A Pen Out of the Clouds
By Robert Wm Astyk
It's a hot, clear May 31st in the second year of the great Civil War, 1862, and it's a bit steamy on the peninsula between the James and Chicahominy Rivers. Brigadier General Erasmus Darwin Keyes, commanding the Fourth Corps of McClellan's Army of the Potomac, is isolated, on the south side of the Chicahominy River, from the main army to the north.
Confederate Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia Joseph E. Johnston had ordered a dawn attack by James Longstreet's corps supported by South Carolinian Daniel H. Hill, but confusion about the roads through the woods delays the attack until 1 p.m. As the firing begins, the Commander in Chief of the Army of the Potomac sends a message to a nearby field where a dark, mustachioed New Hampshire native orders his balloon inflated. The balloonist is "Colonel" Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe.
Lowe's hourly reports on the progress of the battle across the river enable McClellan to monitor the battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks and stymie the Confederate attack. The most notable result of the battle, whose counterattack Lowe effectively directed, is that Johnston is severely wounded and taken from the field, to be succeeded on June 1 by the Confederate army's sole commander from that date onward, Robert E. Lee. So much for unforeseen consequences.
Now, let's return to the present, a continent and nearly a century and a half away from that day on the James River Peninsula. In a display case at Fred Krinke's The Fountain Pen Shop in Monrovia, Calif., lies a Waterman 414, handed down to Fred by his grandfather, that once belonged to "Professor" Thaddeus Lowe.
Between New Hampshire and southern California, between 1862 and today lies a story whose one consistent feature is rising above the ground that binds lesser mortals.
"Professor" Lowe had been fascinated by ballooning since he was a boy in the White Mountain town of Jefferson Mills, N.H. He acquired the title "Professor" on his own initiative while performing with a traveling "Miracles of Chemistry" show in New England during the early 1850s. In the late 1850s, he took his knowledge of chemical processes and joined the growing number of daredevils bent on making a Trans-Atlantic balloon crossing. His great project was first dubbed the City of New York and set to be launched from that city in 1859, bearing Lowe, five passengers, provisions and, lashed below the basket, a 20-foot steam launch in the event of a less-than-successful aerial passage.
Sponsorship became a problem when the New York company providing the coal gas to fill the balloon decided that it would only supply 50,000 of the required 500,000 cubic feet of gas. Lowe's partially inflated balloon became a laughingstock in the city whose name it bore, and never got off the ground until it was moved south to Philadelphia.
Dr. John Cresson, member of the Board of Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Institute, president of the Philadelphia Gas Works and an unabashed booster of Philadelphia over New York, invited Lowe to his city with the promise of support and the necessary amount of gas.
On June 28, 1860, on the grounds of the Point Breeze gas works, the huge balloon, renamed at the suggestion of Horace Greeley the Great Western, was drawing huge amounts of public attention as it filled with gas. Lowe and his four passengers, one of whom was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, sloughed off their ballast, rose into the air and flew 18 miles into New Jersey before setting down for the night. The balloon had easily lifted 16 tons. Lowe was no longer a laughingstock.
His Trans-Atlantic expedition was set for Sept. 8, 1860. On that date an unfortunate combination of factors mixed with a strong gust of wind to tear the bag to shreds. The adventure was postponed again.
Cresson now insisted that Lowe obtain the blessing of Joseph Henry from the Smithsonian Institution before the Atlantic crossing. Henry, in turn, insisted on a preliminary long-range test flight over land. So it was that Lowe and a smaller balloon entrained for Cincinnati, Ohio, late in the winter of 1861.
As the war clouds gathered over the issue of secession, most people denied that there would be a war. Thus when Lowe set off in his balloon on April 20, the fall of Fort Sumter was only an "incident." His nine-hour, 900-mile flight took him south-southeast, rather than the expected due east, from Cincinnati to Unionville, S.C., where Lowe was immediately detained as a Union spy. His showmanship stood him in good stead. He talked himself out of the spying charge and into safe passage north, where he stopped in Washington to offer in person his services and his invention of the portable hydrogen-gas generator to President Lincoln.
