T.S.C. Lowe and his Mountain Observatory
World famous Lowe Observatory atop Echo Mountain.
of Americans have long had a fascination with our solar system.
One of the early Americans who became infatuated with the heavens
was Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe. Lowe, who is best remembered for
his Civil War exploits, creating the Nation's first military air
force. He sold his "Balloon Corps" idea to President Abraham
Lincoln, and made a number of successful balloon flights over northern
Virginia, observing Confederate lines for the Union Army.
own memoirs tell how he "would lie in a field or sit astride
a picket fence, gazing for hours at the great white clouds hanging
like banners or floating slowly across the skies." These observations
would one day help him in his ballooning and aerial navigation.
Lowe stated "from living in high altitudes, I had observed
that there are often very different air currents in the valleys
from those which exist in the upper atmosphere." What Lowe
was observing were the jet streams that moved the clouds across
his arrival in Pasadena in 1887, Lowe had the money necessary to
live comfortable and to follow his interests in astronomy. He built
a 24,000 square foot residence at 995 South Orange Grove Avenue.
The top floor of the tower on one side of the home was nearly 75
feet high, and held a six-inch reflecting telescope. This allowed
Lowe to continue his quest for more information on the stars and
furthered his interest in establishing much larger astronomical
April 6, 1892, Lowe accompanied President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard
University and a group of distinguished gentlemen from Pasadena
and Los Angeles to Mount Wilson. The party included Walter Raymond,
proprietor of the Raymond Hotel; Dr. A.E. Winship of Boston, editor
of the Journal of Education and the Daily Traveler; W. S. Severance
of Los Angeles; Judge Benjamin Eaton of South Pasadena; Judge H.W.
Magee, Superintendent Will S. Monroe of the Pasadena public schools;
and photographer W.H. Hill. The Los Angeles Times reported on April
9, 1892 that:
trip was not for pleasure only but had to do with a matter of no
less importance than the establishment of a photographic telescope
on Mt. Harvard, one of the most prominent peaks of the Sierra Madres.
The trip was planned by Mr. Raymond, in order to afford President
Eliot opportunity to inspect the ground in person.
on Mt. Wilson, the group visited the site of the first observatory
on the mountain established in 1889. The observatory lasted only
eighteen months after which the 13-inch telescope was removed. Professor
Lowe planned to establish a grand hotel on the side when he completed
his railway to Mr. Wilson, a plan that never materialized.
Professor Lowe had made quite a name for himself through his various
exploits, he never gave up his love of astronomy. He had known of
Dr. Lewis Swift of Rochester, New York, a noted astronomer who had
been the recipient of many distinguished honors, including three
gold medals by the Imperial Academy of Science at Vienna for comet
discoveries in 1877, 1878, and 1879. A wealthy citizen of Rochester
had presented Swift with a magnificent sixteen-inch Alvan Clark
refracting telescope and a fine observatory to house it. Here Swift
carried on his work from 1886 to 1894. Unfortunately, Rochester
grew, and it was not long before the observatory was surrounded
by homes and many city lights, hindering Dr. Swift in his favorite
activity of hunting comets.
Lowe heard of the difficulty and invited Dr. Swift to come to California.
He offered to move Swift's whole observatory and rebuild it on Echo
Mountain at an elevation of four thousand feet with a great sweeping
view of the heavens from the North Star to the southern horizon.
Dr. Swift accepted Professor Lowe's offer, and Lowe set about constructing
a new observatory on Echo Mountain in 1893. Swift's telescope, a
16-inch Brashear Telespectroscope Polariscope, along with Micrometers,
Driving Clock, and other accessories, manufactured in 1882 by Alvan
Clark & Sons, of Cambridge, Massachusetts was transported to
Echo Mountain and first used in 1894.
A winter photo of the Lowe Observatory
on Echo Mountain
continued his work at Echo Mountain until August 11, 1900 when,
at the age of 80, his eyesight began to fail. He was replaced by
Professor Edgar Lucien Larkin who would carry on Dr. Swift's work
for the next 24 years. Swift's last days in the observatory he loved
so much were very sad. As Professor Larkin led him down the path
from the observatory for the last time, the old man broke into tears.
He left all his books behind for they were of no use to someone
who was blind. Dr. Swift returned to his old home in marathon, New
York, where he died on January 5, 1913, at the age of 92.
Larkin unpacked his belongings, which had been shipped from Illinois.
As he toiled he looked out the small window and observed a visitor
making his way towards the building. The visitor was Thaddeus Lowe
who had returned to Echo Mountain to meet Larkin. They became friends
during their several hour visit, while Lowe discussed him dream
of yet another observatory higher in the mountains. Like Swift,
Larkin was a self-made and largely self-educated man. In 1879 he
built a private observatory at New Windsor, Illinois, equipped with
a 6-inch Clark Refractor. This telescope was transferred in 1888
to Knox College at Galesburg, Illinois, where Larkin was in charge
of the observatory until 1895.
