Article Index
History of Big Bear
Discovery And Naming of Big Bear Valley
Gold Rush Days
Logging And The Sawmills
Mountain Cattle Ranchers
The Big Bear Valley Dams
Early Big Bear Valley Resorts
Fox Farming
Winter Sports
The San Bernardino Mountains
All Pages

The Spanish explorers who first came upon Big Bear Valley named the Native Americans who lived here the "Serranos", which means mountaineers. These peace-loving people are thought to be Shoshonean by descent, and they probably gradually migrated to the San Bernardino Mountains from the Wind River country of Wyoming some 3000 years ago.

The Serranos were not extensive travelers, and their range was within an area marked by the Mojave Desert, San Bernardino Valley, and Mt. San Jacinto. They often spent summers in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Their dwellings were made of poles and tulle grass or brush and had a smoke hole at the top. A center fire pit was only for heating, as all cooking was done outside. The floor was covered with tulle mats, and these and animal skins were used for bedding.

Acorn mush was a basic food. It was pounded from nuts gathered in the fall from black oaks near Oak Glen. Pinion nuts were also a favorite, with Big Bear Valley a main source. Other foods were mesquite beans, berries, chia seeds, roots, tubers, bulbs, and sage. Rodents, birds, insects, reptiles, fish, rabbits, and deer were also part of their diet.

The Serrano women were expert pottery makers; their Tizon ware was thin, delicate, and beautifully decorated with freehand patterns in a wide variety of colors. They also made excellent baskets from natural fibers that were decorated with eagle, rattlesnake, sun, moon, and many other designs.

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. Ravaged by smallpox sometime after 1774, the Serrano population had declined to about 100 when the 1910 census was taken.


Benjamin D. Wilson was born in Tennessee in 1811. He worked as a trapper in New Mexico as a young man, and came to California in 1841. By 1843 Wilson had purchased a large ranch where the City of Riverside is now located, and the following year married Ramona Yorba, a daughter of one of California's most prominent families.

That same year, Jose Figueroa, the governor of the State, had issued the edict for the secularization of all Indians. Released from the control of the mission fathers, many of the Indians reverted to their primitive ways and some became raiders and cattle rustlers. This situation became a constant problem to the missions and cattle ranchers, and in July of 1845, Don Pio Pico authorized Benjamin Wilson to take a force of eighty well-armed men to pursue the raiders and teach them a lesson.

Don Benito, as he was affectionately called by his men, split his force, sending the main body through Cajon Pass while he rode into the mountains following the "San Bernardino River". On the evening of the second day, they arrived in a high mountain valley where "the whole lake and swamp seemed alive with bear." Don Benito Wilson later wrote: "Twenty-two Californians went out in pairs, and each pair lassoed one bear, and brought the result to camp, so that we had at one and the same time eleven bears. That prompted me to give the Lake the name it now bears."

The natural body of water Wilson saw and named Bear Lake in 1845 is now called Baldwin Lake. Only a stream and marshy meadows existed at the site of Big Bear Lake in those days.

Ben Wilson is not only remembered for giving Big Bear its name, but he went on to become an important figure in Southern California history. Among his accomplishments, he is remembered as the first mayor of Los Angeles. He was also a two term California state senator, and he built the first railroad between Los Angeles and San Diego. Wilson died on March 11, 1878, but before he died, he donated land and buildings for the construction of a college. This new college eventually became the University of Southern California.  Wilson's energy and leadership qualities were passed down through his children to his grandchildren. One of those grandchildren was famous World War II General, George S. Patton.



It all began when William F. Holcomb and his partner, Jack Martin, left Indiana and made the difficult over land trip in search of their fortune in the booming mining camps of Northern California. Discouraged by years of hard luck, they gradually made their way southward. Arriving in Los Angeles, the partners heard of gold being mined at a place called Bear Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Riding into the valley through heavy snow in the winter of 1859, Holcomb and Martin joined the Coldwell party, who were placer mining at Starvation Flat. (This is the area around the intersection of Stanfield Cut-off and Big Bear Boulevard.) After more discouraging results, the partners were on the verge of returning to Los Angeles when a modest strike revived their hopes. They kept on working their claim, each making about five dollars a day.

Late in April, Bill Holcomb was bear hunting on the north ridge when he saw the beautiful little valley that would forever carry his name. On May 5, 1860 - just ten years to the day since leaving his Indiana home - Bill and his friend, Ben Chouteau, began prospecting the new valley and found much gold. The Coldwell party then immediately moved into "Holcomb's Valley" and began to busily mine.

