He always carried a Colt .45 under that natty suit jacket. “Irish-stubborn” about business, he was filled with exuberance, too. Over the years he founded half-dozen saloons and gambling halls from Kingman to the Klondike. Yet he didn’t drink or gamble (or so, at least, his family said).
Meet Thomas O’Brien, little-known proprietor of the legendary Lebec Hotel from 1913 to 1931 – and an amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags story!
Born in Ashland, Kentucky in 1869, Tom O’Brien’s life got off to a rocky start. In 1884, his father drowned while fishing in the nearby Ohio River. Tom was fifteen at the time. And his mother now had five father-less children on her hands.
Tom, the eldest, struck out on his own. He found a job on a railroad, dutifully sending part of each paycheck home to help support his younger siblings. Some say he worked his way up to become the youngest engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad. Others say that was pure puffery; he simply ran a saloon “on the side” to bring in extra money.
However he made it, the money was good. O’Brien continued on west to Bakersfield, arriving about 1899 – just as the astonishing Kern River Oil Field was discovered.
By now in his early 30s, O’Brien recognized opportunity when he saw it. With his younger brother, he invested in Elk Hills oil leases. He also opened a saloon known as “The Louvre” at 18th and K Streets, which became known for its paintings, stuffed animals, and “Orchestrion.” And oh yes, prize-fights.
Now awash in cash, O’Brien apparently financed a saloon in the booming Klondike, too.
About 1906, he tried his hand at a slightly different venture, opening the “Empire” vaudeville theater in Bakersfield. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that theater enterprise would eventually bring him a wife — in the form of Cowee Erskine, an opera singer who performed there for a time with Al Jolson.
O’Brien and Cowee Erskine were married at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in February, 1911. Son Thomas Erskine O’Brien arrived that December.
But the high-energy O’Brien wasn’t ready to stop there. In 1913 he purchased 11,500 acres in Lebec. This remote outpost included a thick-walled adobe home and a crude store. The early dirt Ridge Route which ran by its front door wasn’t even oiled yet.
O’Brien quickly tacked on a large dining room and added 25 small cabins in the rear. And voila: the “Hotel Lebec” was open for the traveling public. Wife Cowee was said to be not thrilled when O’Brien insisted in moving there with their two-year-old son.
Situated some 82 miles from Los Angeles and 42 miles away from Bakersfield, the site wasn’t exactly convenient to anything – hence the need for a hotel, he reasoned. O’Brien touted local hunting and fishing opportunities, and claimed to offer “every service.” To attract tourists, he advertised Sunday chicken dinners. He also ran cattle on his large ranch nearby.
By 1915 the Ridge Route had finally been oiled, and in 1919, it had been sturdily paved in concrete. The traveling public could reach O’Brien’s mountaintop resort much more easily. And soon he was working on even bigger ideas, adding a general store, lunch room and garage.
Even that wasn’t enough dreaming for the high-spirited O’Brien, however. By spring of 1920, there were reports of a planned “Class A” hotel. Thanks to financing provided by the Durant family, it was to be called the Hotel Durant. (Russell “Cliff” Durant was nominally involved, but the deep pocket actually belonged to his father, auto magnate W.C. Durant.) Thomas O’Brien, of course, was a partner in the new hotel venture.
A blazing headline in the Bakersfield Morning Echo of October, 1920 noted an astonishing $200,000 price tag for the “fireproof” hotel project. A giant barbecue was held for the laying of the cornerstone that November. The hotel’s split-wing design was said to be the creation of Maury I. Diggs, a brilliant but scandal-dogged San Francisco architect who would later design the Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields racetracks.
O’Brien, as always, spun magnificent plans. There would be an “aviation field,” a man-made lake for fishing and boating, a golf course, and of course hunting in the nearby hills – creating a “mountain resort with its own amusements.”
The design for the hotel included 80 guest rooms, plus a ballroom and billiard room. Drapes were sky-blue. There was a “modern” electric plant, plus steam heat. And oh yes, telephones in every room. Out back were 24 separate bungalows, each with cooking facilities.
The hotel opened with a bang. But by the following year, 1922, trouble was already brewing. The national Teapot Dome scandal wiped out O’Brien’s oil interests. And his hotel partnership with “Cliff” Durant quickly fell apart.
In October, 1922, Durant’s hotel interest was bought out by Foster Curry, of Yosemite fame. Curry also purchased the store, restaurant and garage from O’Brien. The hotel was now “Curry’s Lebec Lodge.”
But a year later, a fresh disaster appeared. This time it was a devastating fire, which on November 4, 1923 wiped out the garage, store, restaurant, and several cabins. Some say the flames broke out in the restaurant; others say it was a grease fire that started in the shop. Either way, O’Brien is rumored to have blamed Curry for not preventing it. The only lucky part of the whole ordeal: the hotel itself managed to escape unscathed.
