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. The workout and the views left us breathless, but there was so much more. I’ve always believed that somehow, 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 on that summit rested 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, designed and built in the early 1890s by a man named Thaddeus Lowe. “White City” served as the line’s terminus, a settlement with all-white buildings that boasted 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 had four stories, seventy guest rooms, and its own post office. Four-star meals and endless spirits could be consumed in the elegant dining room. The grand entrance way, with a large fire place and handsome furnishings, provided the perfect spot for guests to socialize and relax. The hotel even had its own zoo with mountain lions and a black bear cub. But with all its lavish bells and whistles, one of the most remarkable things about Echo Mountain House was the view. Situated atop a high mountain peak, nearly every room looked out over the entire San Gabriel Valley. On clear days, visitors could see all the way to Catalina. Thaddeus Lowe could easily brag that his electrical rail line and lavish hotel was one of the most impressive vacation 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 where decorative guest rooms once stood, 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, it hit me. A miracle railway and hotel weren’t Lowe’s only claims to fame. He also had a deep passion for hot air balloons. I knew this because I had seen his name in many Civil War volumes in my home library. In those days, before his city in the clouds, Thaddeus Lowe became the father of the American Aerial Corps.
From his earliest days, Thaddeus Lowe had an eye for the sky. At 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 tumbled back down with a terrified feline in tow. After that, Lowe’s aviation interests took flight (zing!), and he spent his time courting scientists with any knowledge on the subject.
While touring with a traveling chemist, Lowe taught himself about air currents, studying the work of John Wise, a great aeronat of the time. He also conducted his own balloon experiments. In 1856, at twenty-four, Lowe 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 a balloon with enough gas to reach the upper atmosphere would be caught in an air current blowing east instead of west. In 1861, Lowe constructed a balloon capable of this – 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 – putting his balloons in the Union Army.
With the help of influential friends, Lowe secured a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln and staged 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 for spying and tracking troop movements. He showed how they could be used to guide long-range artillery to unseen targets. The US Topographical Engineers also brought up the value of balloons for mapmaking.
But the ultimate balloon demo came at Bull Run, when Union Troops saw a disastrous route that sent the whole lot of them packing. As soldiers flew through the city in hysterics, panicked DC citizens feared an attack right in their streets. To get the full scoop, Lowe took up his balloon alone over hostile enemy territory. He observed the Confederate movements, saw there was no pending attack, and put countless minds at ease. The antics, though crazy on one hand, 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 floating above the Civil War. He became the first to direct artillery fire from the sky with telegraph and flag signal. He aided in the construction of the first aircraft carrier when McClellan ordered him to take his balloons on the Potomac. He also bragged of being the most shot at man in the war, perhaps one distinction we all could forego. Lowe had the honor of carrying many famous passengers including General George B. McClellan, General Joe Hooker, and General Fitz John Porter. His balloons became 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 went 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 took over supervising Thaddeus and his balloons. A babysitter filled Lowe 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 soon descended upon the Union. Unable to abandon the army in their peril, Lowe agreed to stay on – unpaid – and see the battle through. 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 quietly dissolved just before the battle of Gettysburg.
However, Thaddeus Lowe didn’t disappear for good. 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, he dedicated his later years to the railway and city in the clouds. The attraction garnered huge headlines and drew admirers from all over the world. Unfortunately, the resort failed to turn much profit given the mass operational expenses. In 1897, Lowe’s finances had 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. Echo Mountain House Hotel was the first to go in 1900, when it burned to the ground in a devastating fire. 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.
It wasn’t the last natural disaster to strike 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 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 all sat 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.