Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

First Hotel Lebec

Lebec on the Ridge Route

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Real photo postcard shows the first Hotel Lebec, started by Thomas O'Brien in the mid-1910s. Postcard mailed from Lebec, October 22, 1917, to a man in Santa Rosa, California (see below). Hand-written message reads:

6:30 am / In the mountains

Friend Jack

Just 102[?] miles from L.A. / having fine trip[?] ~ the [illegible] came in fine / Regards to all / Dr. R

According to Ridge Route historian Harrison Scott, Thomas O'Brien was a Kentuckian who came out (farther) West at a young age and became the youngest engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad at age 17. At one time he managed saloons in Kingman, Arizona, and Needles, California; he sold them to buy oil leases near Bakersfield, where he built a saloon and the town's first theater (for vaudeville and early flickers). With a head for business, he could afford to retire at age 40 and live in ever-bigger and better homes in Los Angeles. In 1913-14, he ditched it all to move to Lebec.

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Back in 1905, Al Jolson and a young singer (a contralto) from San Francisco named (Anna) Cowee Erskine (1878-1925) appeared on the same bill at O'Brien's Empire Theater in Bakersfield. After a nearly 6-year courtship, Thomas O'Brien and Cowee Erskine wed. A couple of years later, to his wife's reputed dismay, O'Brien left Los Angeles behind and moved his young family (and their maid) to some land he bought in Lebec "from a man named Taylor" — which is all we know about the identity of the latter (Harrison Scott 2002:180).

It wasn't a whim. With his connections in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, certainly O'Brien knew the Ridge Route was coming to join Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

O'Brien set out to convert his new Lebec property to a waystation for weary travelers.

The prior landowner, Taylor, "had a general store and lived nearby in an old, thick-walled adobe home that had been whitewashed on the outside," Scott writes (ibid.). Taylor's apparently square adobe with central chimney, seen at left in the photograph above, became the nucleus (presumably the office) of O'Brien's new Hotel Lebec. He built a large dining room addition (center of photograph) with seating both inside and on the porch; and he erected separate one-bedroom cabins as sleeping quarters for guests (out of view here, around back of the adobe and restaurant). By the time the Ridge Route pushed through directly next to his hotel in 1915, "he had twenty-five cabins, and they were always full" (ibid.:184).

Harrison Scott includes a (different) example of this same RPPC on page 35 of his 2007 book, "Lost Hotels on California's Historic Ridge Route." Therein he describes the house that's visible in the distance, between the dining rooom and the shed at right, as the home O'Brien built for his wife, Cowee. It's not too shabby.

This RPPC would have been mass-produced (maybe a few hundred?) and probably sold for a nickel or two at the hotel as a souvenir. The image would have been "current" for only about four years. In 1919, O'Brien razed the old adobe to start construction on the much grander, reinforced concrete Hotel Lebec that became a hangout for Hollywood notables and even Charles Lindbergh from time to time. This second hotel was built into the hillside behind the location of the first hotel.

Apparently the lunch room remained in place, as did the cabins — for a time. O'Brien added a general store and garage next to the lunch room. He had just sold the property when, in November 1923, these wood-frame buildings and most of the cabins burned down. The commercial buildings were replaced with a rock structure that became the new Lebec Coffee Shop, along with a bar, grocery store, post office, Richfield gas station and an extensive garage.

Postscript: After Tom O'Brien sold the hotel property, he must have continued to live or at least maintain relationships in Lebec, because on December 21, 1925, Cowee was riding in a car from Lebec to Bakersfield with some friends (Mrs. J.W. Alberts and Mrs. Marie Mahoney, both of Lebec) when the driver failed to notice an oncoming train. The train struck the car at a crossing 3 miles south of Bakersfield. Cowee was ejected and died instantly.


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LW3646: 9600 dpi jpeg from original RPPC purchased 2019 by Leon Worden.
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