There is a spot that thousands of Californians drive by every day. It is a State Historic Park that is within sight of Interstate 5, yet very few stop and visit. At one time, this park was a vital outpost, protecting communication between Los Angeles and the rest of California but now it is virtually ignored. This spot is Fort Tejon State Historic Park, near the town of Lebec and it is worth a visit.
Yes, we have all watched Westerns. We all have an image in our minds of a frontier outpost, usually constructed of logs, standing lonely vigil over a sweeping prairie. These forts were, according to popular myth, manned by the dregs of the Army. They were the outcasts, the misfits, consigned to thankless duty at some remote, forgotten outpost to garrison the fort and ride endless patrols until their enlistments were up or they resigned their commissions. Very few of these outposts still exist in their original form. Fort Tejon is one of these.
Situated in the Tejon Pass, Fort Tejon guarded the main route between the Central Valley and Los Angeles. It is constructed of adobe, not logs and was not garrisoned by outcasts, but instead was established in 1854 by the First United States Dragoons. Originally, the fort was established to try to police conflicts between the Emigdiano group of the Chumash and the settlers who flooded into the area after the Gold Rush and other Native Americans in the area, most notably, the Paiute. Between 1854 and 1861, the Fort was garrisoned by the First Dragoons and, briefly, the Third Artillery who patrolled the route between the Central Valley and Los Angeles and performed what would be called “peace keeping” duties today. In 1856, Fort Tejon became the regimental headquarters for the First Dragoons and in 1857 the Tejon Earthquake struck leaving a surface scar 220 miles long. Amazingly there was very little damage to the fort due to this magnitude 8.0 earthquake. In 1858, the Overland Mail Company opened a station in the sutler’s store at the fort. The remaining camels of the U.S. Camel Corps were transferred to the fort in 1859, then to Los Angeles and eventually to Benicia to be sold at auction.
The First Dragoons abandoned Fort Tejon in in June of 1861, first going to Los Angeles and then being transferred to the Army of the Potomac for the duration of the Civil War although two companies skirmished with Confederate forces in New Mexico and Arizona. In August of 1861, the First Dragoons was renamed the First Cavalry and continues to be an active Army unit. After the First Dragoons left the fort, it was garrisoned by the Second California Volunteer Cavalry in 1863. During this time, the 2nd California Volunteer Cavalry repaired the fort’s buildings, took part in the “pacification” of approximately 1000 Paiute from the Owens Valley, 300 of which were encamped near Fort Tejon and performed routine garrison duties. In 1864, the Army closed Fort Tejon permanently and the fort was acquired by the Tejon Ranch Company.
Life at Fort Tejon was often described as “dismal”. The Troopers stationed there spent most of their time performing routine garrison duties and the nearby town, now called Lebec, offered little in the way of entertainment. 1st Sargent Curtis Greenleaf of Company G complained that the local town did not even have a whorehouse. Even today, the fort is situated in a fairly isolated location and temperatures can reach over 100 degrees in the summer and snowfall is not unknown in the winter.
In 1940, the Tejon Ranch Company donated five acres to the state to establish the Fort Tejon State Historic Park and in 1947 restoration began on the fort’s buildings and continues to this day. There is a restored officer’s quarters, blacksmith’s shop, quartermaster’s building, kitchen and barracks. There is also a small visitor’s center. The fort has an active living history program for school children and hosts Civil War reenactments. Of special interest is the grave of Peter Lebeck, an early pioneer who was “killed by a bear” on October 17, 1837 and was buried under an oak tree on what would become Fort Tejon. There is a granite marker on the grave placed by Eltejon Parlor #239, NDGW and Bakersfield Parlor #42, NSGW on April 5, 1936. Not much more is known about Peter Lebeck except that the town of Lebec may take its name after him and that one of the early suggested names for Fort Tejon was Fort Lebeck. If you are travelling Interstate 5 to or from Los Angeles, Fort Tejon gives an interesting insight into what frontier garrison duty was really like.
Getting there: From 414 Mason Street, take Interstate 80 East to Interstate 580 East and then onto Interstate 5 South. Stay on Interstate 5 South and then take Exit 210 onto Fort Tejon Road. Follow signs to Fort Tejon State Historic Park. From Los Angeles, take Interstate 5 North to Lebec Road. Take the Lebec Road exit and turn left on Lebec Road. Turn right on Fort Tejon Road.