Two images are side by side. On the left is a man in the suit with: Thaddeus Lowe, Chief aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps. Behind him are moving hot air balloons. On the right is an image of men in a field with the base of a hot air balloon.
Thaddeus Lowe, chief aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps; Lowe observing the Battle of Seven Pines from his balloon Intrepid in Fair Oaks, Virginia, in May 1862. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

From above the Civil War battlefield to the bank

Before founding Citizens Bank, now a part of Wells Fargo, in Los Angeles in the late 1800s, Thaddeus Lowe was a renowned inventor and the chief aeronaut for the Union Army Balloon Corps.

November 2, 2018
Marianne Babal
Marianne Babal

Marianne Babal is a Wells Fargo historian.

On June 16, 1861, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe ascended in a balloon high above Washington, D.C. He was demonstrating to President Abraham Lincoln the potential of using balloons for gathering intelligence on Civil War battlefields. Lowe’s balloon rose to a height of 500 feet, tethered to the ground by ropes and a telegraph wire. From his balloon named Enterprise, high above the nation’s capital, Lowe transmitted a telegraph message to Lincoln saying, “I have the pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station.” He also reported to the president that he could see 50 miles in every direction. Lincoln, standing below, believed that this high-altitude technology could be valuable in the war effort. 

A black and white image shows the head and shoulders of an older man, Thaddeus Lowe. He is looking to his right and not at the camera. He has a mustache, a dark jacket, and a white shirt underneath.
Thaddeus Lowe served as president of Citizens Bank in Los Angeles from 1890-1892. The bank is now part of Wells Fargo. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.

Lincoln appointed Lowe as the chief aeronaut for the Union Army’s newly formed Balloon Corps. Lowe, a self-educated scientist and inventor, had also developed portable hydrogen gas generators, which allowed quick deployment wherever aerial surveillance was needed to observe enemy troop movements and positions. Balloon spotters could communicate with commanders on the ground using signal flags and direct artillery fire.

Lowe assembled an outfit of seven giant balloons made of silk and manufactured by a crew of 30 Philadelphia seamstresses. These military balloons were used in the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861; the 1862 Peninsula Campaign battles of Seven Pines, Williamsburg, and Gaines Mill; the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862; and the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, among others.

Life after the war

After the war, Lowe continued experimenting with gas-powered appliances and made a fortune from his invention of ice machines, which revolutionized the cold storage business. In 1873, Lowe patented a process using hydrogen gas to provide heating and lighting for commercial use. This “water gas” — a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases — proved a more efficient fuel than gas derived from coal. It was just one of 200 patents awarded Lowe, who became known as “professor,” despite his lack of formal education.

Lowe relocated in 1887 to Southern California, where he invested in gas power and transportation projects. He also became a banker, organizing Citizens Bank in Los Angeles in 1890 and serving as the bank’s first president for two years before moving on to other enterprises. By the turn of the century, Citizens Bank’s resources had risen above the $1 million mark. The Los Angeles bank eventually became part of Crocker Bank, which merged with Wells Fargo in 1986.

One of Lowe’s lasting legacies was not an invention, but a natural landmark that towers above his adopted hometown of Pasadena, California. In 1893, Lowe and other investors built an electric railway to the top of one of the highest peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains, now known as Mount Lowe. Dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the scenic electric railroad carried visitors on a thrilling climb into the mountains 5,600 feet above Los Angeles area cities. Lowe also built an astronomical observatory, hotel, and other tourist attractions surrounding the peak. Although Lowe was ingenious, he was also a poor businessman, and the scenic railroad fell into receivership in 1899. Under management by others, the line continued carrying tourists until 1937.

Lowe had married and had several children, one of whom also became an inventor. Lowe died in Pasadena at the age of 81, having made and lost several fortunes in his lifetime. At the time of his death in July 1913, he was drawing up plans to build a luxury gas-powered passenger airship — a visionary and innovator until the end.

An older image shows a hot air balloon on flat ground, with hills surrounding the area. There also appear to be two trucks with long tubes connected to boxes on the ground. There are some people standing nearby.
An older black and white photo shows a man, Thaddeus Lowe, wearing a long jacket and standing next to a dark horse. They appear to be in front of a log cabin.
A colorful image shows an open red railcar with people in it moving around the curve of a track. To the left and below the railway are green mountains. At the top of the postcard it says in red: 119 - Circular Bridge, Mt. Lowe Railway, California.
Professor Lowe’s military balloon inflating near Gaines Mill, Virginia. Photo credit: Library of Congress.
Thaddeus Lowe in the field with the Union Army Balloon Corps. Photo credit: Library of Congress.
A postcard depicting the Mount Lowe Railway in Southern California. Photo credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.