Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mount Lowe Railway

Debra and I were recently in Pasadena, California. While there we visited The Old Whistle Stop model train store - 1987 was the last time I was there. 
It’s a great store, and when I finally wandered to the back where there is an extensive selection of railroad related books, the first one I saw was the one shown in the opening photo. It was at eye level, staring me right in the face. There was my family name in bright red letters associated with some mountain. Electric trolleys. Open vistas. I wasn’t leaving the store without this. 

I didn’t, and when I had a chance to read a few pages I found the story to be weirder than I had imagined. Well, at least from a coincidence point-of-view.
Here’s what I know so far. There was a man named Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, born in 1832, who was the imagination and money behind an alpine scenic electric trolley line called - naturally enough - the Mount Lowe Railway that started operations in California’s San Gabriel mountains near Pasadena in July 1893. There was an inclined railway, trolley lines, hotels, observatory, overlooks, incredible views, and a grade changing circular bridge, among other things. It appears to have had both a spectacular and troubled history and eventually completely closed down in 1936. So, cool trolley line, so far so good, but, there’s more. 

Turns out that Thaddeus Lowe made his name long before developing his railway as one of the earliest experimenters in lighter-than-air flight. And for some reason he made a number of experimental flights here in Ottawa in 1858. But, apparently, he is most famous for his work in the Union Army’s Balloon Corps where he flew balloons - around 3,000 flights in all - during the American Civil War making observations, taking photos and performing ariel surveys. It struck me as an odd coincidence that this gentleman with whom I share a last name did work with lighter-than-air flight, as I also dabbled in - albeit in a minor way - early in my working life, and some of that was done in Ottawa, Canada, which is where the airship company I worked for was located and where I now live. So, there seemed like a lot of coincidences: last name, trollies, airships, Ottawa. As William Shatner might say, is that weird or what?
Debra also found a book in the store called Mount Lowe Railway which contains a collection of historical photos of scenes and locations from the railway and compares them to recent photos of the same locations. It’s an excellent collection.

From my cursory look through these two books I can imagine a rather nice little tabletop mini-layout that could be built that extracts some key features of the prototype - possibly the horseshoe curve and circular bridge - along with some mountainous western US scenery. I’ve long admired small Japanese tabletop layouts, and this might give me a chance to try to build something in that style. It would be in HO scale, but because the rolling stock would be 4-wheel trollies, the curves could be tight. I’ll have to think about this some more.
{The trailhead is on the far right to the gates of the Cobb Estate}
The staff at the Original Whistle Stop were quite friendly and one gentleman told us there isn’t anything left of the old railway, and this was confirmed by the books. Apparently all that remains is a hiking trail along the old roadbed.
{This covered bench is to the left of the estate gates. It seemed to me to be very similar to the relic streetcar stops in Ottawa.}
The trailhead is at the end of Lake Street in Altadena at the Cobb Estate. I’m told it’s a steep trail and about a 10km round trip - something I hope to attempt if I’m ever back there.

Post script

Debra, the Chief Editorial Officer here at the 30 Squares media empire, reminded me that I shouldn’t make this post without mentioning three important things. 

First, she bought me the two books mentioned in the post. Many thanks again!

Second, she pointed out that she had told me there was a place called Lowe mountain near Pasadena around a year ago, but all I had to say was a firm meh. Although we didn’t know about the trolley and airship aspect at that time, in retrospect, that was not one of my finest moments. 
Third, what was becoming a difficult trip was made a lot better once we relocated to the Pasadena Inn. It’s clean, cheerful, has nice rooms, a friendly staff, lots of parking, very reasonable rates, and is conveniently located near a Whole Foods, restaurants, a comic book store, and the Del Mar light rail station (more on this in a future post). 

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