News of this important strike traveled swiftly, and by July the valley was swarming with people. Soon the little communities of Belleville, Union Flat and Clapboard Town had been built, and Jed Van Duzen was paid $1500 to construct a wagon road down to the desert. It is estimated that between 1500 and 2000 people were in Holcomb Valley during the peak of the boom in the 1860's when the county seat was lost to San Bernardino by only two votes.


(there was gold in them thar hills!)

The Holcomb Valley gold rush of 1860 brought hundreds of miners into the area The initial mining was for placer gold and was primarily done by small groups or individuals with claims along the stream beds.

Soon afterward quartz mining began, and major mines were the Mammoth, Olio, Pine Tree, Metzgar, and further west, the Greenlead. This hard rock mining required stamp mills to crush the rock, and several mills were built at different sites.

The largest placer operation was by the Valley Gold Company, Ltd., following 1890. They eventually brought in a huge railroad steam shovel that could dig 1000 yards of gravel a day, and the long windrows still visible were made by this shovel.

The Gold Mountain Mine northwest of Baldwin Lake was the most visible and best known in the area. It had two huge, 40-stamp mills at different times. The first was built in 1875 and the second in 1900. The massive foundation for the stamps of a later mill is very prominent today. The town of Doble was on a flat below the mine.

Other prominent mines are those in Blackhawk Canyon on the desert side, and many in Lone Valley and further east. There are the ruins of the Moronga Silver Mine, the Christy, Morongo King, and the very rich Rose Mine. At the crest of the mountain north of the Rose Mine are several tunnels of the Tip-Top Silver Mine.

Today no structures remain at any of these historic mines, and only caved in tunnels, collapsing shafts, and piles of colorful tailings are evidence that they once existed!


Around 1845, Louis Vignes needed lumber for sheds and wine kegs for his Los Angeles Vineyard. He established a small sawmill in Mill Creek Canyon, the first in the San Bernardino Mountains.

When the Mormons began their settlement of San Bernardino in 1851, one of their vital needs was for lumber. In April of 1852, all of the men from the fort helped clear a road to the virgin forest at the top of the mountains.

Because of Indian attacks, a small steam engine and boiler had been abandoned at the Armagosa Gold Mine at Salt Springs. In 1852, Charles Crismon and his son hauled this machinery from far out on the desert to Twin Creek Canyon, and set up the first steam sawmill in the area. Many others soon followed, and by 1854 six mills were producing lumber and shingles.

The largest logging operation in these mountains was that of the Brookings Lumber and Box Company at Fredalba, near Running Springs. Beginning in 1892, this company had logged 8000 acres. By 1915 when they moved to Oregon. The company built a road from the mill to their box plant at Highland, below City Creek. The sawmill and logging operation employed about 100 men, and over a period of years, about 30 miles of narrow gauge railroad ran from Heaps Peak on the west to near Green Valley Lake in the east. Motive power consisted of 3 two-truck Shays and about 20 logging cars.

Because Big Bear Valley was so far away from civilization, and hauling costs were prohibitive, this valley was saved from the intensive timber cutting of the Arrowhead-Running Springs forests. Sawmills were in use by 1861 for mining purposes in Holcomb Valley, and in later years several small mills ran in Bear Valley. In 1924 Coy and Lex Brown set up a mill in Poligue Canyon, and Viggo Pederson began producing lumber from his mill at Fawnskin. Closed for years, this old sawmill still exists, and is the last reminder of a once thriving industry in these mountains.


As early as 1857, cattle and sheep were grazing in the San Bernardino Mountains in large numbers, and by 1863 the Mojave Rancho (later called the Las Flores) had been established. This was followed by Antonio Maldine's "Cox Rancha" in 1867. Both of these ranches were on the desert side near Cajon Pass.

The peak of mountain cattle ranching lasted for about 60 years, from the 1880's until the 1940's, with most of the activity concentrated in the Bear Valley area.

The names of the cattlemen who ranched here during that fascinating period are deeply engraved in Bear Valley history. There was Gus Knight, Sr., James W. Smart, William Hitchcock, Robert Hitchcock, John Metcalf, Will Shay, Jim Erwin, John, Frank, and Will Talmadge, Charles Barker, Peter Davidson, Robert Gamer, Jim Stocker, A1 Swarthout, Dale Gentry, George Rathbun, Tom and Lawrence Hamilton, and others with smaller ranches.

