Leontine Augustine Gachon Lowe. Who was she? Or more exactly, why is she an important figure in American history?
People around the world know about Thaddeus Lowe, the great inventor, balloonist and builder of the Mt. Lowe Railway and its vacation complex. But, as they say, “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” Leontine was his wife as well as the great woman behind and advocate of Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe.
Leontine was born in Paris, November 30, 1835 to Louise Flavie Chazai and Leon Gachon. Her father worked as a palace guard for Louis Philippe, known as the Citizen King of this portion of France. When Leontine was 12, the citizens of France revolted against Louis Philippe, forcing the Gachon family to escape the country. Two years later she emigrated to the U.S. on August 14, 1849 and at age 14 became a citizen on the 18th of September, 1856.
Once Leontine was in America she began to show great interest in science and attended Professor Lowe’s science show in New York with her parents. It was here she met Thaddeus Lowe. Within weeks of meeting, they were wed by a justice of the peace on Feb. 14, 1855. It was the beginning of a life-long partnership and for them both, a great adventure ride.
They began their adventures together with a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi on their honeymoon, the Professor performing science shows with his bride assisting him, and Leontine doing her own marionette theatre.
From there they went to New York where Thaddeus resumed his studies of aeronautics and Leontine sewed and cut patterns with him for their first aerostat. Together they created a growing business that eventually supplied hot air balloons to others across the country.
A year after they married, Leontine gave birth to their first child, Louise F. Lowe, the first of ten children (0ne died in childhood) they would have over a span of 21 years. When their second child, Ida, was born the family moved to better accommodations and hired a nurse, a cook and a maid.
While raising and educating their children, Thaddeus and Leontine continued their adventures with Thaddeus’s balloon flights and his experiments with refrigeration and water gas inventions, while enjoying the extreme success that came from the sales of his inventions.
During the Civil War, Thaddeus attempted his first free-flight in his balloon, The Enterprise, over Confederate territory. He notified Leontine of his intended flight and she decided to visit Fort Corcoran in northern Virginia to see him. While she watched her husband prepare for the launch, Lowe could tell she was concerned and reassured her he would be back in time for supper. By late afternoon he was still in flight, having been pulled several times in different directions by changing winds.
He landed, but not in great ballooning style. Rather, he crashed into a tree in enemy territory. He was later discovered, thankfully by a Union regiment, but then dismayed because they had no easy way to move him with his sprained foot. And who came to save the day? Leontine! She had devised a plan approved by the fort’s commander, but Lowe had no knowledge about a plan to rescue him. A splint was made by Union soldiers for Lowe’s ankle and he and his balloon were hidden in a cornfield to await rescue. Thaddeus spent a lonely and anxious night waiting while Confederate soldiers passed by close enough to keep him on alert as well as anxious.
Morning finally dawned and he began to hear the clip-clop of a horse’s feet and a wagon. And there it was! A wagon driven by an old farm woman, a local searching for firewood, most likely a rebel sympathizer, thought Thaddeus. So he hid himself.
Then, just as the woman was about to pass, Lowe received one of those intuitive messages that a husband and wife seem to be able to sense from each other. When their eyes finally met, he knew it was Leontine. She signaled for him not to speak and stay where he was.
Leontine continued to drive the wagon into some bushes and they greeted each other with whispers and an embrace. Thaddeus was impressed by her disguise. Not only did she look like a down-at-the-heels farm woman, but she smelled like one.
Leontine explained that she had to mask her sweet scent of lavender with liberal helpings of cow manure. She reminded her husband that she had aspired to be an actress before she married him.
While they moved the basket and balloon into the wagon in the midday heat, he was impressed by the physical strength of his wife. Determinedly, Leontine mounted the wagon seat and with the crack of the reins started down the road to their eventual freedom.
Leontine was stopped several times, searched and then released as she wandered the countryside trying her best to avoid any enemy encampments or wandering rebel soldiers. Late in the afternoon they were met by a cavalry patrol and escorted back to the Union Camp. An adventure to be sure, but not the most pleasant one they had experienced!
Due partially to ill health as well as his growing business, Thaddeus moved to California in 1877. He brought Leontine and the youngest children (not yet married) to join him. The family mansion in Norristown, PA where they had been living was put up for sale, the asking price being $16-20,000, depending on the amount of land the buyer desired to go with it.
The Lowes moved to Pasadena and settled into a home on South Marengo, but Thaddeus wanted his own house built and began plans for a grand mansion at 955 South Orange Grove Blvd. Once completed, the family sprawled in 23,000 square feet of space.
