The Startling Personal Finances of Professor T.S.C. Lowe

A bold entrepreneur and scientist, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe (1832-1913) made fortunes and lost them. It is almost the due date for filing 2016 income taxes, so some of us are taking a hard look at our saving and spending. The story of Professor Lowe’s fortunes is a cautionary tale.

He was a scientist with little formal education. Because he ran away from home as a boy, his schooling ended with the fourth grade. Nonetheless, people called him Professor Lowe. The title Professor was not reserved for those who taught in colleges or had advanced degrees. Professor Thaddeus Lowe held over 200 patents.

A Chemist Becomes Rich and Suffers Losses

Lowe made one of his fortunes after pressurizing ammonia to make refrigerated railway cars and steamships. His first refrigerated steamship was a financial success.  He invested in more ships, but some were too large to enter shallow-water ports. Lowe’s personal losses totaled $87,000, a huge sum in the late 1800s.

The Lowe Water-Gas Process improved gas and made it more affordable. Gas was used to light homes as well as heat them. Lowe made a fortune producing and selling water gas and manufacturing appliances. These included stoves, heaters and fireplaces. The gas company he owned, however, was a financial failure. Same with a hotel he owned that showcased water gas.

A discouraged Lowe came to California and, too energetic to retire, founded a bank and invested in real estate. He lived in a mansion on Pasadena’s Millionaires’ Row, at 955 South Orange Grove Avenue. It was reported to be the largest residence in the country at the time and sat on fifteen acres.

Lowe's home on Orange Grove
Professor Lowe’s home in Pasadena. For scale, note the open structure, a porte cochere, at right here and featured in the photo below.

 

Lowe's Home in Pasadena, Porte Cochere
The same porte cochere dwarfs a buggy and team of horses.

The mansion even had a four-story observatory. Lowe lived there with his wife and younger children (they had ten in all), looked out at the steep mountains, and dreamed big.

Lowe’s Railway to the Clouds

The Mount Lowe Railway was an engineering challenge because of steep grades and crumbling surface rock, but Lowe would not take “no” for an answer. The railway was built by D.J. Macpherson with Lowe as the financial backer. Visitors enjoyed the thrilling ride and ate and stayed at hotels Lowe built on the mountain. He also built an observatory near the top of the railway.

Although the railway and hotels were popular, it lost money at a time when Professor Lowe had other financial problems. It opened in 1893, at the start of a recession that would last years.

By 1898, Professor Lowe’s debts totaled over $200,000, and he had to declare bankruptcy. By then, Lowe’s huge mansion was owned by his neighbor Adolphus Busch, the beer magnate. The railroad was acquired by Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway and operated for decades.

Although he lost this fortune, Lowe counted his blessings. He explained that his Mount Lowe Railway was ten years ahead of its time. He said that he was glad he had a mountain named in his honor, something that money couldn’t buy.

Back to the lab. Professor Lowe developed a method to convert crude oil to gas and coke. He put it in production, but he did not charge enough to make and sustain profits.

The good professor died nearly penniless in his daughter’s Pasadena home. At the time, he was planning a gas-powered luxury airship.

Lowe’s Early Career:  Balloonist and Lincoln’s Chief Aeronaut

From the time he was young, Lowe was a balloonist. When the Civil War broke out, he offered to help the Union. President Lincoln wrote a note to General Scott to “see Lowe once more about his balloon.”  Lowe acquired the note and treasured it for the rest of his life. Lowe became Chief Aeronaut of the Union Forces, a civilian position.

Lowe ascended in a balloon and looked down upon Confederate troops in the distance. He observed their movements and telegraphed this intelligence information to Union soldiers below. A wire connected the telegraph in the balloon to the one on the ground.

Special thanks to the Mount Lowe Preservation Society Inc. and the Pasadena Museum of History.

I’ll post on the first of the month starting June 1.

 

 

 

 

A Fence Around Her: Lottie Johl

A ghost town is the home of the stories of its past residents.

[This post was written by reader Brigid Amos. Maybe you have seen her comments here. She is the author of a new book,  A Fence Around Her. I’ll let her continue…]

There is something bittersweet about a collection of abandoned homes, businesses, churches and civic buildings, all decaying slowly in a remote location. A visit to such a place always seems to evoke the dashed hopes and bitter disappointments of those who once walked its now-lonely streets, and this is true even if the ghost town is well-maintained and heavily visited, as is Bodie, California, a prosperous gold and silver mining district in the Eastern Sierra that boomed in the 1880s. Of all the stories I’ve read or heard about Bodie, the one that always gets to me is that of Lottie Johl. I find her story so sad and touching that I loosely based a major character in my novel A Fence Around Her on this real-life Bodie resident.

