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Leontine Lowe Travels To Hopi Land 1895

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

Editors note: If you have had the pleasure of researching Thaddeus Lowe and his magnificent achievements through the years, you'll find that the lines of text are few and far between, that carry information of the woman behind, or should I say next to this great man. The article that follows will give you just a brief look at Leontine, her 57 years of marriage to Thaddeus Lowe, and her role in an momentous trip to the southwest in 1895 with A. C. Vroman.

Part One: Whirlwind

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The young Parisian beauty, Leontine Gachon, that captured the heart of Thaddeus Lowe.
Photo Courtesy of the John Haug Family.
Leontine Augustine Gachon was born November 30, 1835 in Paris, France to Louise Flavie Chazal and Leon Gachon. Her father was a palace guard for Louis Philippe, known as the Citizen King. In 1848 the citizens of France revolted forcing the Gachon family and Leontine, who was twelve at the time, to escape out the back door while the Republicans entered the front. The elder Gachon left Louis Philippe in London and continued with his family on to New York.

It was a whirlwind Valentines romance that brought Thaddeus and Leontine together in 1855. Her attendance at the Professor's science show in New York with her parents on February 14 was just another chapter in her continuing curiosity in the world of the sciences. It was no coincidence either, that after seeing the handsome Professor, Leontine would come to meet him. Within weeks the Professor and the lovely Parisian would be wed at a justice of the peace, a marriage that would last until death did part them.

So began the wedded life of Leontine Lowe. A whirlwind that never seemed to stop, having one life changing adventure after another. Imagine at the start, a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi on their honeymoon in 1855, performing the Professors science shows, and his bride assisting him as well as doing her own marionette theatre. Then off to New York, and while Thad resumed his studies of aeronautics, Leontine could be found sewing and cutting patterns with him in their spare time, preparing their first aerostat, and a business which soon flourished to where the couple supplied balloons to others across the country.

In 1856 Leontine gave birth to their first child Louise F. Lowe, the first of ten. In 1858 the second child Ida, was born, and the family moved to better quarters with a nurse, cook and a maid. In the years that followed Leontine gave birth to Leon, Ava, Edna, Augustine, Blanche, Thaddeus Jr., Zoe, and Sobieski who was born last in 1877.

During this twenty-year span of producing, raising, and educating her children, Leontine and Thad continued their experiences though the Civil War, Thaddeus's ballooning adventures, experimenting with refrigeration, Thad's water gas inventions, and the eventual extreme success that came with it all. During the latter part of this period the family lived in Valley Forge and Norristown, Pennsylvania and often traveled when time permitted. Along the life's travels Leontine collected things with a passion. The first sightings of Leontine's world-class shell collection can be seen in very early stereopticons of the Norristown home site. Of course with the birth of six daughters also comes the eventually marriages, five of which were held in Norristown.

In 1887 TSC Lowe came to California in part due to his gas business and in part due to his health. Within a few years he brought Leontine and the youngest children to join him. A Norristown paper states that on November 20th 1890 the Lowe Mansion was up for public sale. The price would be 16 to 20 thousand depending on the amount of land one desired to go with it.

Meantime the family moved into a home on South Marengo, while Thad set out to build a magnificent home consisting of 23,859 square feet at 955 South Orange Grove in Pasadena. Included in the plans of the home was a large basement in which Leontine would house her many collections.

So here the couple was, in Pasadena, Thad at 58 and Leontine at 55 years. They say life begins at 50 and for the Lowe's there may not have been a truer saying said. Immediately the Lowe's became central to the Pasadena social scene. Thad had his gas business, he and Thad Jr. owned and operated the Pasadena Grand Opera House, and soon came the couples next whirlwind, the building of the Mount Lowe Railway.

Grand openings, gala affairs, and grandchildren, seemed to take up the next few years for Leontine, and in 1895 when a fellow Pasadenean named A.C. Vroman invited her along to witness the Hopi Snake dance in the Moqui county of Arizona, who can blame her for saying, yes.

Part Two: Southwestern Adventure

A.C. Vroman, also an easterner, transplanted to Pasadena in 1892 because of health reasons, opened his fine bookstore in November of that year. He partnered with J.D. Glascock. The store prospered quite well and in 1895 Vroman added to his life a 6 ½ x 8-½-inch Carlton Plate Camera. During the early part of that year Vroman could be seen around Pasadena at the Tournament of Roses, the poppy fields of Altadena, in the mountains of the San Gabriel's, at Mt. Wilson, in the canyons, and notably Rubio Canyon.

