Hotels in the Sky: Bygone Mountaintop Resorts of L.A.

Aerial view of Echo Mountain House and the San Gabriel Valley. Mount Lowe Observatory is in the lower right corner of the photo. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


The population boom of the 1880s brought mountain fever to Los Angeles. The recreational explosion known as the "Great Hiking Era" (see SLIDESHOW) of the San Gabriels saw millions of Angelenos charge into their local mountains like never before. In pursuit of recreation, reinvigoration, and escape from the confines of burgeoning urbanity, people began to crave scenic mountain environments. Capitalizing on this blooming demand, entrepreneurs built resort camps to lure the throngs of weekend trekkers into an overnight stay. The accommodations, whether rudimentary or elegant, offered a sublime experience not soon to be forgotten.


Mount Wilson and the First Modern Hiking Trail

Portrait of Benjamin (Don Benito) Wilson | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public LibraryPerhaps the most famous summit in the San Gabriels, Mount Wilson has served as a gateway into the mountains since the indigenous Tongva blazed a trade path up Little Santa Anita Canyon to the top. In April of 1864, Benjamin D. Wilson, former El Pueblo de Los Angeles Mayor and owner of foothill-adjacent Rancho La Huerta de Cuati, desired the bounty of pine and cedar gleaming on its peak. The wealthy landowner and his party of laborers cleared a new trail along the former Indian path by the end of the summer. Wilson harvested the timber for a few weeks but soon abandoned the enterprise, making no more use of the trail or the mountain that today bears his name.

The footpath would not go unused for long. A few years after his death in 1878, Wilson's trail was repurposed for the "Great Hiking Era" that was getting underway in Los Angeles. Residents eager to visit the lofty forested summit that they could see from the valley lowlands took to the well-worn trail in record numbers. By 1906, hikers from Downtown Los Angeles or Pasadena could board the Pacific Electric's "Big Red Cars" and disembark at line's end at the trailhead.

Rudimentary observatory on Mount Wilson | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

As the peak's popularity grew locally, efforts were underway to market its allure to the world. Excellent atmospheric conditions on Mount Wilson attracted investors interested in constructing a mountaintop observatory. As soon as funds were secured, a 13-inch photographic telescope, weighing 3,700 pounds, was purchased and arrived in Sierra Madre in February of 1889, and was hauled up a widened trail by horse and man power to a small observatory building. By that May, astronomers began photographing the stars from their perch 5,700 feet above Los Angeles.

Knowing that Mount Wilson would soon be drawing even more visitors with its latest scientific curiosity, local entrepreneurs set out to developed tourism on its summit. Pasadenan Peter Steil established Steil's Camp, a popular resort offering transportation, lodging, and meals for under three dollars. Steil's was rivaled by an adjacent resort founded by the hostile A.G. Strain, who became convinced that Steil was infringing on his land rights. Strain even sued Steil in court in 1891, but he was ultimately handed a defeat. Steil sold his camp to Clarence S. Martin, who expanded the resort, later known as Martin's Camp, to accommodate a framed dining room and more guest rooms.

Photograph of a view of A.G. Strain's camp at Mount Wilson, ca.1898. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Two Men with donkeys and tents on Mount Wilson, California, 1887.  Martins Camp on the Old Trail. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

A group of people on the top of the mountain look at Pasadena from Martin's Camp, Wilson's Peak. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Exterior view of a tavern at Wilson's Peak, ca.1900 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

When the automobile craze surged in the 1920s, families were finally able to reach the summit on four wheels. Driving up the harrowing Mountain Wilson toll road, which was open to the public from 1912 to 1936, deposited weekend adventures at the doorstep of the Mount Wilson Hotel. Rebuilt after burning down in 1913, the hotel, complete with a dining room and swimming pool, was a popular lodging for Southern Californians. The landmark hotel would be torn down in 1966.

Group of nine people riding mules on the trail to Mount Wilson | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

Tanner cars at Mt. Wilson, American Chemical Society trip, Southern California, 1927 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California


Baldy Summit Inn: The Highest Hotel in L.A. County

Before the 1880s, recorded ascents of Mount Baldy, the tallest mountain in the San Gabriels, were slim. As the mountain entered the golden age of recreation, however, a rush was on to scale its imposing wind-swept "bald" summit. Ontario mountaineer William B. Dewey made his first ascent in 1882, and was so impressed with the experience that he decided to erect a camp just eighty yards below the summit. In 1910, the Baldy Summit Inn was open for business on a mountaintop prone to strong winds and unpredictable weather.

Group of hunters at the summit of Mount Baldy, ca. 1890. | Photo: Wikipedia


If hiking was not appealing to summit seekers, horses and burros would bring them up to the summit, where the stunned arrivals took refuge in anchored tents for one dollar. Dewey's wife prepared the meals in the cooking tent, but unfortunately this particular tent would lead to the Inn's demise. A fire broke out in the cooking tent in the summer of 1913 and destroyed nearby accommodations. Dewey chose not to rebuild, and his three years operating the the highest resort in L.A County came to a close.

