Stacey Camp Digs into the Mexican American Labor History of Mount Lowe Resort and Railway

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FIGURE 1: Mount Lowe’s Incline Railway courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library (circa 1923).

July 4, 2017 marks the 124th anniversary of Mount Lowe Resort and Railway’s opening. Nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains, Mount Lowe Resort and Railway boasted a death-defying incline railroad (FIGURE 1) that “was the first mountain incline railway powered by electricity” (Zack 2004:81), a zoo, a bowling alley, a post office, a miniature golf course, a fox farm, and an observatory. Over 3 million tourists from all over the globe visited the attraction during the 43 years it was in operation, and it was considered “the most popular single tourist attraction in California at the turn of the century” (Seims 1992). Mount Lowe Resort was built by the eclectic, self-titled “Professor” Thaddeus S. C. Lowe and his business partner David J. Macpherson, a Cornell trained engineer. Lowe went bankrupt trying to maintain the resort, and eventually Pacific Electric Railway purchased it and maintained it until its closing in 1936.

Like many Mount Lowe followers, I first learned of the site during one of my many hikes in Angeles National Forest as an undergraduate at Occidental College. Bits and pieces of Mount Lowe Resort and Railway have been left behind on the landscape, including railroad beds that have been transformed into hiking trails, foundations of the resort, the resort’s “Echo Phone,” a fountain, and a painted seating area for lovebirds.

Though initially attracted to Mount Lowe’s glitzy past, I became intrigued with what was being ignored in contemporary discussions of the resort. A few years after encountering Mount Lowe, I was able to combine my interest in Southern California’s history with archaeology as a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Stanford University. After interviewing local historians interested in Mount Lowe’s history and reading published accounts of the resort, I decided to look at the forgotten elements of Mount Lowe, honing in on the people who worked on the famous incline railway.

Census data, historic maps, newspaper articles, and information contained in the resort owners’ (Pacific Electric Railway) employee magazines provided documentary and photographic information on the resort’s employees. I discovered that Mexican immigrant laborers were employed by Pacific Electric Railway to repair the railroad, and that they were housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions at Mount Lowe. Mount Lowe’s employees lived in what were known as “section houses,” with “section” referring to a portion of the railroad employees were charged with repairing. Though the section house was designed for one family, Mount Lowe’s section house housed, on average, four families between 1910 and 1930. An October 1920 work order notes that the section house’s “toilet facilities are very unsanitary,” with “County Health Officers” requesting that Pacific Electric Railway “install septic tanks and sanitary plumbing.” It took the company 8 years and a complaint filed by the Los Angeles County Health Department to install the required sanitary plumbing.


FIGURE 2: Pacific Electric Railway article depicting camp nurses and inspectors (Carr 1921).

I also discovered that Pacific Electric Railway’s employees of Mexican heritage were specifically targeted for reform programs. The company hired Anglo-American women to change what they perceived as ethnic-, racial-, and class-based defects, and to assimilate Mexican men and women into Anglo-American culture (FIGURE 2). Anglo-American reformers sought to change what Mexican immigrants ate, wore, and consumed. Reformers ensured compliance with these expectations by physically inspecting section houses (Carr 1919) and offering demeaning demonstrations on proper bathing and bed-making. If section house residents met a “certain standard of cleanliness each week,” they were “rewarded with free passes to Los Angeles for shopping and pleasure trips” (Elliott 1918:152). If, however, they were “careless about observing the rules,” wrote Pacific Electric engineer Clifford Elliott, they were “disqualified from receiving any such free transportation” (1918:152).


FIGURE 3: A team of volunteers and students excavating at Mount Lowe Resort and Railway.

I decided to investigate the material culture of Mount Lowe’s Mexican immigrant employees and how they responded to reform efforts and corporate paternalism. With the help of local historian Brian Marcroft, I located the foundations of Mount Lowe’s section house that housed its Mexican immigrant railroad workers. Excavating in the blazing heat of Angeles National Forest for two summers (FIGURE 3) revealed new information regarding the lives of the section house residents. The archaeological data suggest that the workers were fairly compliant with reformers’ requests. We found several sets of matching white ceramic sets, which many middle- to upper-class Americans interpreted as symbolizing “purity and virtue” (Fitts 1999:8). The Mexican immigrants’ ceramic collection would not only be seen as an attempt to project literal and spiritual cleanliness, but also would be perceived as a reflection of the workers’ class standing. Upper-class Americans typically owned numerous sets of ceramics, including wares that featured colorful patterns. Only 4% of the Mount Lowe’s workers’ ceramics exhibited polychromatic design, placing them squarely in the lower class when it comes to ceramic consumption.

Though children were absent in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 Census schedules, they do make an appearance in the archaeological and photographic record. A photograph from a local historian’s private Mount Lowe collection documents what appears to be the Mexican railroad workers eating with four children and one infant. During our excavations of the section house, numerous toys were recovered, including a miniature porcelain tea set (FIGURE 4), marbles, and a headless porcelain “Frozen Charlotte” doll (FIGURE 5) found within the same archaeological context as pencils, chalk, and pencil lead. These objects could have served multiple purposes, including as part of Pacific Electric Railway’s reform efforts and as children’s playthings. At an urban reform cooperative in Boston, reformers using miniature toys to teach female immigrants how to be domestic servants. Toys were used to train them how to keep up “with the housekeeping standards desired by middle and upper class women” (Spencer-Wood 1987:23-27).


Other items found during excavations challenge reformers’ portrayals of workers as illiterate and disinterested in education. Writing implements were found in the section house, suggesting that the workers were literate, or at least working towards literacy. Manual Gamio, a prominent social scientist of the time, similarly observed that individuals of Mexican heritage were bringing American-made goods into Mexico, such as books and typewriters, in record numbers during the mid-1920s (1930:19).

Archaeology has thus helped to broaden our understanding of how migrant laborers responded to cultural assimilation efforts. The story of Mount Lowe Mexican immigrant railway laborers and their families likewise reveals that migrant labor has been central to Southern California’s tourism and entertainment industry since the late 19th century.

Works Cited:

Carr, Viva M.
1921 Camp Welfare. Pacific Electric Magazine, January 10, 5(8).

Elliott, Clifford A.
1918 Home Attractions Keep Track Laborers Satisfied – Solving the Labor Problem by Providing Free Section Houses With All Conveniences, Land for Gardens and Chicken Raising as Well as Free Transportation to Amusement Places for Their Employees and Families. Pacific Electric Magazine, July 27:150-52.

Fitts, Robert K.
1999 The Archaeology of Middle-Class Domesticity and Gentility in Victorian Brooklyn. Historical Archaeology 33(1):39-62.

Gamio, Manuel
1930 Mexican Immigration to the United States: A Study of Human Migration and Adjustment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Seims, Charles
1992 National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Property Name: Mount Lowe Railway, Angeles National Forest. Gresham: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

Spencer-Wood, Suzanne M.
1987 A Survey of Domestic Reform Movement Sites in Boston and Cambridge, Ca. 1865-1905. Historical Archaeology 21:7-36.

Zack, Michele
2004 Altadena: Between Wilderness and City. Altadena: Altadena Historical Society.

Stacey Camp is an historical archaeologist who specializes in the archaeology of the late 19th and early to mid-20th century Western United States, with a particular emphasis on immigrant experiences in Idaho and California. Camp is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Campus Archaeology Program at Michigan State University.


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