I highly recommend Fort Tejon State Historic Park for anyone traveling over the Grapevine on Interstate 5 and in need of a driving break or a place for a picnic lunch. It's located right off the highway about three miles north of Gorman (or thirty minutes north of Magic Mountain in case that's more familiar.)
Fort Tejon was first garrisoned by the US Army on August 10, 1854 and was abandoned ten years later. The fort's purported mission was to "protect and control the Indians who were living on the Sebastian Indian Reservation, and to protect both the Indians and white settlers from raids by the Paiutes, Chemeheui, Mojave, and other Indian groups of the desert regions to the south east."
My friends Rosey and Ernie joined me on a sunny January day for a drive through orange groves and a visit to the fort.
There is no ranger on duty at Fort Tejon, and as with many of the closing state parks, paying the day use fee is on the honor system. We all paid, of course. The tour begins by crossing a wooden bridge over the creek, and entering a small museum displaying a cannon, photographs and the chronology of the fort.
The discovery of gold in the 1850s brought confrontations between Native Americans, miners and land-hungry settlers. The US Government tried to ease the conflicts. In 1851 US Indian commissioners negotiated 18 treaties with California Indians, providing reservation lands in exchange for the remainder of the state. White Californians objected so strongly that the Senate refused to ratify the agreements. As Indian leaders had signed away other land in return for protection on reservations, they felt betrayed.
So, the first US Dragoons arrived in the summer of 1854 and began the construc-tion of more than forty buildings for this military outpost. A half dozen of these buildings and replicas remain for the tourist to view. Markers are placed at the sites of structures that no longer exist.
After viewing the small museum, my friends and I began the self guided "Dragoon Walk."
Two small identical buildings sit side by side; one a guard shack, one a crude jail. Army discipline was frequent and harsh. Minor offenses brought solitary confinement or loss of pay.
More serious crimes meant imprisonment with ball and chain or spiked iron collars, and hanging by the wrists or thumbs. In spite of the guard shack being right next door, many prisoners escaped.
Being a guard was no skate through the park either. Shifts were 24 hours and they were required to remain in uniform, even when sleeping. A wooden shelf for a bed in a poorly insulated shack was all the luxury afforded the jail keeper.
The frontier army attracted many immi-grants trying to make a life in the new world. First generation immigrants out-numbered other soldiers by two to one.
The grand Valley Oaks populate much of this flat plateau, some of them as old as 300 years. The usual California critters inhabit the area including songbirds, small mammals, raptors, large predators and of course the ever present rattlesnake. The majestic California Condor sometimes finds shelter in the parks' Valley Oaks. I have seen these magnificent birds before and always have hopes of seeing one again, but today it was mainly jays and woodpeckers. They make me happy too.
The Oaks also shelter the grave of one Peter Lebeck. In 1837, seventeen years before the settlement of the fort, his epitaph was engraved on one of the oaks, Apparently killed by a bear, his companions buried him here and moved on. Not much is known about him. Most likely he was a fur trapper. A group called The Foxtail Rangers placed a proper headstone on his grave in 1938. He remains Kern County's most famous mountain man.
The infamous 8.0 earthquake of 1857 in southern California is often referred to as the Fort Tejon Earthquake. In addition to leaving a surface rupture scar over 220 miles long on the San Andreas Fault, it toppled a number of the buildings at Ft Tejon.
The path led us to orderlies' quarters, officers' quarters, the quartermaster shops and the barracks. Each building displayed furnishings, clothing, weaponry and miscellaneous daily items used by the soldiers and their families.
The barracks also held costumes and weaponry that is currently used in historical re-enactments by The Fort Tejon Historical Society and/or the Student Living History Program , an overnight program geared toward fourth and fifth grade students. As no one is currently stepping up to the plate to bail out Fort Tejon SHP by closure date, these events are only scheduled through June at this time.
Roxy and I explored the Officers' Quarters, entering through an open back door. Captain John Gardiner occupied this building with his wife Annie and their infant son. Examples of furninshings, including a wolf-skin rug, are on display. As we stood in the hallway of their home on this calm, wind-free day, the back door suddenly slammed shut. Well hello there! We love ghosts!
Family sounds mingled with army life at Fort Tejon, giving the fort a small town flavor. Dances, dramas and musical productions were a part of the community.
One of the more unique group of residents at the fort was a herd of camels. The Army had started experimenting with camels for supply transport in the southwest. The camels proved ill suited to the terrain. In 1859 a civilian contractor turned over 28 camels to Ft. Tejon. The post quartermaster cared for the herd until 1861 when they were transferred to the LA Depot. The Camel Corps are mentioned in many writings, but with the possible exception of being used for messenger service once in 1860, they in fact were never used in military operations.
Our Ft Tejon tour was complete and we all wanted lunch. We took a chance on a mom & pop Mexican restaurant - Grullense Mexi-can Restaurant - in the town of Gorman. I had the best nopales y huevos ever! Ernie and Rosey thought their meal was terrific too. Twas the end of a great day, and we were sated with good food and new knowledge as we drove back home through the orange groves of the Santa Clarita valley.
Hope to see you at the parks.