Looking back at Mount Lowe's searchlight

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe pretty much got what he wanted when he had the money. Ferris Wheels were a big attraction of the day and if he had wanted a Ferris Wheel he would have it and don't you forget it. But Thad had something much better and that was Mt. Lowe.

California's largest tourist attraction of the day was his. An incline railroad, hotels, and an observatory were all under his command.

Professor Lowe as he was affectionately known, first saw his next mountain top attraction in Chicago at The Worlds Columbian Exposition of 1893. He and George Wharton James went to the Exposition on the shores of Lake Michigan to stimulate bond sales.

In this "White City- The City of Aladdin's Palaces" as it was called, the professor witnessed the newest and most magical wonders the world had to offer. Among them was an item Thaddeus had to own. It was a giant searchlight the likes of which the world had not seen before.

The searchlight was built by General Electric to rival the German made Schuckert searchlight. The total weight of the searchlight was 6,000 pounds. The lamp itself was 5 feet in diameter and weighed in at 400 pounds. The reflector which was furnished and polished by Alvan Clark weighed 700 pounds. This wonderful piece of modern technology danced beams of light across the skies of the great Exposition until it was packed up and sent to California. It's first stop was at the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco and then it was boxed up and shipped to Mt. Lowe.

The great searchlight arrived in Pasadena August 6, 1894 and was eventually to be perched atop Mt. Lowe at 6,000 feet above sea level where it would be the highest light of its size in the world.

By the 15th the light was on Echo Mt., at the Professors own "White City." Its temporary home was to be a platform just below the powerhouse. There the 3,000,000 candlepower searchlight would be able to dance its powerful beam across the width and breadth of the great city below.

The construction and wiring took weeks to finish. The great lamp would require a 50 horsepower engine to operate its powerful rays. Electricity was furnished by a Pelton Water wheel which was placed in Rubio Canyon. This water wheel also provided electricity for the hotels and auxiliary power for the Incline.

Finally on September 10, 1894 the great searchlight was tried for the first time.

The great rays of the proclaimed worlds largest searchlight beamed across the roof tops and into the yards of nearly every home in its view.

Word has it that a person could read a newspaper on Catalina Island with just the illumination of the searchlight.

The light bounced from the island readers to the ocean waves spying out ships at sea.

Some people marveled at its beauty and others cursed it. Local Pasadena boys had to quickly find new hugging spots as the spot light invaded their romantic interludes.

Picture in you own mind the state of the world in 1894, peaceful evenings at home perhaps reading a book of the day when suddenly a great beam of light burst into your home to scare you and your pets half to death.

On the other hand its rays reflected every color of the rainbow upon the clouds above our city providing a spectacular light show that today's concert promoters would be envious of.

By the 15th of September it was a known fact that if you wanted to attract the attention of the great searchlight all you had to do was start a signal fire. It was recommended that you use read or some colored burning fire as the many brush fires in the valley made it hard to tell the signal fires. Once the attendant at the searchlight spotted such a signal fire he would whip the perfectly balanced searchlights base in the direction of the fire to the delight of its owner.

I think that even in 1996 the sight of a great search light on Echo Mountain or Mount Lowe would be a wonderful thing to behold. I understand that some of the original parts of the light have recently been found. More to follow in future issues.

By Jake Brouwer

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Jake Brouwer
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Copyright 1999