CityDig: Get a Bird’s-Eye View of Mount Lowe’s Enchanting Defunct Railroad

This 1913 map shows a railway that was even more charming than Angels Flight
Birdseye View of Mt. Lowe, Pacific Electric Railway, 1913
Birdseye View of Mt. Lowe, Pacific Electric Railway, 1913

This little map merely hints at the magic of the old railway system that transported adventure-seekers up the slopes of Mt. Lowe for otherworldly vistas and an atmosphere unmatched in Southern California. The map was included in the brochure “Mt. Lowe Trail Trips,” which encouraged explorers to get to the summit of the mountain “afoot or on horseback, as time and inclination may dictate.” To do that, though, they would first need to take the train.

Originally, the railway was the joint dream of Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe and David McPherson. The two men imagined a scenic resort in the San Gabriel Mountains made accessible by a railway from the flatlands of Altadena. Construction actually began in 1891 from Mountain Junction station at Lake Avenue and Calaveras Street in Altadena. No one could have foreseen the herculean feats of engineering necessary to accomplish the deed—or for that matter, the feats of human strength. Since animals and wagons were unable to perform on the extreme grade the slope, human laborers struggled up the mountain with building materials on their backs. By July 4, 1893 the Pasadena and Mt. Wilson Railroad was incorporated, and the ultimate goal was to reach Oak Mountain (later renamed Mt. Lowe after the professor).

Rising up from Lake Avenue through Rubio Canyon, the tracks reached 1,958 feet (bottom right corner of the map), and the newspapers began calling the project “the Railway to the Clouds.” The real fun began when the line was extended, and passengers could ride a funicular up the “great incline” at a 62% grade to the Echo Mountain promontory. It was not a trip for acrophobes: the open air trolleys passed along exposed tracks and wooden trestles over a 1,000-foot drop. In winter the rails might be covered with snow and then even the stout-hearted waited for a melt before traveling onward and upward. At the top of the promontory, travellers were greeted by the Echo Mountain House, a stunning 80-room Victorian hotel. Painted white (as were the railway cars), the hotel was called “the white city in the sky.”

By 1896 the final leg of track, the Alpine Division, was completed and ran from Echo Mountain up to the delightful Alpine tavern at the base of Mt. Lowe, 4,420 feet above sea level. On the way up the scenery was breathtaking, especially at places like the circular bridge and the granite gate that afforded spectacular views out to Catalina. When travelers reached the rarified air of the Mt. Lowe Tavern, they could hike to the peak, join a a “pony trip” up the mountain, opt for some trout fishing, swim in the pool, cut a rug to a live band, or even play tennis in the thin air. There were a dozen suggested hikes in the mountains ranging from 2.5  to 11 miles along well-marked trails.

Sadly, the sheer cost of this wonderful undertaking was too much for Lowe, who was forced to sell his project to Valentine Peyton. Peyton in turn sold the railway to Henry Huntington, who created this map the same year he lost interest in streetcars and excused himself from Pacific Electric to pursue other ventures. The Mount Lowe railway continued to be an enchanting place, but it was plagued by fires and flash floods that wreaked havoc at the resorts. In 1936 an electrical fire destroyed the Alpine Tavern, and in 1938 an El Niño winter lead to abandonment of the entire operation. The ruins of the Mt. Lowe railway and resorts are still on the mountain and were included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.