Visitors who disembarked from the White Chariots at Echo Mountain were amazed at the spectacular views – from the mountains and cities of the San Gabriel Valley, to the city of Los Angeles to the ocean and its beaches, even as far away as Catalina Island. According to one visitor, “In a few minutes, one can see more than a month’s driving would reveal in the valley below.” The scenery, the hotels with their luxurious accommodations and excellent food, plus many other attractions and activities made Echo Mountain a sought-after destination for locals and travelers alike.
By 1897, however, financial setbacks caused Professor Lowe to lose control of his railway and most of his mountain wonderland. After title transferred to two other owners, Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric Company purchased the enterprise in 1903. Between 1900 and 1905 fires destroyed Echo Mountain House and the Chalet. Although the observatory was still in operation, after 1905, Echo Mountain was only a stopover on the trip further up to Alpine Tavern. Most of the area was used for railway maintenance and worker housing.
Buildings on Echo Mountain
Professor Lowe transformed a barren mountaintop into a celebrated resort by building the Echo Mountain Chalet, then two years later, the grand 70-room Echo Mountain Hotel. Other amenities available to visitors were a world-class observatory, the fabled searchlight from Chicago’s World Colombian Exhibition, a zoo, a casino/dance hall and the electric fountains. Service buildings (a dormitory for workers, powerhouse for the incline cable, car barn and gas and water supply) kept the resort operating.
In order to pull the cable with attached car up the steep Incline, power needed to be generated to drive the large cable-grip bull wheel. The original powerhouse was a windowed and wooden two-story structure located at the top of the Incline on Echo Mountain. The Incline operator sat on the top floor, and beneath, in the basement, was the tilted cogwheel and the 75-horsepower electric motor that drove it. It performed admirably for 12 years until it was consumed by fire in 1905. Although the fire began in the casino (or dance hall), gusty winds quickly carried flames to the powerhouse. The fire weakened the secondary 1 and 5/8″ safety cable designed to stop the Incline cars from catastrophic failure. The burned safety cable failed and came slithering down the length of the Incline until it crashed in a heavy heap at the bottom, in front of the Rubio Pavilion. Subsequently, in 1906 a second powerhouse was built with a fire resistant stucco exterior. This is when the searchlight from the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was placed on top of the powerhouse.
While the Incline was under construction, David Macpherson and his crew got to work on a small wooden structure featuring three stories, 12 rooms, a dining room and a post office. The telescope on the balcony allowed visitors a closer view of the cities in the valley below. Originally called Echo Mountain Hotel, it was re-named as the Chalet once the much larger Echo Mountain House was built. Supplies for building both the Incline railway and the Chalet were hauled up the mountain on burros. Completed in time for the July 4th 1893 grand opening of the Incline, the Chalet was received with great enthusiasm by arriving travelers. It was later enlarged to14 rooms to satisfy increased demand. The Chalet remained in operation under Lowe and Pacific Electric, until storms destroyed it in 1905.
Echo Mountain House
Professor Lowe’s White City proved to be a resounding success – so much so, that he immediately began building a new hotel, much larger and grander than the Chalet. Designed by architect T.W. Parkes and built by Carson Brothers Construction Company with a construction budget of $55,000 and a workforce of 50 men, it was ready for visitors in 1894. Lowe spent $8,000 to furnish Echo Mountain House, an enormous sum at that time. The hotel featured 70 rooms; a social hall with a fireplace, Persian rugs and grand piano; a large dining room with a balcony where an orchestra performed; a smaller ladies drawing room; a billiards room; bowling alley; barbershop and shoeshine stand, all with electric lights and heating provided by gas pumped from Pasadena in the valley below. A souvenir shop called the Bazaar stocked spoons, postcards, trays, photographs and other memorabilia for guests to purchase. Unfortunately, this great hotel had a very short life – six years later it was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt.
The great searchlight was originally built for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also know as the World’s Fair). Impressed by this technical marvel, Lowe purchased it for his resort, where its 3 million candlepower light could be seen for miles around, even by ships at sea. Installed in 1894, in time for the grand opening of Echo Mountain House, it shone so brightly some residents in the communities below complained of interrupted sleep and lack of privacy. It first sat on a platform next to Echo Mountain’s powerhouse, home of the machinery that operated the Incline cars. Later, during the Pacific Electric period, it was moved to the top of the powerhouse.