The Lowe’s, now in their mid 50’s, found themselves in the center of the Pasadena 1880s social scene. Thaddeus had his gas business and with their son, Thad Jr., they owned and operated the Pasadena Grand Opera House. On Thanksgiving 1894, The Lowe’s home in Pasadena was given a lavish write up in “The Troy [N.Y.] Daily News”.
“Professor Lowe’s palatial home in Pasadena, besides being luxuriously furnished and decorated with rare and costly paintings and articles of virtu [productions of art, especially of a curious or antique nature] contains a rare museum of minerals, precious stones, Indian relics, shells, and other curios – all collected by Mrs. Lowe. She is of noble French birth, and early in life developed rare powers of observation and study.
“As a child, she would make any sacrifice to possess interesting mineral specimens and curious stone formations. Later on, this taste became a passion, which her husband’s large fortune enabled her to indulge. Mineralogy has been her favorite pastime, and she has fine specimens from every mine in the world.”
Leontine was a serious student of science and a prodigious collector. Her collections grew from shells and butterflies, to Indian baskets and rugs, rock and minerals, all filling their home to capacity. (The large basement in their Pasadena house was built specifically to house these collections.) She continued to add to her collection of Indian artifacts at such a prodigious rate that it was thought to be the largest collection in the world – baskets, blankets, shells and more. At the time, the Smithsonian considered her collections to be the best of their kinds. Later in life, she refused an offer of $150,000 for the entire collection, which was being housed in the Opera House block of New York.
Leontine was filled with curiosity, not only about what she collected, but where it came from. And it was her inquisitiveness that led her to travel around the world in 1890. She visited Japan, China, Singapore, Penang, Madera, and Ceylon, India. Then she went on to the Upper Nile in Nubia, and spent a considerable amount of time in Egypt, Palestine, Jerusalem and Ephesus in Greece. All this was done in just one year! And at a time where it was unheard of for a woman to be travelling alone, especially a mother of ten!
Grand openings, gala affairs, and grandchildren seemed to take up the next few years for Leontine when A.C. (Adam Clark) Vroman, whom she had met in his Pasadena bookstore, invited her along to witness the Hopi Snake dance in the Moqui county of Arizona in 1895. Of course, she said yes!
Now, Leontine had seen hardship before, but she probably recoiled at the thought of the whole party traveling together in a single lumber wagon drawn by draft horses to the Hopi mesas. After the first days of the excursion, a photo captured a very tired Leontine with a fan sitting in the back of the room.
Dressed in Victorian style, their party looked quite different fr0m the native Indians they came to observe. Men in business suits and ties and Leontine in a dress walking the dusty paths between the adobe houses and naked children, scavenging dogs and nursing babies made quite a stark contrast to each other. They did quite a bit of hiking, discovering pictographs, collecting specimens and souvenirs and photographing (mostly done by A.C. Vroman). At the end of the trip, they all went home with their newly acquired treasures and the memories of a wonderful trip.
Leontine died in San Francisco on May 16, 1912 at the age of 77 years. The next year Thaddeus followed her. They were survived by ten of their children: Louise Faruco (Lowe) Gleim, Ida Alpha Lowe, Leon Percival Lowe, Ava Eugenia Lowe, Augustine Margaret Lowe, Blanche Marie (L0we) Wright, Thaddeus Lowe Jr., Edna Mabelle (Lowe) Wright, Zoe Elsie (Lowe) Brown, and Sobieski Constantine Lowe.
On April 14, 1914, an auction was held in San Francisco to sell their library and art. Leontine’s collections of baskets, Southwestern pottery, textiles, and other Native American items were auctioned on March 31, 1914 at the Sutter Street Salesrooms in San Francisco.
The sales catalog listed 1,719 lots including 1,430 baskets. It appears that William Fitzhugh, a trustee of the California Academy of Sciences and a wealthy San Francisco businessman bought Leontine’s entire collection. He offered it “on loan” to the Academy shortly thereafter, where it was displayed until 1934.
William Fitzhugh died in 1929 and in 1936 his widow authorized the sale of the collection, except the baskets, to the Museum of the American Indian in New York. This museum is now part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. The sale included some 8,000 items that included items that Fitzhugh added to the Lowe collection.
The combined collections of baskets are last mentioned in Academy records in October, 1938 at which time they were still in storage at the California Academy of Sciences. It appears that the Fitzhugh family eventually took possession and sold the basket collection piecemeal to many museums and private collections.
Poleskie, Stephen, The Balloonist, 2007, ISBN 978-1-929490-27-1, Frederic C. Beil, Publisher, Inc.
The Pasadena Evening Star, April 18, 1900
UP MOUNT LOWE, Troy, New York, Thanksgiving, 1894, The Troy Daily Times.
Russell P. Harman, Senior Collections Manager, Department of Anthropology, California Academy of Sciences.