By Lieutenant Colonel Norman S.
Marshal and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military
Lowe was a self-educated man who was obliged to stop his formal
schooling in the fourth grade. Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine
Lowe was born in 1832 in Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire. He spent
his early years as a "snake oil" salesman of patent
medicines using the sobriquet "Professor". He made
and lost several fortunes, held over forty patents, and was appointed
by President Lincoln as Chief of the U.S. Army Aeronautic [balloon]
Corps, making over 3,000 ascents, some of which were from Navy
A few months before he received his appointment, Lowe, a renowned
aeronautic scientist, made a 9-hour, 900-mile flight from Cincinnati,
Ohio to Unionville, South Carolina. Unfortunately, his trip followed
the fall of Fort Sumter by just a week; when he arrived in South
Carolina, the Confederate army summarily arrested him on charges
of spying for the Union. Lowe managed to convince them of his
innocence and took a week of touring through the Confederate
states under a letter of free passage back to Cincinnati where
he was to recover his balloons. While in Cincinnati he received
word that the Secretary of the Treasury and the War Department
wanted to see him. After which he was referred to the President
and then eventually General Scott.
Working under the auspices of the War Department, Lowe received
the pay of a colonel, plus materials and labor. Lowe ended his
career with the Union army when the newly appointed commander,
Joseph Hooker sharply reduced the role of aeronautics in the
Army of the Potomac in late 1863.
In private life, Lowe tuned his talents to the development of
a mechanical refrigeration system and made many improvements
in the use of gas for heating and lighting. Lowe moved to California
in 1887, where he continued experimenting with aeronautics and
other new technologies.
After Professor Thaddeus Lowe retired, he pursued his life-long
interest in astronomy with a six-inch reflecting telescope when
he moved to Pasadena. When he heard that a New York astronomer's
observatory was surrounded by too many lights he offered to rebuild
the observatory on Echo Mountain (Mt. Lowe) at his expense. One
of the founders of the California Institute of Technology, the
Lowe Observatory in Pasadena, California, was built as a testament
to his early scientific accomplishments.
In Pasadena, Lowe was approached by an engineer named David J
Macpherson. Macpherson had a plan for building a scenic railway
to the summit of Mount Wilson were an observatory had been built.
Lowe approved of the plan and agreed to finance it. Macpherson
made surveys and began construction on Mount Wilson. He found
that the land owners were not cooperative and that the rock wasn't
suitable. Lowe and Macpherson decided to go ahead with a different
They built the Pasadena and Mount Wilson Railway, a 3' 6"
gauge trolley line from the base of the Altadena station of the
Los Angeles Terminal Railway to the summit of Echo Mountain.
At the top of the incline, in 1894, Lowe opened the twelve room
Echo Mountain House. A larger forty room Echo Mountain House
opened later and the original was renamed as the Chalet. Lowe
also built a hotel and pavilion in Rubio Canyon, at the foot
of the incline. The line then moved on toward Oak Mountain, which
would be renamed as Mount Lowe, building a 3.6 mile narrow gauge
electric railway. This scenic line was an exciting ride, on narrow
ledges and trestles with many sharp curves.
Lowe ran out of money before he could extend the line to the
summit of Mount Lowe. His Pasadena Mountain railway, sadly, was
eventually sold to the nephew of Collis P. Huntington, one of
California's Robber Barons who built the Central Pacific eastward
to join with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869.
The nephew, Henry Huntington, took his uncle's fortune and magnified
it many times with Southern California land developments, all
tied together with his Pacific Electric Railroad in 1902.
From 1893 to 1936 an estimated 3,100,000 people rode the Mount
Lowe Railway built by two visionary men from Pasadena. This "railway
into the clouds" attracted tourists from all over the world
for the thrilling and spectacular ride up to Mount Wilson.
In the years that followed, thousands more visitors annually
rode the little railway, making it Southern California's most
popular tourist attraction. But then in 1928 the observatory
burned down, and in 1936 the Tavern was also lost. This time,
because of the Depression, funds were unavailable for rebuilding.
Finally, the torrential rains of 1938 washed out major portions
of the line. The inglorious end came when what remained of the
track was removed as part of a World War II scrap drive.
Professor Lowe died on January 16, 1913, never able to restore
his finances from his "railway into the clouds".
Lowe's granddaughter, Florence Lowe, later to be called "Pancho"
Barnes, was also active in aviation until her death, and for
many years operated the Happy Bottom Riding Club at Muroc Army
Air Corps Station, later to become Edwards Air Force Base. That
story was retold in another article in this series. Her role
as operator of the Happy Bottom Riding Club was portrayed in
the movie "The Right Stuff" featuring General Chuck
Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, and the seven
astronauts of the Mercury program.
Many consider Lowe as the aviation pioneer that help pave the
way to today's U.S. Air Force. One thing's for sure, his granddaughter,
Florence L. "Pancho
Barnes" Lowe was on of its biggest supporters. But it
was Lowe's balloon ascents that led to the success of another
California aeronaut, Roy Knabenshue,
who's outstanding contributions to aviation led to the use of
the dirigible in World War I and ultimately the Navy's development
of the dirigibles Shenandoah, Akron, Macon and Los Angeles, not
to mention the long-legged blimps used during World War II and
well into the 1950s.
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