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Big Bear Lake History
Posted: 03-Jan-21


The Big Bear Valley is comprised of Big Bear Lake, Big Bear City, Fawnskin, Holcomb Valley, Sugarloaf, Erwin Lake, Baldwin Lake and Lake Williams. This is the history.

The Serrano Indians first came to inhabit Yahaviat ("pine place") nearly 2,500 years ago. The name Serrano meant "people of the mountains" or "highlanders". They lived near springs, streams and rivers in small mountain settlements of 10 to 30 dwellings. The Serrano Indians were a peaceful and gentle people; they were regarded as skilled basket weavers. The women were expert pottery makers; their Tizon ware was thin, delicate and beautifully decorated. Acorn mush was a basic food; pinon nuts, berries, roots, tubers, bulbs and sage were also in their diet. Big Bear Valley was a favorite hunting and food gathering source for these people and there are many legends about this area in their folklore. See

The Serranos held the grizzly bear in deep reverence, and thought of these huge animals as great grandfathers. Bear meat was never eaten, nor was bear fur ever worn.
The house of the Serrano was a circular building from twelve to fourteen feet across. The house was constructed within an excavated area as much as two feet deep. Brushes or tulles were tied to a pole framework with yucca fiber or rawhide thongs. A pit lined with stones was dug in the center of the floor for the fire. The floors were at least partially covered with tulle mats.
Their settlements are remembered today in towns that bear their names - Yucaipa, Cucamonga and Muscupiabe. The Serranos are federally recognized and are now located mainly at Morongo Indian Reservation and San Manuel Reservation, both having successful casinos.

In 1810, Father Dumetz a priest from the San Gabriel Mission, while on a visit to a mission Indian village, built a small chapel to celebrate mass. Completed on or near the feast day of Saint Bernard of Siena, Father Dumetz called the area San Bernardino . That name would later identify the valley, the city, the mountain range, a national forest and, the largest county in the contiguous United States . The need for more pastures and farmland brought about the establishment of Rancho San Bernardino, located near present day Redlands , which became the area's first successful European business venture. Other ranchos were established, to the envy of the newly landed Spanish aristocracy.
In the mountains, the Serrano and Cahuilla Indians watched as the presence of the white man increased, not only from the west, but also from the east, with the arrival of the blonde, Yankee, buffalo-robed mountain men.
In 1822, Mexico secured it's independence from the motherland, Spain . Hundreds of western trailblazers continued to arrive in Alta California, motivated by their desire to explore new lands. In 1833 mission buildings and land were confiscated from the Church and placed under the control of government appointed administrators, which proved disastrous .
When the secularization of the missions was completed in 1834, the Mexican government began transferring title of the Franciscan dynasty to many influential, political and military figures. The Mission lands were given to the Lugos, Bandinis, Picos, and Sepulvedas, names that are familiar throughout California . Two of the first non-Hispanic land grantees were Benjamin Wilson and Isaac Williams. An employee of Williams was a young logger named Daniel Sexton, who operated one of the mountain's first primitive sawmills, which was located in the San Gorgonio Pass. Other Dons (Spanish gentry) were interested in the valued timber economy of the nearby mountains, among them Antonio Lugo, who had been given the former Rancho San Bernardino.
In 1836 California committed a bloodless coup, sending the incompetent Mexican governor packing.
Mexican and American traders continued to pour into Southern California looking for strong and sturdy horses and mules. Problems with horse thieves and Indian raiding parties continued. Commissioned by the Mexican California Governor Pio Pico, Benjamin (Benito) Wilson accepted the challenge of upholding law and order, by becoming Justice of the Peace for the Inland Territory . Wilson was one of the first American settlers in Southern California . A former fur trapper and Indian trader, he became a naturalized Mexican citizen and then began his extensive land holdings with the purchase of Rancho Jurupa (now Riverside).. He then married Ramona Yorba whose family owned property including the 78,941 acre Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. After Ramona's death, he married Margaret Hereford of Los Angeles. He became a prosperous rancher and one of the first sub-dividers, at one time he owned lands that later became Westwood, Pasadena , Alhambra , San Gabriel , Riverside and San Bernardino .
In 1851 he was elected mayor of little Los Angeles , and was instrumental in coaxing the Southern Pacific Railroad to pass through Los Angeles rather than around it. Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains bears his name and General George S. Patton was one of his grandchildren. He was a special friend to the Indians and in 1852 was appointed their subagent. He was instrumental in creating the reservation system and establishing policies to ensure the future welfare of Indians suffering from the breakdown of the old missions. 