By the following June (1924) O’Brien and Curry were duking out their differences in court. O’Brien claimed Curry owed him $150,000 worth of payments on O’Brien’s mortgage. Curry claimed O’Brien had induced him to undertake the mortgage by fraud.
Yet another investor now arrived for the game of musical chairs: Jack Wooley, a saloon owner from Oakland, acquired Curry’s interest as part of a settlement agreement with Curry in December, 1924. The name of the hotel would be changed once again, back to “Hotel Lebec.”
One year after the fire, and mere days after the Curry lawsuit was settled, a third disaster struck: O’Brien’s wife Cowee was killed December 21, 1924 while on a Christmas shopping expedition with two lady friends from Lebec. According to the family, the driver of the big touring car was unable to brake in time at a railroad crossing. The car went into a skid and struck a ditch; Cowee was thrown out and landed on the tracks. She died instantly.
Somehow, Thomas O’Brien persevered. He rebuilt the burned-down buildings, this time a rock structure known for years as the Lebec Coffee Shop. Included were a bar, post office, store, and a Richfield gas station/garage.
Despite the many tragedies that O’Brien endured, the ‘20s were good years financially for the hotel. Movies were being made in the nearby hills, with cast and crew from Los Angeles putting up at the hotel. It’s said that movie stars would sometimes sneak away from Los Angeles, too, for a quiet weekend rendezvous.
Prohibition – lasting from January 1920 until he end of 1933 – may have been good for hotel business, too. Just before the new dry laws went into effect, Tom O’Brien is said to have sent a truck all the way to San Francisco to to pick up a huge supply of liquor from a brother-in-law. Forty cases of that liquor disappeared in August, 1925, however, when purported “government agents” arrived at the hotel and “held up” partner Wooley.
New partner Wooley had had enough; he sold his interest in the hotel that same week to O’Brien for about $50,000.
Two years after losing Cowee, O’Brien married Gemma Ann Martina on Christmas Day, 1926. Son Thomas E. was sent off to a private school in Carpinteria – riding over the mountains on horseback with a cowboy, to get there!
O’Brien was able to find a new buyer for his hotel and adjacent land in November, 1927 – this time for the mind-boggling sum of $400,000. The purchaser was an L.A. corporation known as Sales Development Company. Things were looking rosy again.
And then, the Great Depression hit.
O’Brien was unable to make his payments on a debt to Richfield Oil. Meanwhile Richfield was in financial turmoil of its own, with a president/general manager indicted for embezzlement. The company called in O’Brien’s note.
The O’Brien family was forced to leave Lebec in 1931. Son Thomas E.’s final poignant glimpse was captured in a photo he snapped from the back window of the car, showing his pet horse “Dick” grazing on the pasture in front of the hotel.
O’Brien and his family settled in a grand old Victorian house at 2028 – 17th Street, Bakersfield. He hadn’t quite lost everything; son Thomas E. remembered a Steinway grand piano that adorned the formal front room. Family members helped Thomas to purchase a restaurant on the west side of Chester, between 18th and 19th. But perhaps his heart was no longer in it. The restaurant venture didn’t last too long. By 1933 O’Brien had been forced to declare bankruptcy.
As for the Lebec Hotel, it changed hands multiple times in the years after O’Brien had left. In 1936, the hotel, coffee shop and 2,000 acres were sold for just $79,000. In 1938 the hotel changed hands again, this time for $100,000. In 1948, it was sold for $190,000, then $300,000 in 1955.
The Lebec Hotel closed its doors for good in March, 1969. Now empty, the once-grand hotel became an attractive nuisance with uninvited visitors starting warming fires. It was finally burned to the ground by then-owner Tejon Ranch on April 27, 1971.
And what became of the O’Briens? Well, the exuberant, tenacious Thomas O’Brien died of a stroke at 1117 “H” Street, Bakersfield on March 14, 1942 at age 73. He is buried at Bakersfield’s Union Cemetery.
“He was stubborn. Perhaps if he’d been a bit more humble, he might have made out better,” his grandson would later say. “He died without a cent in his pockets.”
And son Thomas E., the little boy in the photograph? He became a welder, helping to build Liberty Ships at Terminal Island during W.W. II. Like his mother Cowee, he loved to sing. In later years, he joined barbershop choruses. He especially loved singing “vintage” arrangements like the ones he had heard as a child at the old Lebec Hotel.
Family information for this story was provided in June, 1993 by grandson Michael O’Brien (son of Thomas E.) and cousins Buzz and Jean Laird. Michael O’Brien died on April 2, 1998 just five years after I had the privilege of interviewing him.