Thus Lowe became chief of the Army Balloon Corps with the rank of colonel. Between 1861 and 1863, he and his assistants made some 6,000 ascensions, becoming the first to transmit aerial observations of a battle by telegraph, the first to take aerial mapping photos, and the first to ascend from a ship. Lowe is considered the father of military aviation in America, Army and Navy both.
Upon his resignation after General Joseph Hooker drastically reduced his command early in 1863, Colonel Lowe turned his attention to refrigeration and became the first to produce manufactured ice. In 1868, he designed and owned the first ship fitted with refrigerated ice-box compartments in which to ship perishables. He also invented processes for producing coke and gas.
In 1887, at age 55, Thaddeus Lowe took his wife and children and his wealth to California, settling in South Pasadena, where he determined to indulge his first love, astronomy. He built a 75-foot-tall tower on his mansion with an observatory to house his six-inch reflecting telescope.
After an attempt in 1892 to lure Harvard University into establishing a permanent astronomical observatory on Mt. Wilson, Lowe invited Dr. Lewis Smith of Rochester, New York to move his telescope away from Rochester's growing light pollution to the remote Echo Mountain. Upon establishment of the Lowe-financed observatory on Oak Mountain, the next-highest peak beyond Echo Mountain, that Oak Mountain was renamed Mt. Lowe.
Besides the observatory, Lowe built a resort and scenic electric railway, the famous Mt. Lowe Railway. Beginning in 1891, Lowe constructed a trolley line from the Los Angeles Short Line Railway terminal in Altadena to Rubio Canyon.
That winter he financed work on a cable incline railway to the summit of Echo Mountain. It opened on July 4, 1893. A small hotel and pavilion for visitors stood at the Rubio Canyon transfer station and in 1894 Lowe opened the Echo Mountain House, a three-story, 40-room rustic hotel with a domed observation room and restaurant on one corner overlooking the canyons. From the Echo Mountain House, the electric railway line pushed on toward the summit of Mt. Lowe and Ye Alpine Tavern, across gorges, around dramatic turns, and through a cut in the rock called the Granite Gate. It soon became known far and wide as The Railway above the Clouds.
In 1896, Professor Lowe's money was nearly gone and another 2.5 miles of rail still needed to be laid to reach the Mt. Lowe summit. His financing depended on obtaining a franchise for a connecting line from Pasadena to Altadena. Into this dramatic moment stepped Henry Edwards Huntington, the nephew of the builder of the Southern Pacific Railway and heir to that fortune. Huntington backed the proposal of The Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway. Lowe lost the franchise and Huntington ultimately bought the whole Mt. Lowe project. Thaddeus Lowe went into retirement, by no means poor, but no longer the active entrepreneur he had been. He continued to visit the Mt. Lowe Observatory and consult with Dr. Smith and his successor, Dr. Edgar Lucin Larkin.
The Mt. Lowe Railway attracted millions of visitors but also attracted disasters. In 1909, a massive thunderstorm, high winds, and rock slide destroyed the Echo Mountain House, lifting the roof off the domed observation area and sending it sailing out over the mountainside to drop onto the railway powerhouse, causing a major fire. Fires and wind storms continued to plague the area until it ceased regular operations in the 1920s and was finally abandoned in 1935.
Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe died in San Marino, Calif., in 1913, leaving behind a sterling overlay Waterman 414 that, like a madeleine dipped in tea, conjures the views from New Hampshire's White Mountains to California's San Gabriels and battles seen from a balloon and an amazing life in between.
And by the way, as an added tidbit -- besides being the father of American military aviation, Lowe has a connection to space travel, too. His granddaughter, Florence Lowe, was better known as the barnstorming, pioneer aviatrix, Pancho Barnes, in her day as famous as her contemporary, Amelia Earhart. She spent her later life as the proprietress of a bar, hotel and riding stable, called the Happy Bottom Riding Club, in the Mojave Desert. Located on part of what is now Edwards Air Force Base, Pancho catered to military test pilots including Chuck Yeager and some of the original seven Mercury astronauts. It is a short and straight line drawn by this single Waterman from the lighter-than-air craft of the 1850s to orbiting the earth in the 1960s.