Lottie was a sweet, good-natured woman who found herself, through unfortunate life circumstances and limited employment opportunities, working in a house of ill repute in Bodie’s red-light district. There she met a hard-working German immigrant named Eli Johl. Although he was quite successful as a butcher, he was a lonely bachelor, perhaps due to his limited English skills, and he seemed to be searching for someone to share his life. The woman he found was Lottie, and much to the horror of the respectable people of Bodie, he took her as his legal wife. He built her a comfortable house and furnished it in the best style he could afford. Lottie showed an interest in painting, and Eli bought her an easel, a palette, and brushes, and he kept her well-supplied with oil paints and canvases. Isolated in her opulent parlor, Lottie painted fantastical landscapes. Eli had them elaborately framed in red velvet and gilt and displayed them on the parlor walls, although no one came to their house to look at the paintings, because Lottie was still shunned by society.

Finally, Eli hatched a plan to almost force Lottie upon Bodie society. A masquerade ball was to be held at the Miners Union Hall, and Eli sent Lottie to the event alone, dressed in a white satin gown covered in fake diamonds and pearls, with a matching crown perched on her blond curls. All the men wanted to dance with the lovely lady in the diamond and pearl-encrusted dress, and all the women envied her. The committee assigned to give out the costume awards decided to give the mysterious lady the first prize. But when midnight struck and everyone took off their masks, poor Lottie was abandoned by her dance partner. A member of the committee discreetly asked her to leave, and she went home in humiliation.

lottie-johl
Lottie Johl. Photograph used with permission of the Bodie Foundation.

And if the events of Lottie Johl’s life weren’t sad enough, her death and burial are truly heartbreaking. Lottie felt sick one day (though probably not sick enough to die), and a doctor wrote a prescription. The druggist filled it, and Lottie took the medicine. She was dead by next morning. Instead of the prescribed medicine, the druggist had given her a deadly dose of a toxic substance. It was probably a mistake, but I have to wonder if the druggist took less care in filling the prescription when he saw that it was for Lottie Johl, someone he considered of little importance.

Eli was not allowed to bury his beloved wife inside the fence of the cemetery with the “respectable dead,” so he erected an ornate wrought-iron fence around her grave. He was determined that she would have a much finer fence than the one around the cemetery, so that people would see what a fine woman she was. I think it’s ironic that so many of the people who made Lottie’s life miserable are completely forgotten, while the memory of Lottie Johl lives on.

I felt that it was important to honor the real-life inspiration for Lilly Conoboy, the mother of fourteen-year-old Ruthie Conoboy, the protagonist of my novel A Fence Around Her. I want to make it clear that Lilly is not Lottie. While Lottie was an innocent victim, Lilly brings on her own tragedy. While Lottie seems like someone I might seek out as a friend, Lilly is someone I would avoid if I could do so. But that is what we historical fiction writers do. We take history and turn it into fiction, and the two are not the same. I will always feel gratitude to the historical Lottie Johl for being who she was and leaving behind her story.

a-fence-around-her

Pamela:  You can read an excerpt of A Fence Around Her, Young Adult Historical Fiction published by Clean Reads, and purchase at the links below.

Amazon 

Barnes and Noble

iTunes

Kobo 

Smashwords  

Brigid and I would like to hear your comment!

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Author and playwright Brigid Amos

Every Pack with a Prize Inside

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Tennis cards, like baseball cards? Yes and no.

 

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These are called cigarette cards. Not much bigger than a modern business card, these trade cards were a bonus in a pack of cigarettes. They came in a series, usually twenty-five or fifty, with a similar theme.

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Each came in a different pack of cigarettes.

Many were aimed at male smokers:  airplanes, sports and cars. These cars were modern at the time.

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Cigarette companies wanted brand loyalty from consumers, so they gave them tiny works of art.

From the 1931 series "Picturesque London"
From the 1931 series “Picturesque London”

Another good way to get customers to keep buying from their company, and not from a competitor, was to display numbers on the cards.

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Or even letters of the alphabet.

Each letter has a different flag signal.
Each letter has a different flag signal.

The cards above and below are part of a 1910 series, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.

 

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Some were embroidered silk. Recently, a quilt made of many of these was on display at the Pasadena Museum of History.

I came across all of these, and many more, by accident, at a hotel near Yosemite, the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal. All of the ones there were from Great Britain, from 1890 to 1939. The cigarette cards below of British military uniforms were issued in 1939, when the country was fighting for its survival in World War II. I like to imagine people in a bleak time appreciating the small, patriotic works of art.

