Much as the communities of these mountains lie at the confluence of three counties today so did the villages of three nations of this areas earliest people once meet here. To the north in the Great Central Valley were the Yokut people, in these mountains and to the west, the Chumash people and to the south were the Tatavium people. Where the borders of the three nations met were a people called the Kitanemuk, which means “what is it” as they were a blend of the tribes around them. The Kitanemuk lived in a broad area surrounding the lake at the present community of Lebec. The first people of these mountains lived in relative peace and the climate offered them a very comfortable existence.
These Native People first met Spanish Padres traveling through the San Emigdio Mountains between Santa Fe and Monterey as early as in the 1600’s. These explorer priests were always on the lookout for gold and silver and for generations local tribe’s people helped the padres, and later the Mission padres remove the precious metals from these mountains. Most of it was hauled by mules to the Colorado River and beyond, and some to ships on the California coast. During the Mission Period of California’s early history most of this area’s people had moved into the missions of San Fernando and Santa Barbara.
After the collapse of the mission system, and under the Mexican Government, many of the Indians moved back into their old homelands but with the “Gold Rush” and California becoming a State in 1850, it was decided a reservation system needed to be put into place. An Indian Reservation was established at the bottom and to the east of Grapevine Canyon in 1851. As it was to be a Military Reserve, the founding of Fort Tejon soon followed at the top of Grapevine Canyon in 1854.
Fort Tejon became a major political and social center for Southern California. Freight wagons and passenger stages came and went from there to points north and south resulting in improved roadways. The Fort became the headquarters for the very colorful U. S. Army unit called the Dragoons, the “Rangers of the West” . The troops saw rather quiet duty while assigned there though were sent to Salt Lake to escort payroll on occasion, to an Indian uprising or two in the gold country up north, to the sleepy town of Santa Barbara when they experienced some political problems, and to Los Angeles to squelch the secessionist movement. The buildings of the newly built Fort were badly damaged in January of 1857 when the most powerful earthquake to ever experienced in California centered there – an 8+. There was another period of excitement when the government assigned the Dragoons camels to traverse the desert areas with – though the soldiers would have little to do with them, thus the experiment failed. But of greater interest to the people who lived at the Fort and nearby was that of the arrival of the telegraph in 1860 making the rest of the world so quickly available.
Fort Tejon was closed during the Civil War but from it came many of the areas first homesteaders. Two names that remain with us to this day are those of John Cuddy, for which we have the Cuddy Valley area, and that of James Gorman who left his name to that community. It was about the time of the close of the Fort that the former Superintendent of the Indian Reservation, and then Surveyor of California and Nevada, Edward F. Beale, acquired four of the local Mexican Land Grants and combined them into a huge land holding known as the Tejon Ranch. His friend, John C. Fremont was an owner of another Land Grant in the area, Rancho San Emigdio. These Land Grants are among the last of the Mexican Ranchos that remain much as they were when granted in the 1840’s.
With the increased travel through these mountains, and the advent of the motor vehicle, the old roadway was relocated to the west, out of the San Francisquito Canyon to the top of the ridges in 1915. This “remarkable engineering feat” known as the infamous “Ridge Route” was California State Highway #4 and served until 1933 when it was once again relocated to further west and down into a canyon. The new road, Hwy 99, was a three lane highway – “to facilitate the passing maneuver” and soon became known as “the road to Kingdom come – one of the world’s most dangerous highways” because of that passing lane. In the late 1940’s the road was widened to the very safe four lane “Golden State Highway” , which was well used until it became a part of the present eight lane interstate freeway in the late 1960’s.
The communities of Gorman, Lebec, Grapevine and Wheeler Ridge, grew and prospered along these highways. One of the finest resort hotels in all of Southern California was built at Lebec in 1921 and its ballroom attracted people from miles around on through the Big Band era. Lebec was also designated as the gateway to Kern County and an entire building and its exhibits were moved there from the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939 to serve as a welcome center.
Over the years, and of a more quiet nature, there developed the “second home” communities of Frazier Park, Lake of the Woods, Lockwood Valley, Cuddy Valley and Pine Mt. Club, weekend and vacation retreats for those from the cities below, nestled in the beauty of the Los Padres National Forest. They remain that but even more-so have now become the peaceful permanent home settlements that they are today. All these communities had their beginnings when settled by miners and ranchers of which many stories are told elsewhere.
Additional information may be found in “A View from the Ridge Route” series