In 1845 a group of renegade horse thieves and rustlers led by a fierce, young, Ute Indian Chief named Walkara stole a large herd of Lugo owned cattle, driving them off into the desert. Benjamin Wilson, leading a group of New Mexicans and Californios, set out in pursuit of Walkara. Wilson sent half of the men through the Cajon Pass and the other half he led into San Bernardino 's Santa Ana canyon. Climbing higher and higher over rough terrain and steep granite ridges, his party came across an alkali lake and a small Indian settlement surrounded by forests of tall Ponderosa, Jeffrey and Lodgepole pine. Although they did not find Walkara, what they did discover was an ancient and mysterious forest alive with Grizzly Bears. It is reported that Wilson and his men took 11 huge pelts with them that day. Word of their adventure spread and the area now known as Big Bear and Big Bear Lake was originally named Bear Valley.

Bear Valley was discovered by Wilson in 1860 and prospector Bill Holcomb discovered gold in nearby Holcomb Valley . After abandoning his prospecting and mining efforts in Northern California and Oregon where he spent 10 years searching for gold, Holcomb and his partner Jack Martin came to Bear Valley in the winter of 1859. Although the partners worked hard they made only a modest strike. Martin returned to Los Angeles to get his family. 
CedarPines Park and live on Sawpit canyon Road. This picture illustrates a perfect example of a Sawpit used in our San Bernardino Mountains in its early days to mill lumber. They would literally dig a pit, than roll the log supported over pit, with one man on the top of the pit and another man at the bottom of the pit, with both of them in unison pushing the saw up and down till they cut the log in half. ´┐╝Those lumbermen in those days were hearty souls who lived to work hard.  

Meanwhile, towards the end of April, while Bill was hunting bear, he crossed the meadow in the center of Bear Valley and climbed up the west side of Bertha Peak and saw what he described as the most beautiful mountain valley I have ever seen. A few days later, he returned to that valley with companions, and while tracking a grizzly he had wounded, along what is now Caribou Creek; Bill noticed glittering specks of gold in a quartz ledge.
News of his find spread fast and soon prospectors began staking and working their claims. The population of Holcomb Valley swelled to over 2,000; buildings and businesses sprung up, including a General Store, Saloon, Grocery Store, Blacksmith Shop and the famous Octagon House where the glitter girls danced and otherwise entertained men in small dimly lit cubicles. As more and more prospectors came to Bear Valley in the hunt for gold and silver ore, the Bear Valley Mining District was founded.
Horse-drawn Stage was one of the few ways to Big Bear Valley 1907
One of the first routes into Bear Valley was a difficult trek via the Santa Ana Canyon . In June 1861 Jed Van Dusen opened a wagon trail down the back side through Hesperia and the Cajon Pass to San Bernardino.
By May of 1892, the Bear Valley Wagon Road was opened from Hunsaker Flat (Running Springs) to Fawnskin (via Green Valley), and in 1899 Gus Knight and Hiram Clark (Clark Grade Road) built the Bear Valley and Redlands Toll Road via the Santa Ana Canyon past Bluff Lake.
The gold rush brought civilization to the area and from 1861 until 1912, the San Bernardino Mountain communities were served regularly by horse-drawn stages, which took two days to reach the Big Bear Valley from San Bernardino.
This must have been an exciting trip, as these open stages, with their daredevil drivers and adventure seeking passengers wound along the rough dirt trails through pine forests and grizzly bear country. However, by the turn of the century, the mighty Grizzly Bear, so revered by the indians, had been almost wiped out, and the last known grizzly in the San Bernardino Mountains was killed in 1906.
Early buses known as White Stages pause near Bluff Lake on their way to Big Bear Lake in 1915.
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By 1912, the coming of the iron horse was fast wiping out that colorful era. A young man by the name of Kirk Phillips, had seen a White truck with bench seats carrying passengers on 5 th Avenue in New York ; this was the world's first bus line. He thought this would work in the mountains and by the spring of 1912 he established the famous Mountain Auto Line and started bringing freight and passengers to the mountains by motor power. This was the world's second bus line.
By 1914 there were nine reliable White trucks (buses) making the trip and bringing tourists to and from the mountains. The buses had four cylinder engines; they were open top and sides, had four rows of seats behind the driver and carried thirteen passengers.
They travelled to Big Bear Valley via the Mill Creek Road past the picturesque Bluff Lake and meadow area and came out through the control gate opposite the historic Oak Knoll Lodge which is still operating today.
This faster and cheaper motor transportation changed the mountain communities. The villages grew and resorts were opened. Southern California 's major mountain recreation land was established.
Frank E Brown and Edward G Judson developed a planned community that they called Redlands . Because they needed more water for their orange groves in the new community, Dr Benjamin Barton a state assemblyman and pioneering physician was influential in bringing Fred Perris, the assistant state engineer to Bear Valley to consider the site as a possible reservoir. Brown raised money and purchased the lake site, instituted the Bear Valley Land and Water Co and construction of the dam began in the summer of 1884. Brown, a Yale graduate, tested his engineering skill by designing a granite, single arch, ashlar (square-hewn stone) rock dam using cement from England . His design called for a dam, 53 feet high, 335 feet across with a 20 foot wide spillway, 4 feet lower than the top.
In June 1903, the Redlands-Highland area citrus growers formed the Bear Valley Mutual Water Company, which took over the dam, lake, and lands in Big Bear Lake in 1909.
The current multiple arch Dam built in 1910
The rock dam could not hold enough water to meet its obligations and in 1910 a new, larger multiple arch dam was designed by engineer John S. Eastwood. The new dam was built about 250 feet downstream from the old dam and measured 72 feet high. Eleven concrete buttresses were built across the gorge about 35 feet apart and about 50 yards downstream from the existing rock dam. By 1912, this new dam was finished at a cost of $138,000; it stood twenty feet higher than the old rock dam, but it increased the capacity of the lake by almost three times. At the time, this engineering feat created the world's largest man-made lake.
Eastwood didn't design his Big Bear Lake dam with the intent of putting a bridge across the top. At the time, the Rim Of The World Highway into Big Bear entered the valley at Fawnskin via Holcomb Valley. It then continued east around the lake to the Big Bear Village. There were no roads to the dam, on either side of the lake in 1910.
In 1924, San Bernardino County decided to shut down the section of Rim Of The World Highway from Running Springs through Holcomb to Fawnskin, and they build a new route from Running Springs through Snow Valley to the dam at Big Bear Lake. This new highway would continue past the Big Bear dam along the North Shore to Fawnskin. At this time they also built a bridge over the dam and a new road along the south shore of the lake from the dam to Big Bear Village. Cal Trans built a completely new bridge over the dam in 2016. See more at
In the two century's it has been operating, the Dam has withstood earthquakes, floods and drastic temperature ranges from 30 degrees below zero to 85 degrees above.
The beautiful unspoiled scenery around Big Bear Lake attracted the budding movie industry and in 1911, the first recorded movie was made here by The Bison Company. During the 20's and 30's, the golden age for film companies, dozens of movies were made in and around Big Bear and the tall Pines and large boulders can be seen in many of the old movies. Cedar Lake which is a beautiful, small private lake was the backdrop for many of the movies, including the famous Elvis Preslry movie "Kissin Cousins".

