive Echo Mountain House Hotel.  Opened in 1894, the hotel was world class for its time.  It was four stories, had seventy guest rooms, and even boasted its own post office.  Four-star meals and endless spirits were served in the elegant dining room.  The grand entrance way, with a large fire place and handsome furnishings, was the perfect spot for guests to socialize and relax.  The hotel even had its own zoo that included mountain lions and a black bear cub.  Of course, one of the most beautiful things about the resort was its view.  Situated atop a high mountain peak, nearly every room looked out over the entire San Gabriel Valley.  On clear days, the island of Catalina could be seen.  When all was said and done, Thaddeus Lowe’s Echo Mountain House Hotel and electrical rail line was one of the most impressive resort spots of its day.

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As I explored the remains of a once beautiful retreat, I ran that name through my head.  Thaddeus Lowe.  Where had I heard it before?  I stepped over crumbling walls, wondered through open spaces that were once decorative guest rooms, and I picked up the energy of an engineer who built a city in the clouds.  All the while, I couldn’t shake that name.  Then, suddenly, I was hit with it.  A miracle railway and hotel weren’t Lowe’s only claims to fame.  He also had a deep passion for hot air balloons.  I had in fact seen his name in many of the Civil War volumes in my home library.  Because back then, Thaddeus Lowe became the father of the American Aerial Corps.

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Echo Mountain House Hotel Foundation

From his earliest days, Thaddeus Lowe had an eye for the sky.  When he was just fourteen, he performed his first flying experiment.  He tied a large kite to a cage, placed an unwitting kitten inside, and launched it.  The device reached 1,000 feet before it came back down with a terrified feline in tow.  Afterwards, Lowe took a fervent interest in flying and spent his time courting scientists with any knowledge on the subject.  After a few years touring with a traveling chemist, Lowe taught himself about air currents.  He studied the work of John Wise, the greatest aeronat of the time.  He also conducted his own balloon experiments.  In 1856, when Lowe was twenty-four, he purchased his own air balloon and made money by giving rides.  He parlayed that money into a factory to build balloons for fellow aeronats.  Then, in 1859, Thaddeus Lowe turned his attention to a balloon crossing of the Atlantic.  He theorized that if he had a balloon with enough gas to reach the upper atmosphere, he would be caught in an air current that would blow him east instead of west.  In 1861, Lowe constructed a balloon capable of making the flight – but his financial backers wanted proof of an east-blowing current.  So, Lowe planned a test flight out of Cincinnati, Ohio.  When the winds were just right, he launched his massive balloon.  Sure enough, when he reached the heights, he blew east and completed a nine-hour test flight that landed him in the middle of South Carolina.  In April of 1861, this was a huge problem.  The Civil War had just begun, and Lowe’s aerial contraption and Northern accent fast painted him as a spy.  The rebels prepared to hang him, but before they got their “ropes” in order, the president of a nearby college intervened.  He testified that Lowe’s balloon intrigues were strictly scientific and put him on a train bound for Cincinnati.  En route, Lowe discarded his trans-Atlantic flight plans and set his sights on something much bigger – he would put his balloons in the Union Army.

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With the help of influential friends, Lowe secured a meeting with President Lincoln and staged him a demonstration of how his balloons could be used in combat.  The demo made him the first person to deliver a telegram from the sky when he wired the White House from his balloon.  He also proved the value of balloons in spying and tracking troop movements, and he showed how they could be used to guide long-range artillery to unseen targets.  Shortly after the demonstration, Lowe was also contacted by the US Topographical Engineers, who thought balloons would be highly beneficial in mapmaking.  Lowe gave an ultimate balloon demo after the Union troops were disastrously routed at Bull Run.  Panicked Washington citizens feared an attack on the city.  Lowe took a giant gamble and went up alone over hostile territory.  He observed the Confederate movements and eventually proved there was no pending attack.  The antics won the firm admiration of President Lincoln.  He gave Lowe the go-ahead to start the US Army’s first aeronautical corps.

