Saturday, April 10, 2021

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"

A Journey to Mount Lowe Part 2

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Once a year a group of volunteers from the Scenic Mount Lowe Railway Historical Committee,, invite a group of 75 people to accompany them to the site of the Alpine Lodge. The Historical Committee, led by Brian Marcroft, is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Mt. Lowe railway and the integrity of what remains. Today, I had the opportunity to visit Mt. Lowe with them. It was a wonderful experience, a journey in many respects back in time. The journey from Pasadena up to the site of the Alpine Lodge takes about 20 minutes by car, although normally the public isn't allowed to traverse the fire road, so you either have to walk or ride a bike up the steep grade. Once at the Lodge site, I found a group of extremely enthusiastic people, all of them volunteers, and all of them interested in the history of the Mountain Railway. The Historical Committee had set up a camp in what used to be the lobby of the Alpine Lodge — now a tiny meadow — and set up a series of interpretive displays and photos. Eating a hotdog cooked on a grill salvaged from the remnants of the Lodge kitchen, and admiring the scenery, it wasn't hard to see why Lowe felt this place was special. Although just a short ways from Pasadena, it is quiet, cool, and shaded by trees.

The trip to the Alpine Lodge also included a brief excursion to Inspiration Point, a short walk from the lodge site. The ramada was rebuilt by volunteers several years ago, and wow was it worth it! From here you get a panoramic view of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, including the Rose Bowl and Catalina Island. It is tremenous! Accompanying me on this jaunt was Lance Ferm, a direct blood descendent of Professor Lowe who mantains a neat website about the railway and the Lowe family, which you can see at: From our perch above the city of Pasadena the Rose Bowl was clearly visible; unfortunately for Lance and I the USC Trojans were upset by the UCLA Bruins that afternoon, spoiling what otherwise was obviously a perfect day!

Visible here are a few remnants of the mountain railway which have survived, including a snowplow front intended to be fitted on a trolley car, a metal frame suspected to be from the kitchen of the lodge, and one of two safe doors recently retrieved by the volunteer group. Although most of the railway and the building complex were destroyed, dynamited, or scrapped prior to 1960, a few concrete abutments, railroad ties and electrical harnesses still dot the landscape of Mt. Lowe.

A Journey to Mount Lowe

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Florence "Pancho" Barnes' grandfather was one of Pasadena's most prominent and interesting citizens. Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe was a self-made man who made and lost several fortunes during his lifetime. He is remembered famously as a pioneer American balloonist, but he also invented an early ice machine, and improved upon various technologies associated with the use of natural gas. During the Civil War Lowe persuaded President Abraham Lincoln that balloons could be important reconnaisance platforms, and thus for two years he and his Balloon Corps made observations above battlefields from Chancellorsville to Chickahominy. In the process Lowe became known as the "Most Shot At Man" in the war. In the late 1880s Lowe moved his family to Pasadena and began one of his most ambitious projects: building a railway up the side of the San Gabriel Mountains. The railway actually consisted of two stages. The first was a large funicular which ran a steep grade up to Echo Mountain. The second was a trolley car line that ran from the funicular to Mount Lowe's Alpine Tavern hotel. When it opened in 1893, the mountain railway was hailed as a singular engineering achievement, and a spectacularly beautiful addition to Pasadena. Unfortunately, just six years after the railway opened, Lowe was forced into bankruptcy. He would never recover from the loss. The railway itself was eventually acquired by the Pacific Electric, which operated it until the late 1930s when several disasters, including a fire at the Tavern and a torrential flood, forced its abandonment. It's safe to assume Pancho rode on her grandfather's railway sometime during her childhood. More significantly, in 1910 Professor Lowe took her with him to see the Air Meet at Dominguez Hills. This air show, the first in the history of the United States, must have put the balloonist Lowe in his element. According to Pancho's memoirs, her grandfather pointed at the aircraft zipping by, and told young Florence that one day, she too would learn to fly. She certainly did.

Clippings from Pancho's Scrapbook

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Here is one of hundreds of newspaper clippings that come from Pancho's personal scrapbook. This one, with a banner photo showing Ruth Elder, Pancho and Amelia Earhart, dates from the inaugural Powder Puff Derby.

The scrapbook itself is unfortunately now in pieces, and what remains is sometimes singed or water damaged. This is as a result of a fire which struck Pancho's home and "Happy Bottom Riding Club" bar, restaurant and hotel.

Here's another clipping.

This one chronicles the event that knocked Pancho out of the Powder Puff Derby.

While landing at Pecos, Texas, she collided with an automobile situated near the edge of the runway!

Discoveries in the Pancho Barnes Archive

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For the past few weeks, I've been going thru the "Pancho Barnes Archive". This is an amazing collection of Pancho Barnes' personal papers which are maintained by Dr. Lou D'Elia and Mike Salazar. Without the forethought of these two men, in fact, the Pancho documentary would not be possible. I'll write a bit more about this later. In short, Pancho's personal papers and photographs were kept in storage by her fourth husband, Mac McKendry. He intended to open a museum in Pancho's honor, but never did do it! After he passed away, it looked like Pancho's estate would be entirely liquidated through an auction. All of the materials in the archive would be dispersed, without anyone having an opportunity to really assess the contents. Fortunately, Lou and Mike stepped in, purchased Pancho's estate, and are now cataloging it. As part of our film effort, Amanda Pope and I have joined in. Each day we've been opening up boxes, sorting materials, and making amazing discoveries. Yesterday, it was an entire box filled with hundreds of newspaper clippings related to the Powder Puff Derby of 1929. Included in the articles were many photos we had never seen before. Most of these clippings had not been looked at by anyone in the seventy odd years that have elapsed since Pancho pasted them into her scrap book...

Welcome to our new and improved site!

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We've just added exciting new features to our website! This site, originally created by Nathan May in early 2006, has just undergone a major facelift. We've added an exciting new feature — a production journal that will let you follow the course of the project as it happens. Check back for news as it happens, including an important announcement in the very near future about our production.

Article in Women in Aviation Magazine

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An article I wrote about Pancho Barnes appeared in the Aviation for Women magazine, published by Women in Aviation International. You can download a .pdf of the article on this site's main page. WAI is a dynamic group which supports women in the aviation world — not just pilots but air traffic controllers, technicians, aeronautic engineers, educators and more. You can find out more about this terrific organization at their website:

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