Below are just some of the movie stars who came to Big Bear on location: Cecil B DeMille (Call of the North 1914), D.W.Griffith, Lillian Gish (Birth of a Nation), Deanna Durbin (Can't Help Singing), Jesse L. Lasky, Douglas Fairbanks (He Comes Up Smiling 1918), Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford, Wallace Berry (The Last of the Mohicans 1920), Randolph Scott (The Lash of the Mohicans 1936), Shirley Temple, Ann Sheridan, Ginger Rogers (Having a Wonderful Time 1938), George Brent, Ward Bond, Gary Cooper (Northwest Mounted Police 1940), Ann Harding, Buster Crabbe, Henry Fonda (The Moons our Home 1936), Fred MacMurray (Trail of the Lonesome Pine 1936), Sylvia Sidney, Ralph Bellamy, Gilbert Roland, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, John Wayne (Shepard of the Hills 1941 and North to Alaska), Vivien Leigh (Gone With The Wind,) George Montgomery (The Iroquois Trail 1950), Hayley Mills, Maureen O Hara (The Parent Trap 1961), Elvis Presley (Kissin Cousins 1963), Lee Marvin (Paint your Wagon 1969), Andy Griffith (Girl in the Empty Grave 1977), Barbara Strieisand (Main Event 1979), James Brolin (Final Justice 1994), Charlie Sheen (Five Aces 1999), Mathew Broderick (War Games 1983), Dennis Quaid, Eddie Murphy (Doctor Doolittle 1998), Chris Farley ( Almost Heros 1998).
Scenes from "The Insider" with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe were shot in Fawnskin on the north shore of the lake. In 2003, scenes from CSI Las Vegas were also shot in Holcomb Valley and Fawnskin.

