By Peter Westwick
125 years ago, on September 24, 1892, Thaddeus Lowe led a party of local residents on horseback up Oak Mountain, about four miles west of Mount Wilson. When they reached the summit the party decided to celebrate by renaming the peak in honor of their guide. Lowe went on to build an inclined railway up his eponymous mountain, ending at a resort near the top; for four decades it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southern California, with over three million people riding the railway until fire and floods wiped it out in the 1930s.
Having a whole mountain named after you seems a pretty good way to get people to remember your name. But Lowe might have left a more substantial if less familiar legacy in Southern California’s aviation and aerospace industry. A New Hampshire Yankee, self-taught polymath, and a pioneering balloonist, Lowe built several balloons during the Civil War to spy on the Confederate Army, winning him official appointment by President Lincoln as Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army and the unofficial title of the most shot-at man in the Civil War. In 1890 Lowe retired to Pasadena, where he built a giant mansion on Millionaire’s Row and started a bank, a gas works, and an ice supplier—and planted the seed of flight. His friend and protégé, Roy Knabenshue, popularized balloon and dirigible flights in the area and also helped organize the 1910 L.A. Air Meet, a key catalyst for Southern California aviation.
Thanks to his service in the Union Army Lowe was sometimes called the grandfather of the U.S. Air Force. He was also the grandfather of Florence Lowe, whom he took to the 1910 air meet when she was nine years old. The spectacle of flight entranced the young girl, and she went on to acquire fame as “Pancho” Barnes, a pioneer barnstormer, Hollywood stunt pilot, industry test pilot, and later owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the celebrated watering hole at what became Edwards Air Force Base in the “Right Stuff” era. Lowe didn’t live to see it, having passed away in 1913, but he might have taken pleasure in knowing that many of the remarkable achievements of aviation and aerospace in the century to follow were conceived and built within sight of Mount Lowe.
Peter Westwick is director of ICW’s Aerospace History Project and adjunct professor of History, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. He has published several books on the history of the Space Age, Southern California’s aerospace industry and surfing.