Return to ERHA homepage
 Pacific Electric logoPacific Electric
Mount Lowe Line

Pacific Electric 1918 brochure

"Looking southward to the sunlands, on the ocean's ebb and flow,
Keeping watch o'er Echo Mountain, dwells the spirit of Mt. Lowe;
In the glowing light of noonday, in the midnight calm and lone,
Gazing outward from the summit like a ruler from his throne."
—From "Dawn on Mt. Lowe" by James G. Clark

Once world famous, now forgotten—such is the story of the well-nigh incredible mountain railway which at the height of its popularity was Southern California's outstanding tourist magnet, attracting more visitors 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 Prof. T. S. C. Lowe.

From Los Angeles to Pasadena, Mt. Lowe Line cars followed the Oak Knoll Line to Fair Oaks & Colorado Street, then turned north on Fair Oaks to Mariposa, to Lake, to private way, to Rubio Canyon (MP 18.88). Here passengers transferred to the incline railway which took them up to Echo Mountain (MP 19.38). Another transfer, this time to an open car, saw them continue via Cape of God Hope (MP 20.25), -Dawn (MP 20.61), Circular Bridge (MP 21.15), Granite Gate (MP 22.00) to the terminus at Alpine Tavern (MP 22.95). The return tip was the reverse of this routing as far as Colorado & Fair Oaks, Pasadena; from here Mt. Lowe cars followed the route of the Pasadena Short Line to LA, making their inbound mileage slightly less-"-2"1.15. On January 1, 1932, Mt. Lowe cars were rerouted outbound to the Pasadena Short Line.

In 1891 Lowe built a 3'6" gauge trolley line from the altadena station of the LA Terminal Railway to Rubio Canyon, where he proposed to locate the transfer point between the streetcars and the incline cars. In the winter of 1891 his forces began the tedious work of constructing the incline railway up the steep mountainside to the summit of Echo Mountain, 1300 feet above. After working steadily for 18 months, Lowe opened the incline railway on July 4, 1893. Atop Echo Mountain he graded (at a cost of $30,000) a site for a large hotel which was built in 1894: the Echo Mountain House—forty rooms, three stories with large corner dome, of pine semi-rustic construction. At the Rubio canyon transfer Lowe built a smaller hotel and pavilion. Lowe's forces immediately pushed onward toward Mt. Lowe building a 3'6" gauge electric railway destined to run 3.6 miles onward from Echo Mountain; at its upper terminus he built the $700,000 Alpine Tavern and opened it in 1896 His money almost gone, Lowe could not afford to lay rails up to the summit, 2.5 miles further. This work was done by Lowe under the corporate name of "The Pasadena & Mt. Wilson Railway", although the road was popularly known as simply "The Mt. Lowe Railway". Power was generated first by gasoline engine-operated generators, next by generators operated by water power, and finally by 200 hp gas engines coupled to generators; gas was piped up to Echo Mountan via a pipe line from Lowe's gas works in Pasadena.

Lowe lost control of his mountain railway project in 1896 when the vital franchise to build a connecting electric railway from Altadena to Pasadena went to the Pasadena & Los Angeles Electric Railway interests instead of to him. The mountain railway's fate was tied in with that of the P&LA thereafter, and became a PE property in 1902.

Under PE ownership, the Mt. Lowe was greatly improved: the electric railway from Pasadena to Rubio Canyon was standardized, the Altadena substation took over the power supply, the Alpine Tavern was enlarged, and the single-truck mountain railway cars were replaced by double-truck cars built especially for the service by PE, having flanges twice as deep as customary. As the years went by tragedy struck again and again. A great fire in 1900 consumed Echo Mountain House. In 1905 another conflagration destroyed the cable power house and part of the incline railway; the line was closed from December 19 to January 3, 1906, and never again did Echo Mountain enjoy its former status as a popular vacation spot. A huge landslide engulfed the Rubio Hotel in 1907 and it was not rebuilt. Fires repeatedly destroyed the trestles and roadbed, and windstorms tore down trolley poles, toppled trees and the tracks, and even demolished the famous observatory Lowe had on Echo Mountain. In spite of difficulties such as these, the railway operated with out an accident. The final blow came on September 15, 1936, when the Alpine Tavern burned to the ground, destroying one of California's most famous landmarks. The railway itself was largely destroyed by a cloudburst in March, 1938; the swirling torrent raged through the ruins of the tavern and swept down the canyon to carry away two of the major bridges and wash out the roadbed. A month later PE formally abandoned the Mt. Lowe Line. Rails and cars were dismantled and sold for scrap, and today only ruins mark the route of the one-time "Railway to the Clouds".