At Echo Mountain, he devoted much of his time to public nights for
the thousands of visitors who came on the scenic railway. After
Professor Lowe lost his railway due to financial difficulties, the
Pacific Electric Railway Co. purchased the line and hotels in 1902
and continued to operate them.
1904, a well-known astronomer, W.H. Pickering, spent several months
at the Echo Mountain Observatory using the 16-inch telescope to
continue his studies of the moon and Jupiter's satellites.
Professor Larkin was sometimes assisted by Charles S. Lawrence,
a photographer hired by the Pacific Electric Company. Lawrence took
an active part in the public demonstrations held at the observatory,
and after Larkin's death in 1924; he became the director of the
Echo Mountain Observatory.
Following Professor Larkin's death, his son Ralph desired to carry
out his father's wishes that his ashes be scattered over the summit
of what is now known as Mt. Larkin, located near Inspiration Point.
Ralph called upon Charles Lawrence to assist him in this task and
upon reaching the top of the mountain; Larkin's son could not carry
out the deed. He turned to Lawrence and said "Charles, I can't
do it. Will you do it for me?" Obligingly, Lawrence took the
box of ashes and scattered them around the top of the small peak.
"Thus ended, to my sorrow, our many pleasant years of close
association and mutual devotion," Lawrence later stated.
became a constant enemy of the Mt. Lowe Railway. A fire on February
5, 1900 destroyed the magnificent Echo Mountain House. On December
9, 1905, a severe windstorm and fire devastated the mountaintop,
destroying every building except the observatory. The flames came
so close that the 16-inch mirror was removed from the telescope
and lowered into a water reservoir for safety. But the end of the
observatory came not from fire but from a windstorm in 1928. Lawrence
was inside the observatory when winds of hurricane velocity literally
blew the building apart. He was not injured in this frightening
experience but the observatory, like the rest of the buildings on
Echo Mountain, was gone forever.
Although Lowe's observatory did not survive, the 16-inch refractor
has. In 1941, the University of Santa Clara, California bought it
from the Southern Pacific Railway Company, and it remains in use
today in a small observatory on the Santa Clara campus.
Lowe never was able to continue his venture and realize what would
have been another great accomplishment. It was his intention to
continue his railway from the side of Ye Alpine Tavern to the summit
of Mount Lowe, where another hotel was to be built. Plans had been
made to move the existing observatory from Echo Mountain to the
peak of Mount Lowe. The Professor had even more ambitious ideas,
for he then planned to construct a great cable aerial tramway from
the summit to Mr. Lowe high over the deep canyons to the summit
of San Gabriel Peak. Lowe called this six thousand foot mountain
"Observatory Peak" and he planned to build the largest
observatory in the world and a sanctuary where men of science might
live, expense free, to carry on their investigations without annoyance
from the outside world.
little remains of Professor Lowe's railway and observatory, only
foundations and rusting metal. The Professor's idea of making Echo
Mountain and Observatory Peak the astronomical center of the world
never materialized but the work continues at Mount Wilson and other
observatories throughout the world. Perhaps Professor Lowe was ahead
of his time, or perhaps the work started by him was meant to be
continued by others. His ideas let to rich discoveries in many fields,
but few remember him for his efforts to further the field of astronomy.
Discovery Group would like to extend their thanks to Paul Rippens
for contributing his work to the website. Paul Rippens is retired
as Chief Forester of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department and
lives in San Dimas, California. Paul has written articles for the
Branding Iron, the quarterly publication of the Los Angeles Corral
of the Westerners, and the Dogtown Territorial Quarterly. Paul has
authored two books; the first in 1998. Historic Mount Lowe, A Hikers
Guide to the Mount Lowe Railway. His second book Heninger Flats
was released in 1999. Both books are available in the marketplace
as well as many other books and videos about the Mount Lowe Railway.
MT. LOWE A Hikers Guide to the Mt. Lowe Railway
is written by San Dimas author Paul H. Rippens. 89 pgs.
This handy pocket sized soft cover guide, includes a
History of the Mt. Lowe Railway by John W. Robinson.
Rippens takes the hiker to the trails of the Mt. Lowe
Railway with easy to follow maps and instructions all
highlighted by descriptions of the way things were during
the mountain railway's heyday. Paul points out various
ruins and relics along the trails left over from the
1890's to the late 1930's. The book contains over thirty
pictures; some published for the first time and in the
rear of this book is a Chronological History of the
Mt. Lowe Railway. Adorning the front cover is a beautiful
color picture of the Great Incline.
in the Marketplace