Snow on Mount Lowe, December 10, 2009
The recent snow dusting on our venerable mountain tops brings to mind the lost history of our once international tourist destination: The Mount Lowe Railway to the Clouds via Echo Mountain and the Great Incline!
Tourists from 1893 to 1936 were continually heading to Altadena, Rubio Canyon, the Great Incline and the Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern Hotel. The Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern was located nestled in a canyon above Echo Mountain in a crow's flight above the terminus of North Lake Avenue and was a popular destination for weekend outings and as a local and national tourist destination. The incredible Mount Lowe mountain railway, which at the height of its popularity was Southern California's outstanding tourist magnet, attracted more visitors at the time then Yosemite or Catalina. It offered one of the world's most spectacular rail trips with disaster seeming ready to strike at every turn of the car wheels, yet so expertly engineered that in all the years it operated not one accident occurred. It was the realized dream of Professor T. S. C. Lowe., the first U.S. Union Army balloon aviator during the Civil War, inventor and one of the most prominent Pasadena residents, investors and boosters.
The Alpine Tavern was also a well visited destination watering hole during Prohibition (1919 to 1933), since the Tavern was cut off from the rest of the city when the last train left in the evening until the trains began running in the morning. This made the Alpine Tavern safe for the imbuing of spirits and other nefarious activities during the nighttime hours. Also, businessmen, attending meetings at the Alpine Tavern Hotel and then being stranded on the mountain after the last train had departed, were known to have telephoned their wives informing them they would have to spend the night at the Tavern, giving them a good excuse for an evening of unbridled and uninterrupted entertainment in this veritable mountain fortress!
The interurban railway of the Pacific Electric Company brought the ``Big Red Cars'' to North Lake Avenue in 1902, in which crowds of hikers would arrive early on Saturday morning bound for the local canyons to the north. Come Sunday evening the reverse migration would occur. At its peak in the year 1921, when 160,930 passengers were carried, Mt. Lowe cars operated from Pasadena to Altadena via North Fair Oaks, Mariposa, and North Lake including via North Lake from Colorado Boulevard. Another nearby local tourist destination was the home and gardens of noted local botanist and Southern California Missions booster Charles Francis Saunders, located at 580 North Lake Avenue, located just south of Orange Grove Boulevard, which was visited by many traveling on the Pacific Electric cars going up and down to the mountains.
The hiking era came to a close soon after the Angeles Crest Highway was opened in 1936 and the automobile began to dominate people's lives. Roads were driven into the San Gabriel Mountains and few people ventured more than a few hundred yards from their automobiles. The number of visitors today is probably a few percent of the number who came in 1921.
The North Lake Pacific Electric Line was extremely busy until shortly before its abandonment in 1941. Altadena and North Pasadena saw its fortunes decline after the closing of the Mount Lowe tourist attraction in 1936, the opening of Angeles Crest Highway into the mountains also in 1936, the ending of trolley traffic in 1941, the onset of World War II and the general availability of automobiles and cheap gasoline for the common man.
In the above photographs you can see Mount Lowe peak, formerly Oak Mountain, and renamed by the leaders of Pasadena in 1893 in honor of Professor Lowe and his accomplishment of building a seemingly impossible mountain railway. In the Echo Mountain photograph it is possible to see the concrete retaining wall and stairway (the light spot in the middle) from the top of the Great Incline where millions of tourists over the years had their souvenir photo taken as they arrived at Echo Mountain, just as cruise ship passengers still have their souvenir photograph taken today upon disembarkation in distant ports.