Lately, my nerd flag has been waving most prominently in my Cardio to Vegas posts, where I explore local geography and history as I make a virtual run from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. And while I’m due for a Cardio to Vegas update (I’ve amassed over 25 miles since my last update), I’m going to nerd out right now on something else entirely. It involves the hike I went on yesterday – a hike that was one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on, because I got to visit 100-year-old ruins on top of a mountain.
The trail starts in Altadena, a community in the foothills north of Pasadena. I’ve actually been on this trail before, but I had no idea what was at the top of the mountain, and I ended up turning back before I got to the good stuff. That hike was wonderful for other reasons – I learned about the Cobb Estate and the Haunted Forest, and it was drizzling and super foggy, and I got a bunch of awesome photos. Read about that hike and see the pictures here.
After that hike, I learned what I missed out on, and even though it took me over a year, I made it back yesterday with my friend Jonathan, and we got to the good stuff. It was amazing. Here’s the back story – it dates back over 100 years!
The hike was to the top of Echo Mountain, a smaller peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. Towards the end of the 1800s, The San Gabriels cast a spell on a man named Thaddeus Lowe, who had recently retired in Pasadena. Lowe quickly fell in love with the mountains, as they reminded him of his New Hampshire childhood. Lowe was an accomplished, notable figure. He was a hot-air balloon pioneer, and served as a spy for the north during the Civil War, noting Confederacy troop locations from his balloon and reporting them the Lincoln’s generals (one bio I read said that Lowe was “the most shot-at man” of the whole war). After the war, his inventions in the fields of refrigeration and hydrogen-gas-powered machinery made him a millionaire, and when he retired in Pasadena in 1890, it was in a 24,000-square-foot home that he had custom built.
In Pasadena, Lowe met an engineer, David Macpherson, who had drawn plans for a railroad up the nearby mountains, but Macpherson couldn’t find any funding for his project. Lowe and Macpherson partnered together, and with Lowe’s financial backing and Macpherson’s know-how, the Mount Lowe Railway was born. It was an ambitious endeavor designed to bring tourists to the area. First, a railroad brought visitors from the village of Altadena to the base of the mountains. There, they transferred to a funicular railway that ascended a half mile up a steep face, to the top of Echo Mountain (a funicular is a specific type of train designed for steep slopes. Angels Flight, in downtown LA, and Orient Express, at Magic Mountain, are examples). Then, a third railway – the only electric-powered scenic mountain railway in the country – took visitors another 2.5 miles to the summit of Oak Mountain. Lowe built hotels and recreational facilities on both Oak Mountain and Echo Mountain, including a casino, an observatory, and tennis courts. All the buildings were painted white, and it soon earned the nickname “The White City.” Thanks to a powerful searchlight bought from a Hollywood movie studio, The White City could be seen from miles around. It attracted a ton of attention and curiosity when it opened in 1893.
It wasn’t a profitable enterprise, though. Construction costs were extremely high, and tickets for the railroad were so expensive that many people wouldn’t (or couldn’t) buy them. Lowe lost his vast fortune building the Mount Lowe Railway, and in 1899, he was flat broke and lost the railway, which was eventually sold at auction. Over the next 25 years, a series of disasters, including fires, windstorms, and floods, took out the railway and the White City piece by piece. The Great Depression made rebuilding impossible, and by 1938, what was left of the railway was officially abandoned.
But there are remnants from the White City and the Mount Lowe Railway still on the mountain, and we hiked to some of them yesterday! It was a great hike. It takes about an hour to get to the top of Echo Mountain, on the Sam Merritt Trail, which ascends roughly 1400 feet in about 2.5 miles (so it’s a rigorous hike, too!). The views from Echo Mountain are astounding. Here’s Jonathan and I at the summit:
We’re actually standing on the loading platform for the funicular, which you can see a little bit better here:
This was also the site of the Echo Mountain House, a 60-room hotel that opened in 1894. Here’s what the hotel looked like in its heyday:
Note the steps on the right, leading up to the porch. They’re still standing, and here’s Jonathan and me at the top of them:
Here’s another vintage photograph of the entire Echo Mountain complex, after a rare southern California snowfall, with Echo Mountain house being the largest building:
There’s not much left of the Echo Mountain House – just the foundations:
Echo Mountain House had a short life – only six years after it opened, a kitchen fire burned the entire thing to the ground. It had been hugely under-insured, and was ever rebuilt.
Nearby is some of the original machinery used in the railway operations, left as a monument to the railway. Here I am sitting on some funicular equipment…
…and pretending to be a conductor while standing on some railway wheels:
After taking some photos and enjoying the views and the ruins, Jonathan and I headed back down. Altogether, the hike totaled 5 miles and took about 2.5 hours. Pretty tiring, in a good way! This hike was my 19th workout of the past 21 days! And it was only half of a very exciting, very active weekend: on Saturday, I went scuba diving with sea lions! Pictures and stories from that trip in my next post. For now, all that’s left to say is…
…Keep it up, David!