Mount Lowe Railway
A century ago and just a few canyons to the east of the Crescenta Valley, on the face of the San Gabriel Mountains, was the Mount Lowe Railway – an amazing trolley trip into the clouds.
In the late 1800s, the Crescenta Valley was lazily sleeping in the rocks and sagebrush. But just a couple of miles away existed one of the engineering wonders of the world. It was a tourist attraction on par with Disneyland today – a must-see draw for visitors from all over the world, eventually tallying 3 million visitors in its 45 years of existence. This railway into the mountains was conceived and executed by Professor Thaddeus Lowe, an inventor famed for inventing wartime aerial observation by his use of hot air balloons to observe troop movements during the Civil War. In 1893, with a daring and innovative engineer, he built a series of trolley and cable railways seven miles into the San Gabriel Mountains above Altadena. It was within sight of the Crescenta-Cañada valley, and many of our pioneers rode this incredible mountain railway.
The trolley started in Altadena, ran up to the top of Lake Avenue, then crossed the “Poppy Fields,” which every spring burst into acres of bright orange. The line ended in deep Rubio Canyon where passengers debarked to find a small hotel and pavilion and a series of walkways, bridges and stairways that snaked up Rubio next to and over the canyon’s 11 waterfalls. The passengers then climbed onto the terraced cars of the Great Incline Railway. These cabled funicular cars went straight up the side of Echo Mountain with grades as steep as 62%, for an elevation gain of almost 2,000 feet. When the amazed passengers reached the top of this spectacular climb, they found an elegant 80-room Victorian-style hotel, the Echo Mountain House. Visitors were also treated to the sight of the then-futuristic powerhouse powering the operation, and the huge wheeled mechanisms for the incline railway cables. A restaurant, zoo, and observatory rounded out the attractions. A powerful searchlight was mounted there which was so strong it was said to be able to light up Avalon Harbor on Catalina, and often played across the L.A. basin, lighting up people’s homes and scaring horses. I’m sure it played across the quiet Crescenta Valley more than a few times.
The next leg of the journey had passengers board the narrow gauge Alpine Division trolley cars, which switchbacked and wound tightly up the nearly straight up-and-down mountainside. This thrilling ride could be likened to a slow-motion rollercoaster, with the steep tracks crossing deep canyons via spindly bridges, and high trestles winding out over precipitous cliffs. At the end of this line was the Alpine Tavern, a 12-room Swiss chalet, augmented with tent cottages and cabins spread through the heavily wooded canyon. All number of activities were available here – hiking, horseback riding, tennis, spectacular views from the “sighting tubes” at Inspiration Point and a ride further up the mountain on the “One Man and a Mule” Railway, a mule-drawn car which the mule pulled up the hill, then rode back down on the car with the passengers.
But the San Gabriels are a hostile environment for man-made contraptions such as this railway, and the builders fought constantly against fire, floods and landslides. Because of the cost of building and maintaining the line it never made a profit, and was whittled away and finally abandoned in 1935.
Today, the slowly crumbling ruins of this engineering wonder-of-the-world attracts thousands of hikers each year, and a maze of trails extends up from various points in Altadena to provide never-ending adventure exploring what’s left of the Mount Lowe Railway. The track beds, some with railroad ties still in place, can be easily followed, and the foundations of all the old hotels and their amenities are still visible. Even better, a dedicated band of volunteers have marked the old rail route and have put up signage along the way, with photos of what was once there. It’s a great story from history, and an accessible hiking adventure that is truly in our own backyard.