June 02, 2017

Photo Essay: Powering the Railway to the Clouds

I've felt drawn to Mount Lowe in the wilderness above Altadena even before I moved to LA—even before I actually liked LA.

A train in the middle of the mountains—nay, UP the mountain—just seemed so preposterous to me.

I had to see it (or, what was left of it); and, once I did, I just kept going back.

It's been a while since I've climbed the Sam Merrill Trail up to Echo Mountain (the endpoint of the Mount Lowe Incline Railway) or walked the old right-of-way of the trolley that once rounded the mountain to its final destination, the Alpine Tavern (which opened in 1895 and burned in 1936).

But it turns out that there was a piece of the historical narrative of the Mount Lowe Railway that I'd been missing, though I didn't know I'd been missing it: Pacific Electric Railway Company Substation No. 8.

Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

After all, something had to provide power to the PE trolley line that once ran north of Pasadena, all the way up Lake Avenue (once known as Prospect Avenue) into "the Highlands."

But it wasn't until I found myself driving up that old path that I realized that there might be something else train-related to see...

...when I was thankfully tipped off by an image of a trolley on the sign for a local strip mall.

Here, at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Calaveras Street, is where the Mount Lowe Railway actually began (and ended)—at a station once known as Mountain Junction (sometimes called "Altadena Junction"), starting in 1893. The narrow gauge track brought passengers on a 10-minute ride from Altadena to Rubio Canyon, where they could transfer to the incline railway at the foot of Echo Mountain. Soon, this intersection became a hub of mountain tourism in the "Great Era of Hiking."

But disaster struck—and continued to strike— the Mount Lowe Railway, and by 1897, infamous balloonist Thaddeus Lowe lost control of the project. In 1901, the railway was sold to the Los Angeles Railway Company, which was then conveyed to Pacific Electric (of the "Red Cars" fame).

The Mountain Division's tracks were converted to standard gauge in 1903, and a proper power station came in the form of Substation #8 in 1905. The substation that preceded it was subsequently and unceremoniously demolished (and no traces of it are visible today).

In the decades that followed, structures in Rubio Canyon and on Mount Lowe and Echo Mountain suffered fires, winds, storms, and vandalism.

Still, in the 1920s, Altadena remained a "streetcar suburb"—despite the rise of the automobile pretty much everywhere else in Southern California.

Once the Alpine Tavern (then renamed the Mount Lowe Tavern) burned down, there was little hope of salvaging anything. By 1938, all passenger rail service into Rubio Canyon had ceased, and by 1941, the rail had been removed—and anything valuable was taken by scrappers (particularly after the start of World War II).

In 1959, whatever remained up there was dynamited by the U.S. Forest Service, which had taken over control of all of the Mount Lowe Railway-related sites as part of Angeles National Forest.

Somehow, the power station remained long enough to be landmarked in 1979. (The former Mount Lowe Incline Railway wasn't even landmarked until 1993, for the centennial of its opening.)

It remained vacant, though, for long stretches of time—most commercial businesses unable to make the space work, given the restricted access to parking. For a short time, it served as a private office building.

Finally, the Mennonites opened their Full Circle Thrift Shop in September 2016—which means you can actually get inside and explore the space.

Upstairs, you can get up close to the 40-foot cathedral ceilings...

...and gaze down at the large bay windows...

...which appear to be original—or, at least, very old.

It might look like there's not much left inside, but towards the back, on street level... can find some traces of the former inner workings of the power plant...

...which once held a 300-kilowatt rotary converter, several large motor-generator units used to convert the electrical power... well as 15,000-volt circuit transformers.

Those, of course, were the nuts and bolts of the electrical engineering necessary to (eventually) power all of Mount Lowe and Echo Mountain—and the railway that took passengers "to the clouds."

But there's a lot of romance and tragedy to the story of Thaddeus Lowe, an aeronaut who wished to help regular people take to the skies (as he had) on a trip that was at once thrilling and breathtaking as well as downright terrifying.

The LA Times has called Lowe the "quintessential California dreamer." I guess that means that we Californians are always trying to reach new heights.

You have to risk a lot to climb higher than anyone else has before. And the higher you go, the farther you have to fall.

But hopefully, in California—this "land of opportunity"—the dreamers have a better chance of successfully launching those airships and racing through the clouds without all those tall buildings getting in the way.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Pasadena to the Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern
Photo Essay: Mt. Lowe's Inspiration Point to Altadena
Photo Essay: Heart-Pounding Hike to a Lost City
Echo Mountain, The Hard Way
Photo Essay: Getting to Echo Mountain via Mt. Lowe, Past the Hard Part
Photo Essay: Belmont Tunnel and the Hollywood Subway's Fade Into Oblivion
Photo Essay: MTA Substation #13 (Open House NY)

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