Californians and the Military
Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe
Aviation Pioneer
By Lieutenant Colonel Norman S. Marshal and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
Thaddeus 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 ships.

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 route.

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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Updated 8 February 2016