CityDig: The Mt. Lowe Railway’s Thrilling, Terrifying Circular Bridge


Call it 19th-century L.A.’s idea of a thrill ride. Leaving the safety of the granite slopes, trolley cars raced out onto a creaking, cantilevered wooden trestle, soaring over a 1000-foot sheer drop—with no reassuring seat belts or safety bars.

Even without Circular Bridge, the Mt. Lowe Railway would have been judged an engineering marvel. From the flatlands of Altadena to the Alpine Tavern on Mount Lowe, the “Railway to the Clouds” gained 3,121 feet in elevation over 5.7 miles. Climbing one of the steepest mountain ranges on the continent between 1893 and 1938, the railway twisted and wound its way up a roadbed blasted from granite. The longest straight stretch measured a mere 225 feet. On one segment, passengers transferred to an incline railway that scaled the mountainside at a 60-percent grade, and at the railway’s upper reaches, snowdrifts buried the tracks in winter months.

But Circular Bridge, with its views of Catalina, was a highlight of a passenger’s ride as well as an ingenious feat of engineering: a bridge that made nearly a full circle while climbing a steady 4.5 percent grade. It was engineer David Joseph MacPherson’s solution to a vexing problem: without a switchback, the steel-on-steel traction railway—limited to a maximum grade of seven percent—could never achieve the elevation it needed to get to the top of the line. But rail cars require a wide turning radius, one not possible in the San Gabriel Mountains’ rugged topography. So, for a brief moment, the railway left the mountainside.



Nathan Masters of the USC Libraries blogs here on behalf of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, cultural institutions, official archives, and private collectors hosted by the USC Libraries and dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden histories of Los Angeles.

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  • Doug Molitor

    What a fantastic lost route and destination: “The Railway to the Stars” and the Alpine Tavern. I hiked to the ruins as a boy. Decades later, I used it as a setting for several chapters of my comic novel, Memoirs of a Time Traveler.

  • mary

    Would give anything to go back in time and take one ride on the railway….

  • Balin

    Thinking the decent would be terrifying!

  • Evil1


  • brotherBvideos

    There’s a great video of the Mount Lowe Railway on YouTube called “Mount Lowe Railway – the guided tour”. Here’s the link:

  • Terry Reid

    Where did this railroad go? What happened in 1938? Are there other photos & more information somewhere?

  • gerard danjou

    the only things that I saw when I was in L A in 1969, which was also my last visit there, stayed at the old Roslyn hotel ,saw the old car barns street car] universal studios , saw Yvonne decarlo visited the knots berry farm ,the wax museum ,I sure wish that I saw more ,but holiday was over and headed back to Vancouver bc via greyhound,,