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Altadena Calling

Altadena Calling
By Chuck Perlee
Pasadena Star News
June 1, 1956

A Trip Up Mt. Lowe 49 Years Ago

Thanks to “the old man of the mountains,” Bob Sturdevant, we shall start a trip up Mt. Lowe tonight.  Bob lent me a copy of “Little Journeys to Our Western Wonderland,” a 1907 textbook written by Felix J. Koch and used throughout the country.

Bob also found a revised edition of the volume, but it’s not anywhere as interesting because the reviser, George Wharton James, was publicity man for Mt. Lowe Ry. And he took out all critical remarks from the original!

Here we go to Mt. Lowe 49 years ago:

“We find that the bald top of Mt. Lowe (Lo) stands 6,100 feet above sea level, and that the Alpine Tavern at the end of the electric railway is 1,100 feet below this summit. The real grade of the trip begins at 60 feet to the 100, and on its greatest steeps we rise 62 feet in every 100.  Statistics are usually uninteresting, but here we are glad to learn that the incline up Mt. Echo has a length of 5,000 feet, while the direct height is 1,400 feet; we also scan the table of heights of other peaks – Mt. Washington’s ascent three miles in length; that of Pilatus, likewise three; up the Schynige Platte the ride is 4.5 miles; while up the Rigivitzenau it is 4.5 miles; at Monte Generosa it is 5.5 miles; the trip to Pike’s Peak is 8.5 miles. From Los Angeles to Alpine Tavern is exactly 25 miles, of which 8 are mountain riding!

“We are thinking of what an appropriate title the Mt. Blanc of the West would be for the object of our trip of today. Before we have gone very far, however, we feel inclined to call it the great American robbers’ nest, for no mountain railway in all the world is worse conducted than is this on Mt. Lowe.  But for missing the gorgeous view, we should do very well to omit. To Pasadena the ride is practically much as we have seen before, but although every one aboard is a tourist who has come to see, the cars take an unattractive sort of “back-alley” route, through uninteresting country, and when in Pasadena they pass through the least attractive streets. Thence we follow a country road, fringed with lemon orchards, and then the steep grade begins and the blossoming apricot trees grow smaller and smaller beneath us, while the clouds become ever nearer. We notice that the soil here is of a yellow and brown hue, strewn with pebbles on the top. Forests now appear, and passing through them we reach Rubio, which is just a pavilion in a valley, at an elevation of 2,200 feet – an elevation as great as that of some of the famous Catskill hotels.

“Here, however, they give us no time to look about, but hurry us into the real mountain-climbing cars. This car consists of three tiers of two benches each, each bench seating five persons. The car stands in a nook surrounded by the forest-covered mountains, where the bubbling of a brook is audible from below. We look up the steep incline, with its three rails, and between each two of these a pair of cables. It is 10:18 am before we start, for the motorman is having a friendly chat with an acquaintance, and the conductor does not care to hurry him. There are numberless such useless delays on the journey. For instance, just when the fog that lies heavily this morning, is beginning to rise and a magnificent view unfolds behind us, the conductor comes around to interrupt our admiration by demanding our tickets. That done, he makes no effort to explain what is seen, but lets our sightseeing take care of itself. By and by we are again enveloped in fog, and then we are at the Searchlight, where we stop for 35 minutes.

“There is, of course, nothing to be seen on misty days such as this. On the belvedere we walk about disconsolate, looking at CLOUDS! We ramble over the site of the great fire when the tavern was burnt. We pick up pebbles and throw then into the valleys, we wonder why we are making this useless stop, and we are thoroughly disgusted that we have come, when we finally step into an open summer car of 11 benches, each holding five persons, and prepare to ascend.  Still, however, we wait and wait, hearing only the wind and seeing from our vantage point only a tent beside the wheels at the head of the incline.

“We are, as it were, hugging the mountainside and incessantly turning and ascending. Here and there we catch a glimpse of the little valley through the fog. It is like looking into a vast steam kettle, from which the mists emerge.  This, however, is just a regular winding electric line, instead of a great inclined plane, as was the other section, and it gives us a ride among the trees, scrub-oak for the most part, and makes a horse-shoe curve over the pine tops.

“The conductor does not care to have the trouble of wiping a moist seat or two, and so despite our angry protests he lowers a great wall of canvas on each side of the car, and thus boxed in without a chance to see anything but our seats and our neighbors, we are carried up Mt. Lowe. Later, when he gets within sight of the top, and fears, perhaps, some stray inspector, he raises the curtain; and we can see rocks dripping with fog and covered with fern, and note squirrels in treetops, and there perceive a loop of our own track below. Finally, at 11:51 am, in order that we may be obliged to take dinner there we come out at the Alpine Tavern. It is a most beautiful spot, a dense pin oak wilderness in the wilds.

“The summit of Mt. Lowe’s like a bit of Switzerland transplanted to the Far West. The Tavern is built like a Swiss chalet – its upper story of light yellow wood. In the reception room a great log fire burns upon heavy andirons. A kettle swings over the fire, upon its crane, as in ‘Whittier’s Snowbound.’  A great wooden chimney-piece reaches to the ceiling, and above it the words: ‘Ye Ornament of the House is Ye Guests Who Doth Frequent It.’

“Of course, our appetite impels us at once to dine, after which we start on a walk to the top of Mt. Lowe. We might hire a burro for this purpose, but prefer stretching our rather stiff limbs, and so take to the poor man’s carriage and start precisely at 12:39 pm.

“A steep, gravelly trail leads through the brown earth-bank and among tangles of oaks, so that it is often hard to find the way. By and by, however, we find that we are in the very heart of the mountains. Chain on chain of granite peaks, looking like white or pink marble, rise out of the forest of oaks. We get a brief view and then the fog falls and all is hidden, and, as on our ascent of the Meeraudgerspitze, we are soon walking on the brink of what seems like a bottomless abyss. By half-past one it begins to pour, so we have to turn back and run for cover.

“Hardly are we safely at the tavern before it begins to hail. The hail is sharp and fine and sticks deep in places. It is cozy at the windows now, listening to the beating of the hail-stones on the pane and the cracks of the logs here within.

“Another carload of people comes up and in, wet from the trip. They dry off before the sweet, balsam-breathing logs, while mountain tales are recounted. At half-past four, however, there is a noticeable clearing out of the tourists, for the last down-car leaves then and only those remaining overnight will be left.

“The sun has by this time come out again, and we once more make the climb to the top. An electric railway to this summit is projected, we are told, so we wish to go in pioneer fashion, while we may. We find that holly bushes and manzanita make their appearance beyond the point where the hailstorm routed us, and while the thunder rumbles on other mountains, we scale a narrow rocky trail, zig-zagging ever below us as we ascend, to points where the valley is unfolded in all its beauty. Our hearts are pumping with the altitude as much as with the climb, so we stop to rest a moment on the rock.

“At one place we pass through a grove of fine oaks, and to these we find every passerby has hung his visiting card. So, we add our cards.

“After a considerable journey, we are on the very top, an open area with some old barren trees and a flag staff minus Old Glory. It is now 5:10 pm. But down the mountain is always faster than up, so at 5 minutes to 6 we are back at the tavern.”

Note: A copy of the revised version of “Little Journeys to Our Western Wonderland can be found at the Altadena Historical Society archives.