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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.