Two decades later, plans were proposed by L.A. entrepreneurs to design a railway to the top of Baldy and build a grand hotel at its peak. Unlike Mount Lowe to the west, the summit of Mount Baldy would never see any type of development.


Baldy Summit Inn, ca 1910 | Photo: Wikipedia


The Might of the Mount Lowe Railway

And from treasures and tributes of forest and mine,
And stone that are quarried from canyon and glen,
Arises a Temple -- an altar divine,
Where the stars shall come down and hold council with men.
- Excerpt from "Message of Mount Lowe" by James G. Clark, 1894

It was on a buzzing Fourth of July, 1893, when a man named Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe launched one of the most ambitious recreational experiences ever undertaken in the San Gabriel Mountains. Professor Lowe, a wealthy retired American Civil War aeronaut, inventor, and scientist, had partnered with Pasadena engineer David Joseph Macpherson to construct a much sought after scenic mountain railroad for tourists and recreators. The Mount Lowe Railway was divided into three sections: the Mountain Division, the Great Incline, and the Alpine Division.

The rail journey began as far as Terminal Island in San Pedro, where people boarded one of the twice-daily Los Angeles Terminal Railway cars that carried them to the remote Mountain Junction stop at the corner of Lake Avenue and Calaveras Street in unincorporated Altadena. From Mountain Junction passengers rode a narrow gauge trolley to a large platform that spanned Rubio Canyon. A twelve room hotel, the Rubio Pavilion, welcomed guests at the platform. From here guests climbed into an astonishing feat of engineering, the three-railed funicular known as the "Great Incline."

View of Mount Lowe's cable incline at the Rubio Pavilion. A group poses in the car at the bottom of the incline. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

An aerial view of the Cable Incline rail tracks. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The funicular slowly raised passengers to grades as steep as 62% as it made its incredible climb up the precipitous curves of Echo Mountain, at one time crossing a granite chasm over 150 feet wide. A shock of white greeted the rail cars at the summit in the form of the Echo Mountain House. A two story 80-room Victorian hotel with panoramic views of Los Angeles from valley to sea, the stately edifice contained a grand lobby and dining room. On the grounds of what was known as the "White City," guests could explore a working observatory, a museum, more than 30 miles of bridle paths and hiking trails, a small zoo, and to everyone's curiosity, what was then the world's largest searchlight at three million candlepower and a height of eleven feet that illuminated the valley floor at night.

The Incline rail car "Echo" and another car named "Alpine" are both approaching the widened portion of the Incline Rail where they can pass, one ascending and the other descending. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

View from the Alpine Division section of the Mount Lowe Railway in an area known as the Circular Bridge. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

View of some of the hotel guests standing on the veranda and stairways at the front of Echo Mountain House. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The end of the line in the Alpine Division rested two and a half miles further near the summit of Mount Lowe. Here, in an area called Crystal Springs, awed visitors could stay at the Swiss chalet-styled Ye Alpine Tavern nestled among pines, oaks, and spruces. The hotel featured a sweeping dining room capable of seating 200, a roaring fireplace, a system of trails leading to romantic vistas, and a pony train that drew from the Tavern twice a day.

Although Professor Lowe's "temple" was a wildly popular weekend getaway and renowned worldwide, financial profits eluded him. He was forced to sell the railway property in 1899, and he died penniless in 1913 in his daughter's Pasadena home. Disaster steadily followed over the years as fires destroyed the White City and the Tavern, and floods wrecked the rails and the Rubio Pavilion. The Mount Lowe Railway was officially abandoned in 1939, and today the ruins are a popular hiking destination.

Redondo High School students arrive at Mt. Lowe Tavern for a snow battle royal. Photo dated: January 22, 1930. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Visitors travel on the funicular or Great Incline portion of the Mount Lowe Railway | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Passengers on Mount Lowe electric passenger train, circa 1912. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

View of Echo Mountain Station, 3500 ft. above sea level. A spotlight is mounted on top of the building. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Observatory director Dr. Edward Larkin stands outside of the early wooden structure of the Mount Lowe Observatory at Echo Mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

View of Echo Mountain House. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Interior view of Ye Alpine Tavern showing a very large lounge room with a fireplace, chairs and a piano on the right. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Interior view of a large dining room, possibly Ye Alpine Tavern in Crystal Springs. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

A Pacific Electric Railway car travels through the San Gabriel Mountains on one of the sections leading to and from Mount Lowe. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Family photo taken on Mount Lowe. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Shown here is a grip wheel, 9 feet in diameter, and other parts of the machinery called winding machinery located at the Echo Mountain station. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Shown here is a grip wheel, 9 feet in diameter, once part of the cable winding machinery located in the Echo Mountain cable house and used to pull the cable cars up and down the Incline portion of the railway. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Mount Lowe area after fire. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

About the Author

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy exploring Los Angeles and learning about its origins.
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