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He had been an aeronaut and inventor before his California bust.

Professor T.S.C. Lowe was a man of lofty vision. In his youth he founded what could be called the first American air force, with George Custer as a copilot. But his last project, which also involved taking people for rides into the sky, brought him down for good and left him branded an eccentric rather than the genius he was. The financial crash of the Mount Lowe Railway on the hills overlooking Los Angeles marked the terminus of an otherwise successful career as an aeronaut and inventor.

Thaddeus Lowe, born in 1832, was a Romantic from the start. His New Hampshire parents were of 17th-century pilgrim stock. His grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War, and his father had been a drummer boy in the War of 1812. Lowe’s full name—Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe—was taken from Thaddeus of Warsaw, an 1803 novel about the struggle for Polish independence by Jane Porter. Lowe’s earliest struggle was to get an education. He was needed for farm work, thus limiting his schooling to the three winter months. But like Abraham Lincoln he read voraciously. Lowe’s first job was as a shoe cutter, but at 18 he attended a lecture by a Professor Reginald Dinkelhoff about lighter-than-air gases, specifically hydrogen. Lowe volunteered out of the audience, and Dinkelhoff was so impressed that he took Lowe on the road as an assistant. Two years later Lowe bought out Dinkelhoff and billed himself THADDEUS SOBIESKI COULINCOURT LOWE, PROFESSOR OF CHEMISTRY.

After a brief stint studying medicine, which bored him, “Dr.” Lowe used his skill in chemistry to lecture about nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas), a painkiller that also made people silly to the amusement of their friends. In 1855 he met and married Leontine Augustine Gaschon, a pretty Parisian who proved as fearless as the professor himself. Lowe built his first balloon in Hoboken, N.J., in 1857 and aspired to cross the Atlantic. But the Civil War intervened. Seeking to aid the Union, Lowe won over Abraham Lincoln by sending a telegraph to him from the aerostat Enterprise, tethered 500 feet above the White House. Lowe’s first fight was Bull Run, where the shifting tide of battle compelled him to land Enterprise behind enemy lines. Leontine, a sometime actress before their marriage, disguised herself as a hag and drove a buckboard to retrieve Lowe and his collapsed balloon. Soon Lowe operated first four and then six balloons for the Union Army Balloon Corps, spying out Confederate positions.

One of his early airborne observers was Captain George A. Custer—probably because few others were bold enough to fly in such a contraption. “The aeronaut announced that all was ready,” Custer recalled. “He inquired whether I desired to go up alone, or he should accompany me. My desire, if frankly expressed, would have been not to go up at all; but if I was to go, company was certainly desirable. With an attempt at indifference, I intimated that he might go along.”

Custer got accustomed to ballooning. Lowe got malaria. He and Leontine returned to New Hampshire to recover. Disputes over his pay and hiring decisions led Lowe to retire in 1863. His best balloonists, the Allen brothers, couldn’t make the corps work without Lowe, and the operation ended after Gettysburg.

Lowe moved to Norristown, Pa., and invented and patented ice-making machines and a number of chemical processes, including the generation of water gas, which revolutionized home heating and lighting in the days before the electric light. The patents made him rich, though practical implementation was something else again. His venture to use a refrigerator ship to take beef from Galveston, Texas, to New York and return to Texas with fresh fruit was a financial fiasco for Lowe, but others who ignored his patent protection made fortunes.

Lowe headed West in 1887, moving to Los Angeles—then a somewhat sleepy town—and by 1890 was living in Pasadena, Calif., an even sleepier town with a balmy climate and great natural beauty. He built a 24,000-square-foot mansion, started a water gas company and several ice-making plants, founded the Citizens Bank of Los Angeles and bought an opera house. He prospered mightily—until he took off on what would be his last flight.

Los Angeles lies in a great basin surrounded by mountains—one reason rain can’t get in and smog can’t get out—and Lowe dreamed of a scenic short-haul railroad that would take tourists on excursions to the crest of these ranges. David J. MacPherson, a civil engineer with a degree from Cornell, had the same dream, and when he and Lowe met, they worked out a plan to use some of Lowe’s ample money to take tourists on a scenic climb not related to ballooning. The visionary railroad—actually a trolley line—would feature seven miles of track, starting in Altadena at a station called Mountain Junction, climbing steep Lake Avenue and crossing the poppy fields to Rubio Canyon. There the 12-room Rubio Pavilion hotel welcomed guests. The braver tourists could then take a funicular— a dizzying cable railway—to the Echo Mountain promontory. Those who braved the funicular could choose from two hotels—the 40-room Echo Chalet or the 70-room Echo Mountain House. Topside attractions included a zoo of local animals, an observatory, a casino, a dance hall, car barns, dormitories and repair shops for the trams. A connecting trolley line, the Alpine Division, led to the upper terminus at Crystal Springs and Ye Alpine Tavern, a 22-room Swiss chalet that offered tennis courts, shuffleboard, mule rides and a wading pool.

It was visionary. It was expensive. It was very bad business. From its opening on July 4, 1893, the Mount Lowe Railway operated at a loss. For openers, getting to the Altadena point of departure was a hardship in itself. The only train to the point of departure ran twice a day, and people generally used horses and buggies to reach the station—which excluded the working-class. Lowe had borrowed a lot of the money at 10.5 percent interest, and the $5 fare—a half-week’s wages for a workingman in 1893, the year of a depression—didn’t cover the costs of construction and operation. People worried about feeding their families didn’t have $5 to invest in ogling fenced-in rattlesnakes and coyotes, not hard to find elsewhere.

Funiculars were a tough sell to people who had never flown in a balloon. The famous Neapolitan song “Funiculì, Funiculà,” composed to mark the earlier opening of an Italian cable railway, tells the story of a jilted Italian lover who takes a funicular ride to forget his cares. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go to the top!” he enthuses. Most Californians without a death wish didn’t feel that way about funiculars. Still, an estimated 3 million people ultimately rode the railway—but even the sky high admission fee couldn’t cover Lowe’s high-interest loan.

Lowe never made a dime during the seven years he ran the railroad. He went into receivership several times before bowing out to financier Jared S. Torrance in 1899. The next year the grossly underinsured Echo Mountain House burned down, never to be rebuilt. Valentine Payton of Danville, Ill., bought the railway at auction, then sold it 14 months later to Henry Huntington of the Pacific Electric Railway.

Lowe held onto the observatory, but that never made money either. In his twilight years the pioneer of ballooning, home gas heating, lighting and the ice-making machine moved in with his daughter due to his own financial devastation. He died in 1913. The gallant Leontine died a year later. Lowe’s fortune was metaphorically on ice, but his future remained in the clouds. Granddaughter Pancho Lowe Barnes became a top-flight aviatrix. By the time Lowe died, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, who had seen Lowe’s balloons during the Civil War, was operating a commercial airship service like the one Lowe had dreamed of 60 years before. The German count’s hydrogen-filled zeppelins eventually crossed the Atlantic, just as Lowe had dreamed.

Lowe’s old railway officially closed in 1938 when floods washed whatever remained down the mountainside, nearly claiming its caretakers. In 1993, exactly 100 years after its grand opening, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.