The Greatest American Train Journey that Time Forgot

By

12th Jan, 2016

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It was “the grandest scenic trip on earth”; an enchanting and world-famous mountain railway journey to a vast resort where champagne and caviar was served along with panoramic views over southern California as far as the Pacific Ocean.

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I first learned of the Mount Lowe railway when I stumbled upon this old postcard map above. My first thoughts were: wow, that looks like a special little train ride, I’d like to know more about the journey and does it still exist?

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Unfortunately, I learned quite quickly that this railway hasn’t existed since 1936 when it was abandoned following a series of natural disasters and bad business decisions. Ill-fated from the start, today, the pride of California’s once most scenic attraction has been all but lost and wiped off the map. Hikers who only have access to the former railway resort by foot, will find nothing but ruins, a few steps and other clues, basic stone foundations of the old luxury hotels and rusted metal remains from “the grandest trip of all”.

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At its peak, it was the top honeymoon destination in America. But where newlyweds would have once been welcomed by impressive scenes like this ↓

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Within a few short years, after a total of only 45 years in existence, it looked more like this ↓

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But for nostalgia’s sake, I thought we could take a little train ride down memory lane to learn what the journey would have been like. The Mount Lowe Preservation Society has an extensive archive for us to trawl through.

Here we go !

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The story begins with Thaddeus Lowe, an american inventor who prior to the Civil War had built a balloon to cross the Atlantic ocean and had more than 200 patents in his lifetime. But a businessman he was not.

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When he came to California in the 1880s, he had a dream to make the beautiful local mountains overlooking the cities of Altadena and Pasadena accessible to average citizens. After extensive planning, making many exploratory trips on horseback and financing the project himself, the result was beautiful series of rail systems, hotels, trails, that opened in 1893 and quickly became a world-famous “Must Visit” destination.

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There were four hotels with extravagant restaurants, a petting zoo, the world’s largest searchlight and an astronomical observatory.

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Despite Lowe’s initial hopes for it to be an experience for average citizens, the only visitors who really had the money and the means to take “Earth’s Grandest Mountain ride” was the social elite.

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The railway consisted of nearly 12 km of track climbing up and across into the Rubio Canyon where a 12-room hotel was located at the base of the Great Incline.

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Passengers could then transfer to a cable car “opera box” funicular which climbed up Echo Mountain where a magnificent 70-room Victorian hotel awaited, the Echo Mountain House.

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A few hundred feet away stood the 40-room Echo Chalet as well as a casino, dance hall and a now long-forgotten zoo.

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It became a little city of its own known as the “White City in the Sky” with several places to eat, order picnic lunches and shop at stores.

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Megaphones called “echophones” were installed along trails, which could be used to bellow into the back canyons and receive up to 9 echoes.

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Finally another trolley line, the Alpine Division, would take visitors along a track that included a bridge which resembled a section of roller coaster offering an awesome sight over the side of the car looking almost 100 feet straight down.

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It also passed through Granite Gate at 4,072 feet which had required 8 months of dynamiting and mucking to allow just enough passage for the narrow gauge cars.

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The journey terminated at the last and highest stop called Crystal Springs where guests could check in at Ye Alpine Tavern, a 22-room Swiss Chalet boasting several amenities, such as a wading pool, tennis courts, mule rides, gift shop, restaurant, and a silver fox farm.

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In the 45 years it existed, it’s estimated that some 3 million visitors rode the railway, coming from all over the country and around the world. Henry Ford visited in 1922 and liked it so much, he returned with a Hollywood filming crew to make a silent documentary of the trip.

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But it became evident quite soon after its opening that Lowe had lost a fortune financing the railway and for the first seven years during which Lowe owned and operated Mount Lowe, it constantly ran into hard times. He had been unable to attract the masses he had hoped because of the lack of regular public transportation from the valleys.

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Its location was just too off the beaten path for the common traveler and this would be part of its downfall. Nor did fares cover Lowe’s cost of continuous construction. By 1897, he had gone into bankruptcy and lost the railway. The dawn of the 20th century brought on a tragic spell and series of unfortunate disasters that ate away at the railway resort.

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The same year it was sold off at auction, a kitchen fire burned down the grossly underinsured Echo Mountain House hotel. It was never rebuilt and the resort changed hands again after only fourteen months in 1902 to the Pacific Electric Railway.

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By 1905 there was another fire where they had lost another hotel, the roof of the casino and most of the buildings except the observatory and astronomers cabin. In 1909 came a flash flood which tore out the pavilion at the base of the funicular, killing one of the caretakers’ children. But still, they kept it open, making repairs and improvements to the railway despite there being hardly any facilities left on Echo.

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Remarkably, for a few months 1924, it was the only time the railway had ever been a viable money-maker and not been in the red throughout its entire existence. But then in 1928, another blow came, literally, when strong winds blew down the observatory and in 1936 the Mount Lowe Tavern, the last hotel burned to the ground from an electrical fire. The train operators were kept on the line for a few years to maintain the railway tracks but by they were officially out of business.

In 1941, what remained of the Mount Lowe railway, a “Disneyland of its day”, was sold for salvedge for less than $1000.

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In 1959 the Forestry service began a rampage on the leftover shells of the buildings, dynamiting everything into history as “hazardous nuisances.” The Incline Powerhouse was the last to go in 1962.

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Just the gear mechanism was placed as a monument to the building.

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You can find hints of the incline track, an original rusty trolley car, a stone-carved love seat from one of the hotel terraces where Lowe was once photographed with his wife, the hotel’s old water reservoir and a cement stand where the observatory’s the telescope was mounted upon. Like a treasure trail of clues tracing the history of Mount Lowe railway, the grandest American railway lives on only in a hiking trail.

If you’re not able to make the hike yourself, this video guide can take your on an interesting virtual tour ↑

Visit the Mount Lowe Preservation Society to continue your journey on Earth’s Greatest Mountain Ride. 

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