Big Bear's first hotel was built in 1888 by 21 year- old, Gus Knight Jr. who realized that the new lake would bring tourists to the area. Knight, along with partner John Metcalf, purchased 80 acres south of the lake and in June opened the 30 guest, Bear Valley Hotel. Unfortunately the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1900. Automobiles started making the trip to Bear Valley as early as 1909, Charles Henry (the brother-in-law of Gus Knight) rebuilt the Bear Valley Hotel and in 1906 a group of wealthy investors from Redlands, purchased the hotel along with the surrounding 112 acres and changed the name to the Pine Knot Lodge. The Pine Knot Lodge was considered luxurious mountain living and was host to many movie companies while they were working in the area. The Golden Bear Cottages resort started construction in 1927 and opened the following year. The Pine Knot Lodge closed in 1928.
In 1929 the first ski jump in the mountains was built in Big Pines near Wrightwood, where a world ski jumping record was set. Later, similar big jumps were built in Big Bear Lake . In the early 1930's, the Viking Ski Club of Los Angeles provided instruction and started holding competitive, winter sports events in Big Bear. Downhill skiing was gaining in popularity and in 1934 a sling lift was constructed at Fish Camp (the present Snow Valley). The historic Lynn Sling Lift opened in Big Bear in 1938; it was located in the Snow Forest Ski Resort. After World War 11, owner Clifford Lynn built a 3000 foot single chair lift. The Snow Forrest Ski Resort closed several years ago. During the 1940's and early 50's several small rope tows were constructed, including an Upper and Lower Moonridge Rope Tow, located where the base of Bear Mountain Ski Area is today. It was during the 50's that Big Bear changed from a summer resort into a four season resort, thanks to the blossoming ski industry.
In 1947 Tommy Tyndall, a young man with an impressive skiing background, arrived in Big Bear and started ski schools at several of the ski areas. He founded the Big Bear Winter Club, and held the first Snow Carnival competition in 1949. Tommy looked for a location, where he could open a ski resort that could be improved and expanded; he found the perfect area just east of the Village, in Big Bear Lake - this would become Snow Summit. In 1952 Tommy created the Snow Summit Ski Corporation with financial assistance from his many friends and local investors. He built a mile-long double chairlift which reached the top of the mountain. This was the largest ski development in the San Bernardino Mountains, and Snow Summit became Southern California's premier ski resort.
In 1955 the Upper Moonridge rope tow experimented with snowmaking on a 300 foot run, however it proved economically impractical and was abandoned after two winters. In 1958 the Rebel Ridge Ski Area near Big Bear City installed snow making on a 800 foot long rope tow. In the drought years that followed, this system proved practical and was noticed by the other ski areas. In 1963, Dave and Dan Platus purchased the Lynn Lift Area for $75,000 and changed the name to Sky Forest . They converted the old sling tow to rope tows and installed snow making at the resort which they opened in December of that year. Meanwhile, Tommy Tyndall realized that he would have to arrange for financing to install snow making at Snow Summit; and by January of 1964 he had completed installation of the first large snow making system in Southern California . Tragically Tommy was killed in a tractor accident while working on one of the slopes. The management fell to Tommi's wife Jo Tyndall, who was assisted by her son, Richard Kun.
After an excellent snow season in 1969, Snow Summit was able to add a second chair lift. The Moonridge area was purchased by several former Snow Summit ski instructors including Fred Goldsmith and Bill Strickland, they changed the name to Goldmine and installed a mile long chairlift to the top of the mountain. The next few years saw very little snow and at the end of 1972 Goldmine went into receivership. Snow Forest closed in 1973 and remained closed during the balance of the 1970's, and Rebel Ridge ended operations. The winter of 1972-73 was a good snow year and Snow Summit far exceeded any previous record and Goldmine was able to recover from receivership. The sport of skiing grew rapidly during the 1970's and the winter economy in the Big Bear Valley became more important that the summer season. Today Big Bear Lake is generally thought of as a "ski town".
By 1980, Goldmine under the leadership of Joe Shuff, had three chair lifts and an expanded snow making system. Snow Forest had been purchased by Bob Boothe, and he replaced the original single chair lynn Lift with a new triple chair lift, improved the runs and other facilities. In 1988, Goldmine was purchased by the S-K-I Ltd., a public corporation owning two large and successful ski areas in Vermont and the area was renamed "Bear Mountain". Subsequently, millions of dollars were invested in major overall improvements, including the first high-speed chairlift in Big Bear Lake . Later a high-speed chairlift was installed at Snow Summit. The Snow Forest Ski Area closed permanently in the early 1990's and the facilities were removed.
Snowboarding exploded on the scene in the late 1980's, sweeping through ski resorts across the country.
During the early 1990's, it became the sport of the young. Over the past years snowboarding become a sport for all ages, and many families bring both skis and snowboards when they come to the mountains.
Snowboarding has become an exciting competitive sport, with participants coming from all over the world. The different categories include Freestyle, Halfpipe, Salom, Giant Salom and Border Cross.
In 1995, Bear Mountain Resort was sold to the Fiberboard Corporation, which in turn sold it to Booth Creek Holdings, Inc., in 1997. In 2002, Booth Creek Holdings sold Bear Mountain to the Snow Summit Ski Corporation, who now control both ski and snowboard resorts in Big Bear Lake. In 2014 Mammoth Mountain purchased Bear Mountain and Snow Summit for $38 million. In 2017, Mammoth Resorts announced its sale by Starwood to a partnership of Aspen Skiing Company and KSL Capital Partners, known as Alterra Mountain Company.
To learn about more Big Bear history, when you are in Big Bear please visit 

Big Bear History Museum

For other Big Bear news and perspectives see

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