I - Los Angeles to Rubio Canyon:
   From 1891 to 1896 Lowe's single-truck open cars ran from Altadena to Rubio; these seated 35 and climbed the 7% climbed the grade without difficulty. When the Pasadena & Los Angeles took over the line in 1896 it operated cars through from Rubio to Pasadena, but aside from special movements, no attempt appears to have been made to give LA passengers through service until 1903, when PE completed standardizing the line. PE re-laid Altadena-Rubio with 60-lb. rail, straightened the line in numerous places and double-tracked it as far as Perco, the mouth of the canyon. At this time PE assigned beefed-up California cars to the LA-Rubio run. California cars continued in this service until June 19, 1925, when suburban cars 456-465 were assigned; these continued until the end. Best year: 1921, when 160,930 passengers were carried. Mt. Lowe cars operated from Pasadena to Altadena via N. Fair Oaks, Mariposa, and Lake—although it was possible for access to be gained to the Rubio line via Lake from Colorado. PE for many years operated the Mt. Lowe Line as a separate division; this Alpine Division, as it was called, had its headquarters at Alpine Tavern, and its superintendent was also the manager of the Tavern. During most of the years it operated, the Mt. Lowe Line ran five trains daily from LA. 8:00, 9:00 and 10:00 AM with two in the afternoon: 1:30 and 4:00 PM with extra service Sundays and holidays as required. On the return trip, trains left Mr. Lowe at 8:50 and 10:00 AM; 2:00 and 4:30 PM, with one additional car from Rubio Canyon at 11:30 AM. The entire trip from 6th & Main to Alpine Tavern took one hour and 57 minutes for the 24.01 miles. This was divided up as follows: LA-Pasadena (54 minutes), Pasadena-Rubio (5.88 miles, 25 minutes), Rubio-Echo Mountain (0.53 miles, 10 minutes), while Echo-Alpine was covered in 30 minutes for the 3.57 miles. In the early days a substation atop Echo Mountain furnished power, but PE built the Altadena substation in 1905 and thereafter it supplied all power for the mountain railway.

II - Rubio-Echo Mountain:
   The incline railway rose 1300 feet in a distance of 3000 feet—from 2200 feet elevation at Rubio to a 3500 feet elevation at Echo. The grade began at 60% rose to 62% just above the automatic turnout, then decreased to 58% and finally to 48%. Two cars were originally used, the "Echo" and the"Rubio". n 1920 a third car, "Alpine", was constructed so as to have a spare. Echo and Rubio were rebuilt in 19192. The cars seated 30, had special trucks, safety clutch brakes and weight 11,900 lbs. The two cars were attached to an endless steel cable having a capacity of a hundred tons, but never loaded to exceed 5 tons. As an additional safeguard, there was a still larger stationary cable which worked through an automatic clutch under the car. The tracks consisted of three rails (four at the turnout) which rested on stringers which were framed into the ties supporting them to prevent the track from creeping. At the top of the incline stood the Echo Mountain Power House with its equipment of ingenious machinery. The 100 hp electric motor revolved at 500 turns per minute; a series of gears and pinions reduced this speed so that when it reached the "bull wheel" around which the cable revolved, it was cut to but 13 rmp. This huge wheel was nine feet in diameter and to it were attached 72 automatic grips, so arranged that 45 of them gripped the cable at the same time. A powerful friction brake controlled the machinery. Automatic safety devices were incorporated; one of these was the speed regulator which could stop the cars automatically if a certain speed was exceeded—or if the engineer should fail to stop the cars at the proper place. The engineer had a miniature railway in front of him, showing him the exact location of the two cars at all times. All this machinery was inspected at regular intervals; once each week the machinery in the power house was gone over very carefully; once a month the automatic clutches under the cars were tested, and a monthly inspection was made of the brake mechanism on the bull wheel and of the track lever just ahead of the car platform at Echo Mountain; the latter, when hit by a car, cut off the electric motor and applied the brake to the bull wheel. The pulling cable lasted from three to four years, after which it was discarded and sold to outside parties for further use in lumber camps, mines, etc.; this would indicate that PE was not taking nearly all the use from its cables as they were capable of giving.

III - Echo Mountain-Alpine Tavern:
   The trolley ride from Echo Mountain to Alpine Tavern was one of the most thrilling and scenic to be found anywhere in the world. Following the natural contours of the mountains, winding in and out of the little side canyons, crossing 18 trestles and rounding 127 curves (the longest stretch of straight track being but 225 feet), a climbing of 1500 feet from an elevation of 3500 feet at Echo Mountain to 5000 feet at Alpine Tavern, was quite remarkable. Two notable construction features were on this section: the Circular Bridge and Granite Gateway. The Circular Bridge was considered quite a daring thing in its day. Here some way of reaching a higher level on the same side of the mountain was essential, or further progress was impossible. The idea was conceived of building a bridge circular in form on a 4.5% grade with a radius of 75 feet. A canyon many hundreds of feet deep was on the outer side and passengers had the sensation of being suspended in mid-air as the car made this bold curve in perfect safety. Thousands of cubic feet of solid granite were blasted away in constructing the roadway through Granite Gateway. A perpendicular wall of granite was on the inner side, while beyond overhanging rocks on the outer side was a perpendicular drop 1500 feet deep and a little more than a mile across—Mt. Lowe Line's own Grand Canyon! On the opposite side was the summit of Mt. Lowe, while Alpine Tavern was at the head of this canyon. Alpine Tavern was "nestled in a glen of exceeding beauty, and watched over by great trees... (It was) a rare bit of Swiss architecture one of the finest mountain resorts to be found on this continent. Here are found all the conveniences of a modern hotel, bell boys, electricity, hot and cold running water, private baths and an excellent heating system..." It attracted travelers from far and near, and many hundreds of famous names were inscribed in its guest book. The Bungalow (a large modern cottage) and forty small cottages surrounded the Tavern. Radiating from the living area were numerous hikers' trails, leading back into the nearby mountains in an elaborate gridiron. Cars used on the upper division were 3'6" gauge. Lowe put on single truckers, but PE considered them unsafe and built double-truckers 30-32 in 1906 and a similar car 33 in 1912. These were 32' long and weighed 29,300 lbs. They seated sixty and had a baggage rack outboard at each end. They were completely open to afford the best possible view. Aiding them was motor flat 1520, which carried supplies up to the Tavern. All cars were maintained at Echo Mountain. Cars required 30 minutes to make the 3.57 miles between Echo Mountain and Alpine Tavern. Crews worked out of Ye Alpine Tavern.

Return to ERHA homepage