Lowe earned many distinctions while he floated above the Civil War.  He became the first to direct artillery fire from the sky with telegraph and flag signal.  He also aided in the construction of the first aircraft carrier when McClellan ordered him to take his balloons on the Potomac and spy on the Confederates.  Another distinction (although perhaps one he didn’t admire as much) was that he became the most shot at man in the war.  Lowe also had the honor to carry many famous passengers including General George B. McClellan, General Joe Hooker, and General Fitz John Porter.  His balloons were soon such an asset that he earned the coveted title of “Chief Aeronaut to the Army of the United States.”  He also gained permission to hire a staff and double the size of his balloon fleet.  This came with a steady salary and paid contracts.

All was well for Lowe until April of 1863.  Although his balloons had seen huge payoffs, his inability to file paperwork and keep organized didn’t impress the new General Commanding – Joe Hooker.  Captain Cyrus Comstock was charged with supervising Thaddeus and his balloons.  Lowe was filled with resentment and the two men didn’t get along at all.  The spat produced the firing of Lowe’s staff and a severe reduction in his own salary.  When his complaints to Hooker’s office went ignored, Lowe resigned from the balloon corps that he had worked so hard to create.  However, the spring offensive of 1863 was upon the Union.  Unable to abandon the army in their hour of need, Lowe agreed to stay on – unpaid – until the battle was complete.  Unfortunately, the Battle of Chancellorsville ended in disaster for both the Union Army and Thaddeus Lowe.  Faced with another brutal defeat, the US Army had completely lost faith in the balloons, and they refused to put up funding to make new ones.  With Lowe resigned and the old balloons in tatters, the corps was quietly dissolved just before the battle of Gettysburg.

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Echo Mountain House Hotel Foundation

However, Thaddeus Lowe wasn’t done.  After the Civil War, he went on to gain and lose a dozen fortunes with his many inventions and endeavors.  He built some of the finest (and largest) houses in the world at that time.  Yet, a man who had spent so much time in the sky couldn’t keep tethered to the ground.  So, his later years were dedicated to the railway and the city in the clouds.  The attraction gained huge headlines and drew admirers from all over the world.  Unfortunately, the resort failed to turn much profit given the mass expenses to keep it operational.  In 1897, Lowe’s finances were stretched thin and he lost control of his own creation.  Railroad mastermind Henry Huntington, nephew of Collis Huntington of the famous Central Pacific Railroad, took it over.  Profits didn’t improve much under the new management, and soon, even Mother Nature turned against the shining city on the mount.  In 1900, the beautiful Echo Mountain House Hotel was the first to go.  It burned to the ground in a devastating fire, and it would never be rebuilt.  More disaster struck in 1905, when high winds knocked down the casino and dance hall, and yet another fire destroyed most of the other buildings of White City.  In 1909, a rock slide took out the Pavilion and killed an employee’s son.  Finally, in 1914, a flash flood destroyed one of the last attractions atop Echo Mountain – the tavern.  Still, there was no end to the uncanny string of natural disasters that struck Lowe’s beloved mountain retreat.  In 1928, more high winds ripped the dome off the observatory and nearly took the life of White City’s long-time photographer, Charles Lawrence.  In 1936, a second flash flood destroyed the rebuilt Echo Mountain Tavern (ironic, since flash flood was what had destroyed it before).  Finally, in 1938, the railway itself fell prey to violent mother nature when a third flood destroyed the trestles and rails.  By December of 1940, the owners of Mt. Lowe Railway had had enough.  They closed down the attraction and sold it for scrap valued at only $800.  And so, the railway in the clouds crashed back to earth, and it eventually faded into history.

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In 1913, Thaddeus Lowe went up, up, and away for the final time and passed away.  So wrapped up the incredible story of an incredible man, and it was all right there at my feet.  Only crumbling foundations and a few rusted rail parts remain on the top of Mt. Echo, but that’s not Lowe’s only legacy.  His hands are all over American history.  And I got a big piece of that right here in California, on top of the world at Mt. Echo.