One of the most popular attractions on Echo Mountain was the observatory. Inspired to outdo the observatory on Mount Wilson, Lowe hired the renowned astronomer, Dr. Lewis Swift and moved his entire Rochester New York observatory to Mount Echo. Swift’s 16-inch Brashear telescope was crafted by Alvan Clark, a highly respected lens maker. Unfortunately, the aging Dr. Swift soon went blind and was replaced by Dr. Edgar Lucien Larkin. Larkin, a brilliant eccentric, held nightly lectures for visitors interested in viewing the heavens. He remained in charge once the property had passed to Pacific Electric until 1924, when the building was destroyed by fire. Only the telescope was saved and was eventually purchased by the University of Santa Clara in 1941, where it remains today.
The menagerie, or zoo, on Echo Mountain was built with the comfort of the animals it contained in mind, although it was a far cry from what we expect from zoos today. Cages with cement floors were built into the face of Echo Mountain with bars on front and back to allow for air flow. Ursa the bear even had a water tank built into the concrete floor of her cage. Many of the animals were native to the area: ringtail cats (sometimes called civet cats), a badger, foxes, lynx, goats, fawns, raccoons, great horned owls and eagles. Little Dick the pet squirrel, Lenore, the talking raven, an alligator and Jocko the monkey rounded out the collection. Jason Brown, the son of John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame, was a local resident who acted as zookeeper in addition to other duties on the mountain.
A Day on Echo Mountain
Nature lovers and visitors of all sorts were drawn to Echo Mountain, seeking to “gain health, vigor and buoyant exuberance,” according to the Mount Lowe Echo, a weekly newspaper, printed at Echo Mountain House. What an unforgettable adventure it must have been for visitors arriving at Lowe’s White City after a ride on the thrilling Incline railway. Many fascinating activities awaited them atop the mountain.
As the cable cars drew to the top of the Incline, visitors were greeted by Charles Lawrence, the resident professional photographer who spent 29 years taking souvenir photos of arriving visitors. Copies of these photos, enclosed in a folder with information about the resort, could be purchased for twenty-five cents. Although the railway ran many hours during the day and evening, many visitors chose to arrive in time for lunch, which was held from 1:00 to 3:00. After a sumptuous meal prepared from local farms and gardens, ladies would retreat to the drawing room, while gentlemen would take their cigars to the veranda.
Visitors had many activities from which to choose: a visit to the electric fountain, which was positioned so that the sun was always shining on the water spray, producing a beautiful rainbow effect; a look at the intricate machinery that powered the railway; a stop at the zoo and the stables, where they might see G.W. James, the editor of the Mount Lowe Echo, wrestle with Ursa the bear; and, of course, gazing at incredible vistas from the many viewpoints on the mountain. Everyone wanted to try out the echo phone, which amplified the echo effect from surrounding mountains that gave Echo Mountain its name. Game lovers had their choice of tennis, billiards, bowling and shuffleboard. And those more intellectually inclined may have attended the summer school of science literature and art taught by well-known experts (this school was promoted in the Mount Lowe Echo, but we have found no confirmation that it actually occurred).
Nature was a huge draw for visitors. According to publicist George Wharton James, “Bridle roads and footpaths reach secluded spots and there in ferny dells, surrounded by towering trees and majestic rocks, charmed by the babbling brooks, the rustling of leaves and the sweet singing of thousands of birds, one may while away the hours in delicious restfulness.” The Mount Lowe Eight, a 30-mile stretch of bridle paths that formed a figure eight, took riders to the summit of Mount Lowe and back, through towering pines and above vast canyons, offering truly spectacular views. Horses and burros were available for rent at the stables located on the eastern side of the mountain.
A Night on Echo Mountain
Visitors were encouraged to spend at least one night on Echo Mountain, so as not to miss evening events. Dinner at Echo Mountain House was usually accompanied by music from an orchestra playing in the balcony of the dining room. After dark, the great searchlight lit up the panorama below, and the observatory offered an unmatched view of the skies. Dr. Larkin’s nightly scientific lectures were very popular and always well attended. (Some very fortunate visitors might be able to see a comet discovered by the astronomer.) There might be dancing in the casino, the era’s word for ballroom and social hall, or musical performances at Echo Mountain House. And no one wanted to miss seeing the “lake of diamonds,” the lights that shone from the cities below. All in all, it was an experience not to be missed.