Is it any wonder that worldly educated Leontine Lowe would find her way into Vroman's Book Store in Pasadena? Of course not, and it is also no surprise, that this woman of already a normal persons life time of experiences would accept an invitation to join Adam Clark Vroman on a trip to Moqui country to witness the Hopi Snake dance.

A.C. Vroman, Horatio Rust, C.J. Crandall, and Leontine Lowe took the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad to get to their first leg of their journey. The railway was the last of the comforts they would see for some time to come. The party was to be guests of Capt. Thomas Keam who lived near the Hopi village of Walpi.

Surely Leontine in her day had seen hardship before, but I think even she might have shuddered a bit upon learning the party would be traveling together in a single large lumber wagon drawn by two large draft horses, to the mesas of the Hopi. The team driver Selledon Montoya, stowed the gear for camping and day-to-day living, which took considerable room, and then one had to consider the logistics of the camera equipment with its heavy glass plates.

In their first day of travel the party stopped at Biddahoochee, a small Navajo settlement and saw their first Indian houses, or hogan's as they are known. Vroman took a photograph of the group inside one of these hogans. Along the way Vroman stopped to take scenic shots, many of which are used later in the publications of the day.

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A 260 pound Leontine Lowe on a litter being carried by Indians to the top of First Mesa.
Photo by A.C. Vrooman. Courtesy John Haug Family.

Towards the end of their first day out, August 17, 1895, the intrepid group reached the base of First Mesa. In the midst of rapidly failing sunlight, the group, with the assistance of seven local Indians put together a makeshift litter for the purpose of carrying the 260-pound Leontine Lowe up the narrow, rocky trails. Oh the things one endures for the sake of adventure.

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A group shot showing left to right, Leontine Lowe, Mr. Crandall, Horatio Rust, A. C. Vrooman photographer and Montoya the team driver.
Vrooman photograph, August 17, 1895 courtesy John Haug Family.
Later that evening the exhausted travelers are taken to a house engaged by Keams in Sichimovi Village. There, Vroman thinking it would be a good idea to photograph them selves first, and put the natives at ease, took his first photograph in the Hopi village.

The next morning he took another photograph, which shows a collapsed Leontine with a fan sitting at the back of the room. Gathered on the sides of the room are curious local natives that have stopped by to visit.

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Hopi Village engraving circa 1890's showing First Mesa.

Later, Vroman gained the confidence of the villagers by showing his camera to men, women and babies. He would let them lookthough the lens, while he jumped in front of the camera. The Indians were amused to see Vroman standing on his head, as the camera would see him. The Indians would see himupside down, then quickly look out from under the drape to see him right side up in real life. It was a scene that went for hours, but finally allowed Vroman the freedom to move amongst the peoples, and shoot the images that so moved him.

Imagine the scene of men dressed in business suits and neckties, and Leontine in a dress, walking the dusty paths between the adobe houses, amidst the naked children, scavenging dogs, and mothers suckling babies. It was as if they were in another country, not America. The things they saw in Hopi country amazed these early tourists. Later Vroman photographed the Hopi Snake Dance, capturing images and writing descriptions of it in his journals, which would endure a lifetime. It is felt that Vroman had a religious experience there on the mesa that first trip. One that brought him back many times to capture the Hopi lifestyle.

One source states that it was a 90-mile return visit to the rail station at Holbrook, and again the lumber wagon served as the mode of transportation, perhaps shorter on supplies, but certainly loaded down with baskets, and pottery bought from the natives. At Holbrook the group took a short rail trip to the new station at Admeda, where Adam Hanna, a Scottish cattle rancher whose home was not far from the station, met them.

Adam Hanna was the unofficial greeter of visitors, and guide to what he called Chalcedony Park. The next morning after an early breakfast, Hanna would take our travelers yet another 50 miles in another wagon, to another of Arizona's attractions, the Petrified Forest. Horatio Rust states in an early writing that Adam's springboard wagon was unavailable that day and the group set off again in a lumber wagon. "Our team was slowed beyond measure and the road nearly as smooth as no road at all."

On arriving at the site none of the party were terribly impressed by what they saw. Logs of all sizes were strewn about, turned from wood to rich colored agate and chalcedony. All were broken and from a short distance, looked as if they were sawed off. They varied in diameter from six inches to five feet, and the sections were from two inches to thirty feet. It was only upon realizing the amount of time it took to create such a place that true appreciation set in.

