Photos: When Los Angeles Had A Train To The Snowy Mountain Tops

It’s common knowledge that Los Angeles used to have one of the most comprehensive public transportation systems in the world. Before it was dismantled throughout the 1950s and 60s, L.A. boasted more than 1,100 miles of track.

Seven of those miles made up Pacific Electric’s “Alpine Division,” a section of railway that snaked up the side of the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena. Known as the Mount Lowe Railway, its purpose was to shuttle tourists up to a number of mountain top resorts perched high above Los Angeles on Echo Mountain. KCET has a nice writeup describing the bygone "Hotels in the Sky" that used to line Los Angeles mountaintops.

To get to those mountaintops, passengers would first board a “Mountain Division” train in Los Angeles to travel to Altadena. In Altadena, they would transfer to the Alpine Division Mount Lowe Railway, climbing more than 3,500 feet before a third and final transfer to “The Great Incline.” The Great Incline was a funicular railway (like Angel’s Flight) that ran at nearly a 45-degree angle up the side of Echo Mountain.

All of this was first opened in 1893 by an ambitious professor named Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe. Lowe’s namesake brands the mountain today, though he only managed the mountaintop resorts for seven years.

The largest of these was the Echo Mountain House, a 70-room Victorian resort letting well-to-do Angelenos escape the bustle of then-burgeoning L.A. population somewhere around 60,000. A few other resorts existed, as well as a giant network of hiking trails built to let tourists explore the region on foot. Also built was the Mount Lowe Observatory, a predecessor to the more permanent observatory later built on Mount Wilson.

Of course, maintaining resorts isolated high above the city was a challenge. Fires broke out with some frequency, and high mountain-top winds and rains would pummel the resorts. The Echo Mountain House burned down in the early 1900s, forcing Lowe out of business. Other resorts and attractions existed up top however, enough to motivate Pacific Electric to take over the railway. P.E. continued continued operating the train until 1941 when it was shut down and sold as scrap metal for the American war effort. Take a look over at KCET, which has a nice writeup talking about the rise and fall of Los Angeles' mountain frontier.

Though the railway no longer exists, there are plenty of good hiking trails to explore throughout the area where Pacific Electric's Alpine Division once ran. The best place to start is the Cobb Estate, in Altadena!

A dedicated YouTuber has also put together this wonderful video documenting some of the hiking trails in the area, as well as giving a solid history of the Mount Lowe Railway and the hotels it serviced.