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SOURCES

“Mount Lowe:  The Railway in the Clouds” – C. Seims

“Images of Mount Lowe Railway” – M.A. Patris and the Mt. Lowe Preservation Society

Scenic Mount Lowe Railway Historical Committee

“Lincoln’s Flying Spies” – G. Jarrow

All photos by MB Henry.  For more on Southern California, click here. 

66 Comments on “Up, Up, and Away! – The Adventures of Thaddeus Lowe

    • Why you don’t say. I’m a big fan of WWI aviation. What sorts of models do you build??

      • I follow club/group Albatros Flugzeuwerke and Italian Aces of World War I. There are many groups each dedicatedto a particular airplane. I build 1/72 scale plastic models, the Spads, Nieports, SE 5, Albatross, Fokker DR 1, DR 7, Sopwiths and try to find kits of the lesser known airplanes on Ebay. These are usually from European manufacturers. . I bought a dozen of same Albatros because there are so many variations in markings and color and I learned how to measure and size pics of the plane and then create my own decals for entire wings and fuselages rather than try to paint the markings. My father worked for Eastern Airlines in Miami from about 1956 to 1988 I think it was just before the selloff by Lorenzo, as lead landing gear mechanic. Eddie Rickenbacker, who founded the airline, used to drop by the shop to chat with the boys all the time.

      • Wow!!! That’s so cool! I’m familiar with most of those planes – especially the Spads.
        I’m a huge admirer of Frank Luke Jr. and he pulled most of his stunts in a Spad. How amazing that you make your own decals that’s really impressive. And Eddie Rickenbacker! I sure know who that is! 🙂 What a neat piece of family history for you.

    • You are most welcome! Thank you for stopping by for a read. I was floored by this story when I found it on that hike. So glad you enjoyed it!

  1. Fascinating story. If I had ever heard of Thaddeus Lowe, I had forgotten about him.
    Amazing. Thank you so much for the read.

  2. What an amazing story! I knew about Thaddeus Lowe being connected with the Civil War but not this resort. What a beautiful place it must have been! How sad about all the destruction from Mother Nature. Thank you for this and all of your awesome history stories you have shared with us! I look forward to the next one!

    • Thanks! Yeah who knew one of his most famous engineering projects was just a few minutes away from us! It was pretty cool

  3. Loved reading about this guy, what a fascinating life he had. Sad his hotel on the clouds was such a doomed effort. They should make a movie about him!

    • I would totally be on board with the movie! So glad you enjoyed the read.

  4. That’s a great history find there. Imagine this guy being such a geek he didn’t realize he could land in a war zone on his test flight! But he was also brave enough to do what he did during the war. What a guy. Enjoyed this story a lot!

    • Im so glad you liked it! He definitely had more than one misadventure with his balloons during the war! He must have had a lot of courage. Thanks for reading and for your compliments

    • Yeah I too was totally unaware of his crazy life outside the Civil War! So much he fit into one lifetime. Thanks for giving this a read

  5. First of all, Thaddeus Lowe, what a magnificent name!

    Another first for Mr. Lowe was a converted coal barge named George Washington Parke Custis, that became the world’s first aircraft carrier

    • Yes! That is a mouthful of a name for a barge isn’t it? 🙂

  6. Enjoyed this story, MB. Thanks for posting. James Lick was an ancestor of mine, I wonder if he and Mr. Lowe were acquainted. Lick was a fellow amateur astronomer from the period who went on to endow the Lick refracting telescope and observatory on Mt. Hamilton, overlooking San Jose. That would be a small world moment, wouldn’t it.

    • Wow that would make it a small world! That’s a cool claim to fame for you too! So glad you came by and enjoyed the read! 🙂

  7. Great history lesson, MB. Most of it was new to me. I really liked the way you used your hike as an introduction. Thanks. –Curt

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you liked it. I do enjoy my hiking! 🙂

  8. Nice History Lesson. You never know what you might stumble upon when snooping around. This is one reason I do it. Thanks – Les

    • Isn’t that the truth! And I totally agree exploring is always fun no matter what you find. Plus the walks do us good! 🙂

  9. What an amazing story! I am sad this Railway in the Clouds no longer exists. It sounds amazing! I also love it that history finds you. That, of course, is the mark of a true historian. And also: Poor kitty :). Did he survive his involuntary kite flight? I hope so. Thank you for this post, M.B.