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In Glorious Color

Trade card from the 1880s
Trade card from the 1880s

From black and white to color:  the invention of printing by lithography brought beauty to people’s daily lives through mass production. If you are old enough to remember when color TV was new, you remember the first time you saw a show in color. I was amazed. It was so much more lifelike and vibrant than shades of gray.

In the late 1800s, lithography brought an explosion of items printed in color. People were handed trade cards like these, picked them up in the store, and pulled them from their mailboxes. Some women and children pasted them into albums.

An exotic Russian czar and brilliant color promote thread in this American trade card.
An exotic Russian czar and brilliant color promote thread in this American trade card.

Handbills distributed on the street for events, illustrations in books, free promotional posters you could tack on your wall–suddenly color was everywhere.

Recognize this painting from my last post? The Crimson Rambler, named after the wildly popular rose.

"The Crimson Rambler," ca. 1908, by Philip Leslie Hale
“The Crimson Rambler,” ca. 1908, by Philip Leslie Hale

Here’s one way that rose got so popular: trade cards.

Crimson Rambler trade card

Technology also brought colorful clothes. At this time, in the last half of the 1800s, synthetic dyes were introduced and suddenly people could wear rich colors.  Here are two silk dresses from the 1890s. These are from the Pasadena Museum of History.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technology brought the excitement of color. “The Color Explosion” was an exhibit at the Huntington showcasing part of their Jay T. Last Collection of lithographed items. Click on that link to see some examples that really took advantage of color, and read how it changed the world.

Restored Film of 1906 San Francisco

This is before the earthquake, but Market Street looks chaotic:  cable cars, autos, horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians dodging all of them. You see the Ferry Building, which still stands, at the end of the street. The camera was mounted on the front of a cable car, so the people and cars crossing the tracks are crossing in front of a cable car.

This was shot only about four days before the catastrophic earthquake and fire, but by that time the film was safely on its way to New York to be developed. I wish all the people in the film had also been out of town.

This excerpt is sharper than the longer versions on YouTube.

Jews in 1850 Los Angeles

In 1848, nothern Mexico ceded California to the US, and gold was discovered.  Suddenly the town of Los Angeles, located among rancheros, became a stop for gold prospectors heading north from their homes in Mexico, Central and South America.  Hearing of the exorbitant prices near the gold fields, some of these men bought their mining supplies and clothing as they passed through Los Angeles.  This was an opportunity for merchants, and competition was fiercer in San Francisco, the gateway to the gold country, than in relatively sleepy Los Angeles.

The Jews listed in Los Angeles’ first US Census outfitted these gold-seekers and the increasing number of Angelenos.  The 1850 census document, donated to a museum by Cecil B. De Mille, records 3,530 people in all of Los Angeles County, only eight of whom were Jewish.

A microcosm reflecting the settling of the American frontier, all of the Jewish residents were single men, and almost all were young.  There was a forty-year-old tailor, but all the others were merchants ranging in age from 19 to 28. These gentlemen lived behind their storefronts in the Bell’s Row block of Los Angeles.

They were born in Germany and Poland, and all had lived elsewhere in the United States, so they spoke their native languages and possibly other European languages, had learned English, and picked up Spanish in their stores, doing business with Spanish-speaking locals and gold seekers. Multi-lingualism was a key to success in early Los Angeles.

 

The two census pages listing these men were a small part of a wide-ranging exhibit, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, at the Autry National Center.  I was fortunate to have a tour with a docent offering more information than was on display — guided tours are a great way to see a museum exhibit. This exhibit has a companion book of the same title, published by the University of California Press.

Fashion Plates are Pages!

Scarlett O’Hara scandalized polite society a few times in Gone With The Wind.  She opened her own lumber mill and later staffed it with convicts from a local prison.   Money was scarce in war-torn Atlanta, but proper ladies had proper jobs, like painting china at home and selling it.  Scarlett pooh-poohed that.

Magazines were very popular entertainment in the days before television.  Illustrations in were often printed on smooth, heavy paper, called plates.  (Does anyone remember books with Plate 1 and Plate 2, instead of Fig. 1 and Fig. 2?)

Fashion plates were illustrations showing the latest styles, and often showed well-dressed women in (ladylike) action.

This hand-tinted fashion plate from "Les Modes Parisiennes:  Peterson's Magazine," includes a bride. 1866.
This hand-tinted fashion plate from “Les Modes Parisiennes: Peterson’s Magazine,” includes a bride. 1866.

This was printed as a black outline and dropped off at a woman’s house, and she added the color with paintbrushes.  This was a way women could work at home, because it was not considered acceptable for a woman to work in an office with men.

Later, the term “fashion plate” came to mean a woman who wore stylish clothes.