The Climb to Cloud Land
Pasadena Star News
September 17, 1961
Twenty five years ago, on Sept. 15, 1936, the Star-News told its readers: “Mount Lowe Tavern lay in smoking ruins today, totally destroyed by a swift-moving fire of suspected incendiary origin that swept through the world famous resort shortly after 2 o’clock this morning.”
With this blaze, a leisure-seeking era vanished, the oft acclaimed “In all the world no mountain trolley trip like this” had crashed to a fiery death. And it was never rebuilt.
Many area residents will remember the thrilling climb from Rubio Canyon to some 4420 feet up and into the mountain; the relaxation that greeted them on arrival at “Ye Alpine Tavern” just 1100 feet below the summit of Mount Lowe; the majestic view of all San Gabriel Valley below. Your Scene Reporter sought out one such individual for a first person account of this scenic mountain trip.
William Bassler, a 37-year veteran of Alhambra, vividly recalls in detail the spectacular mountain climb via railway to Mount Lowe and his hike on up to Inspiration Point above Alpine Tavern. He was willing to share his account with us.
“As a high school lad,” Bill commenced, “I gazed almost daily at the mountains, wondering what a long narrow streak of about 45 degree angle and rising almost one-third the height of the mountain could be. One could also observe two shiny white objects moving up and down this stear, and I inquired as to its identity. When told it was Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe’s Incline railway to Mount Lowe, operated by Pacific Electric Railway, I knew then I would not be at ease until I had explored it for myself.”
Bill went to work in McHan’s (SP) feed store, then at Raymond and Main Streets Alhambra, with but a single thought – save money to ride that mountain railway.
“Finally, I managed to save the required amount and was then ready to treat my mother to a jaunt around the mountain while satisfying myself. The round trip fare was $2.50 each, and you know what $5 was to a boy in those days. But I was already convinced that it would be well spent, he said.
“We couldn’t buy tickets at Alhambra P.E. station, so starting at Sierra Vista, tickets were purchased from the conductor on the trolley. These tickets were similar to ones used one cross-country train rides, folded and detached at junction points along the line. The trolley cars weren’t the usual type used by P.E. on regular rounds. They had been rebuilt for this particular excursion and lettered “Mount Lowe” with a small metal sign below the motorman’s window reading “Rubio Canyon” and equipped with plush seats and strained glass upper windows.
“A trip through Pasadena was considered important. After turning off Huntington Drive at El Molino, we were favored, with the beautiful Oak Knoll residential section along Oak Knoll Avenue, where riders could but marvel at the stately homes. After reaching Lake and Colorado, we could have continued north, but a ride through downtown Pasadena was deemed a focal point at the excursion. Such important structures as Maryland Hotel, Presbyterian Church and the Star-News building were pointed out by the conductor.”
Bill remembers that a two-car train had been provided for the trip, the front car carrying some Pasadena bound patrons although both cars were scheduled through to Rubio Canyon. At the old Pasadena car house on Fair Oaks, the front car was detached and continued north while the rear car awaited a motorman. This took about five minutes; then the car went north on Fair Oaks to Mariposa. Bill later learned this separation was necessary as the voltage wasn’t sufficient to operate the two cars uphill together.
“At Mariposa and Santa Rose, it was all right for the trolley to stop in the middle of the intersection while the conductor explained Santa Rosa’s role as Christmas Tree Lane. After reaching Mount Lowe Drive and Maiden Lane, where remnants of the right of way may yet be seen, the mountain climb really began. We edged along the rim of the mountains until reaching Rubio Canyon. This is where I met the “narrow streak” that I had watched so often from below,” Bill explained.
The little “white objects” turned out to be small incline counter-balance cars that would whisk Bill and other tourists up to Echo Mountain. The conductor gave us a lecture on the cable cars, emphasizing that after he had signaled the operator at Echo Mountain there would be no warning as to when the cars would start. Pulling an emergency cord would be the only way to halt the car. This had to do when a woman passenger suddenly became frightened and attempted to jump off the moving car. The ride was steep but enjoyable.
Bassler continued: “The top of Echo Mountain was actually a shelf on the side of the mountain range where Prof. Lowe’s observatory and a power house were located. Here were also a lunch stand and storage yards for trolley cars. We changed from the Incline cars to narrow gauge electric cars with open sides for the ride to Alpine Tavern. The conductor again collected tickets by balancing himself on the running board as we skimmed the edge of the mountain.”
Features of the rip were the various crevasses and humps in the mountain. “They all had names and were pointed out to us,” Bill noted. “The only straight stretch of track in the entire 3.5 mile ascent from Echo Mountain was 225-feet long. There were 18 trestles and 127 curves on this portion of the route.”
There were several “name” places along the line: Horse-Shoe Curve, allowing riders to look down and see tracks that they had just passed over; Circular Bridge, built when nature failed to provide a natural roadbed, a spot where one could look down on three layers of rails; Granite Gate where tracks passed though huge granite boulder and past tall pine trees that shut off the valley below.
“At this point we were handed slips of paper on which we jotted our names and addresses. Our names then appeared in the Mount Lowe Daily News. I still have two copies of this paper, printed on August 28, 1928 which accounts for the exact date of our first visit to Mount Lowe,” Bill said, displaying the printed sheet.
Then – Alpine Tavern and its cottages, a place of relaxation, lush in every detail. “One could not easily forget this mammoth hotel amid forest greenery,” Bassler commented. “Cameras were snapping all over the place.”
From the Tavern, a hike to Inspiration Point was inviting to Bill. “The Point, besides a silver fox farm, had several pipes mounted on stands each pointing to different places in the valley below, with identification of these places lettered on the sides,” Bill recalled. “The view was overwhelming. Coupled with the trolley ride there’s nothing like it in Southern California today.”
Lunch at “Ye Alpine Tavern” was memorable and refreshing in preparation for the descent to Echo Mountain. “Before the trip started, we received the last lecture of the day. The conductor explained the safe braking system of the trolley car to assure us there was little danger of a runaway. Then trolley motors hummed as we began our downward journey.
“At Echo Mountain, again an official P.E. photographer snapped pictures of our group,” Bill continued, “and after leaving Rubio Canyon the P.E. forgot about the sights of Pasadena, returning the entire length of Fair Oaks Avenue, using the Pasadena Short Line for a speedy ride to climax the day.”
“That trip was 33 years ago,” Bill concluded, “and though it may seem odd, I remember it as only yesterday.” The trolley line’s demise came on March 2, 1938, when a flood physically wiped out the scenic little railway. Gone forever was the spectacular rail ride up to Mount Lowe. When a daily franchise car, to Rubio Canyon only quit running on March 30, 1938, this completely closed the chapter on the Mount Lowe Line.
“However, before this happened, I did manage one more ride up the mountain for only $1 round trip.” Bill had one more comment and from his viewpoint, his best. “Yes,” he said, “it was truly named – ‘In all the world no mountain trolley trip like this!”