    • The kitty did survive although he took off into the woods! Poor cat! Im so glad you enjoyed the post. Always love having you come by and share your thoughts!

  10. Fascinating rags-to-riches-to-rags story. That Echo Mountain Hotel sounded like a splendid get-away for the wealthy. I looked up a photo online and nearly gasped at the size of it.

    Thanks for all the info on Thaddeus Lowe. A remarkable individual. He almost sounds like the Elon Musk of his day.

    • It was so funny I had read his name in all those civil war volumes but had no idea how many amazing things he accomplished outside of balloons! I got a picture history of the hotel after that hike (listed in the sources if you’re interested) and I was blown away by some of those photos! A beautiful place it must have been. Glad you came by and enjoyed the read!

    • It’s true Paula! They do often seem to think alike. My dad is a huge fan of the Wright brothers, he has taken me a couple times to Huffman Prairie in Ohio where they did a lot of their fine tuning flights for their flyer. A neat place to walk around!

  11. Ha, I love this! How history finds you like a magnet. It’s such a shame when these visionary people can’t hold onto their dreams – reality finds a way to squash them.

    • I know right? Just a regular old hike turns into a history lesson! I agree that it was sad what happened in the end. I think he was just a little ahead of his time for the technology! Glad you enjoyed the piece!

  12. I have encountered a version of the story of the Civil War aerial forces once before (in a book about ballooning), and of the Echo Mountain rail and resort (Atlat Obscura), but I have to say, yours is the best!
    You have a splendid skill with the writing and the wording and the tale-unfolding. A pleasure, always.

    • Thank you! That is incredibly flattering. Im so happy you enjoyed Lowe’s story!

    • Thank you!! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it. I sure enjoy all your ghost stories – I have a ghost story planned for a few weeks down the road so keep an eye out! 🙂

    • You are most welcome. And thank you for reading it! So glad you enjoyed it. I must confess I knew so little about Lowe before I stumbled on his railway. What a life!

    • So glad you enjoyed it! He certainly led an adventurous life, and it is a pleasure for me to share his story.

  13. Interesting. I knew there was balloon action, but no details.

    Speaking of flying, in your avatar you’re clearly sitting in the back of a two seater. Is there a story there? (Asked a used to be private pilot).

    • Why yes I am. Im sitting in a chair that was fitted behind the pilot seat of a P-51 Mustang. What a ride that was!! And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, once we landed, my boyfriend came out of the hanger dressed in a suit with an engagement ring! 🙂 we’ve been happily married for 3 years now. I mean how could we not if it started with a P-51 ride? 🙂

  14. Very fascinating story about Lowe! Thank you for sharing and awesome pictures! What an awesome hike that must have been for you!

    • Why thank you! Always happy to share the historical adventures and I love it when people enjoy it. Im so glad you came by for a visit!

  15. Wow! I really enjoyed the read, Henry. I’ve learned a great deal about Thaddeus Lowe just from reading your post. I love such enlightening and educative posts. Keep up the awesome work!

    • So glad you liked it! Thank you so much for giving it a read and for you very kind compliments. I shall do my best to keep it up 🙂

    • Good! So glad you enjoyed his story. It’s such a fascinating one. Thanks for coming by for a visit!

  16. What a very interesting piece of history! I hope you are compiling all of your writings and putting them into a book. It would be a wonderful resource!
    Dwight

    • I’m not doing that yet, because I’m writing a three-part Historical Fiction series at present. But I just may have to consider this for the future! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it, always love having you stop by.

  17. I had no idea what happened to Lowe following the war. What a guy! Fire, floods, winds… everything but earthquakes assaulted his creation. Thanks for this telling the rest of his story.

    • It’s my pleasure to share his crazy life and story! So glad you enjoyed it.

    • Hahaha you’re darn right! Im shocked it took them so long to pack it in with all of that going on

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