Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Name Origins for the Peaks Around Us – Part 4

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

On our next name discovery tour of the San Gabriel Mountains we move onto the front range, just to the east of the Crescenta Valley. Brown Mountain and Mt. Lowe are quite historic and have great stories behind them. They’re just west of Mount Wilson.

Brown Mountain is the first peak that you see on your right (across the Arroyo) as you start up the Angeles Crest Highway. It’s named for John Brown, the famous abolitionist who lit the fuse of the Civil War.

The earliest settler near the base of Brown Mountain was a black man by the name of Robert Owen in 1854. Owen had been born a slave in Texas and, through incredibly hard work and ingenuity, was able to earn enough money to buy his own freedom. Leaving his wife and children behind still in slavery he moved to Los Angeles where he soon earned enough to purchase their freedom as well. Owen built up a business supplying wood to Los Angeles and buying real estate. Before his death in 1865, he became the wealthiest black man in L.A. County. Next to move to the base of Brown Mountain were Jason and Owen Brown, sons of the famed abolitionist, in the early 1880s. Owen Brown had been a participant in the disastrous Harper’s Ferry Raid but had never been captured. The two brothers lived simply, farming, hiking and enjoying nature. There is a certain irony that this mountain was first settled by a freed slave, and next by the sons of the man that became an icon of freedom for slaves. Owen Brown died there in 1889 and, fulfilling his wishes, was buried on the side of Brown Mountain. His grave, marked by a carved granite stone, became a Mecca for history buffs and civil rights pilgrims and, although there were moves made to make a national monument of the site, it never went through. In 2002 the land where the grave lay was purchased by a property owner completely hostile to visitors. Soon after that, Owen Brown’s grave marker suspiciously disappeared.

Next to Brown Mountain to the east is the historic Mt. Lowe, one of the hottest tourist destinations in turn of the century Los Angeles. Mt. Lowe was named for “Professor” Thaddeus Lowe on his first ascent of the peak in 1892. Professor Lowe was a scientist and inventor famed for his pioneering aerial reconnaissance via hot air balloon during the Civil War. Soon after his ascent of Mt. Lowe, the professor conceived and executed what was then considered one of the greatest engineering wonders of the world, an electrified railway into the heights of the San Gabriels. From downtown Los Angeles a two-hour ride took tourists nearly to the top of Mt. Lowe, through deep canyons and around precipitous ridgelines, with hotels and attractions scattered along the route. At the top a Swiss-style inn and tavern greeted the visitors, and invited them to explore a network of trails and spectacular overlooks. Sadly Lowe lost money on the venture, and by 1900 the Pacific Electric gained control of the railway and poured vast sums of money into it. It had some great years as Southern California’s most popular tourist attraction, but the mountains fought the railway with fire and flood, and by 1936 the Mt. Lowe Railway was no more. One can still hike the route of the old railway and the foundations of the hotels and taverns are still there. This hike, though strenuous, is a wonderful walk through one of the best pieces of history in the L.A. area. You can follow the old rail-beds and imagine what an amazing ride this must have been. A few of the old attractions along the route have even been restored and rebuilt by Mt. Lowe Railway enthusiasts making for destinations worth the long hike.

These two peaks are amazing for their historical significance, but both pale when compared to the astronomical history made at Mt. Wilson, which I’ll talk about next week.