Above them 100 feet on a sharp butte, a twenty-foot log, four feet in diameter is placed in such a way as to resemble a cannon protecting the area. The area was indeed in need of protection. The sight had been known for forty years, and of late tourists were especially taking an interest in the forest. Each would take a piece home as large as they could carry. Eastern jewelry firms would hire crews to blast apart the logs to find quartz and amethyst crystals. Stamp mills were also erected to crush the fossilized rocks into emery. Hoppers full were transported to Denver for the making of sandpaper.

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Leontine Lowe pays a visit to Agate Bridge in the Petrified Forst in Arizona.
A.C. Vrooman photograph courtesy of the John Haug Family.
Climbing higher onto the mesa they came upon a great fossil tree that formed a natural bridge, known as Agate Bridge. The log of agate has its ends embedded into the sandstone banks. It was nearly five feet in diameter and the largest of those found at forty-six feet. The rains of time washed a gully out from under it nearly forty feet deep. Here the group impressed at last, pondered the greatness of it all.

Finally it was time to retrace their trail back to the railway. Along the way they stopped in the rock forest and Rust states; "We gathered great weights of the most beautiful specimens only to throw them away as we found others more beautiful still."

The party also found Indian pictographs on the rocks and traced them in their notebooks hoping someone could interpret them. Rust says; "as we were about to copy one which was more distinctive than the rest, our driver said, hold on there, lemme tell you, when we was camped here, we was trying to figure out a new cattle brand and I took a stone and picked them marks myself. It makes a good brand." It surely makes you wonder.

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Sitting around the campfire the last night of the journey.
A.C. Vrooman photograph. 1895. Courtesy of the John Haug family.

They camped that night on the southern edge of the forest at a dry riverbed. The driver's attempts to find water were fruitless but Adam Hanna and Crandall dug a well two feet deep and got some muddy water for coffee. They had a hearty meal and then Adam told stories of old Arizona. At one point someone suggests a photograph so friends at home will be able to see them just as they were around the campfire. Vroman took a string about six feet long and soaked it in bacon fat and laid one end in the flash powder. One of the group lit the end and jumped into place, so all could be remembered on this auspicious occasion. The next morning it was found that the hobbled horses had pawed through the ground to come up with enough water to drink and soon the group was again on its way.

Finally aboard the train and on the way home to Pasadena, the group relaxed, laden with specimens of their travels and happy memories.

In 1906 the forest was officially protected when it became, Petrified Forest National Park.

A.C. Vroman would go on to be one of the most important photographers of southwest Indians. He returned seven times between 1987 and 1904 amassing a collection of Indian artifacts, weavings, and katchina dolls that eventually ended up in Los Angeles's Southwest Museum. The Pasadena Library received most of his negatives after he died in 1916.

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This room filled to capacity with Indian artifacts, was in the basement of the Lowe home on Orange Grove Ave, Pasadena. This was just a part of Leontine's extensive collection.
Photo courtesy of the David Ferm family.

Leontine's collections grew from shells and butterflies, to Indian baskets and rugs, rock and minerals, and soon the basement of the Orange Grove home was filled to capacity. The Smithsonian at the time considered her collections to be the best of their kinds.

Leontine died in San Francisco on May 16th 1912 at the age of seventy-seven years. The next year Thaddeus followed her into the heavens. On April 14, 1914, an auction was held in San Francisco for THE VALUABLE LIBRARY of Professor and Mrs. T.S.C. Lowe. Looking through the catalogue today one can only imagine the vastness of Leontine's knowledge and experiences, for so little is written about her.

Editor: There are many more stories to be told about the Lowe family. Stories that crisscross the Civil War, ballooning, the countries gas business and other little gems like this piece about Leontine. Anyone having information about Mt. Lowe, or the Lowe family, no matter how insignificant, is urged to copy it and send it to Land ~ Sea Discovery Group. It all fits in somewhere. I would like to especially thank, the John Haug family for the use of their Vroman photos used in this story, and Barbara Schultz for photos of Leontine Lowe. For further reading on the Vroman - Leontine trips read, Dwellers at the Source, Land of Sunshine Feb 1896, and Arizona Highways. July 1986. This article first appeared in the Winter 2000 Echo Mtn. Echoes publication.

Indian Baskets, Now with a guide to values of Indian Baskets written by Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh and William A. Turnbaugh. Published by Schiffer Books, 1997. Softbound, 8x11, 256 pgs, with value guide, color and b/w photographs. A delightful book introducing Native North American Basketry and how to identify the various tribe’s pieces. Methods of manufacture, forms used, decoration, and materials are discussed. A value guide is also included.

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