Cattle rustlers were not unknown either! Jim McHaney headed a gang who headquartered in Santa Ana Canyon, and for a period of years around the 1880's, stole cattle from the mountain ranches. Jim was finally convicted for another type of crime in 1900, and paroled 17 years later an aged and broken man.

It has been decades since the last roundup was held and a bawling herd driven down Rattlesnake Canyon to the desert winter range. However, the memory will always remain with those who rode that long trail for a final time as a great and remarkable era in Western history came to a close.



With the arrival of the Southern Pacific in Southern California in 1876, the area boomed as people flocked to the new land. When Frank E. Brown and E.G. Judson established the town site of Redlands in 1879, they looked toward the mountains for additional water for their new agricultural community.

In 1883 Brown was led to the west end of Big Bear Valley where an ideal dam site existed. He immediately organized the Bear Valley Land and Water Company, purchased the necessary land, and in the summer of 1883 began construction of an ashlar rock dam. This dam was completed in December of 1884. It was 60 feet high and 300 feet wide and contained 3304 yards of rock work and 1600 barrels of cement. The total cost for labor and materials was $68,000. At that time, the Bear Valley Dam created the largest man-made lake in the world, and was also considered the Eighth Wonder of the World because it held!

In 1911, J.S. Eastwood built the present multiple-arch dam, which tripled the capacity of the lake to 73,000 acre-feet. This dam was twenty feet higher and cost $138,000 to construct. This 1911 dam was reinforced in 1988 to comply with increased earthquake safety standards at a cost of nearly $13,000,000!



The new mountain lake formed by the 1884 dam created a great interest in Big Bear Valley for recreation. Soon, the five abandoned dam builders' cabins were being regularly used by trail weary travelers.

In 1888, Gus Knight and John Metcalf, cattlemen, built the first hotel in the valley. It provided 50 sleeping cots for guests!

When a new wagon road from Santa Ana Canyon was completed in 1899, visitors flocked to the lake in the pines. By 1916, two control roads climbed the front way into the area via Mill and City Creeks, and with the development of capable automobiles, the number of resorts continually increased. In 1924 over 24,000 cars visited Big Bear over the 4th of July weekend alone.

Camps on the north shore were Gray's, Fawnskin, Moon, Cluster Pines, Good Luck, Lighthouse, Lemcke, Juniper, and Stanfield's. Far more were on the south shore where the Pine Knot Post Office was located. Some of these camps were Stillwell's, Chad's, Bartlett's, Andrew's, Barney's, Boulder Bay, Carter's, Bluff Lake, Lunde's, Holloway's, Case's, Gordon's, Lowe's, and Eureka. Among the lodges were Tamarack, Lagonita, Paramount, Blue Bird, and Pine Wood.

The Navajo and Highlander Hotels were kept busy, and a few years later the beautiful Peter Pan Woodland Club and the Pan Hot Springs Inn welcomed guests in the east valley.

The primary summer attraction by the 1920's was the fishing. There was a state fish hatchery at Greenspot, south of Erwin Lake. Fishing, boating, mountain biking, and hiking are great attractions in the summer to this day.

Big Bear Valley has become Southern California's most popular year-around resort, and offers visitors a wide selection of accommodations and activities.


In the long history of the development of Bear Valley since the gold rush days of 1860, no enterprise was more unique than that of Fox Farming.

The raising of foxes for their magnificent furs dates from the 1890’s, when Canadians Sir Charles Dalton and Robert Oulton were able to develop a consistent strain of valuable silver foxes from the common red fox.

Because demand was high, prices good and profits large, many in the northern area became fox ranchers, including the successful R. T. Moore of Maine.

He heard about the climate of Bear Valley and realized it was ideal for fox raising. The high altitude and dry air eliminated many internal and external pests, while the cool summer nights, seasonal changes and cold winters were ideal for the industry.

In the 1920’s, Moore purchased 84 acres east of the Pine Knot, which he named the Borestone Ranch, and quickly built extensive pens and kennels.

Today this site is bordered by Fox Farm Road, Teakwood Drive, Crater Lake Road, and the rocky hills on the north.

The pen-raised silver foxes were flighty, nervous, unpredictable and required diligent care and feeding. Superior breeding pairs would bring $2,000 to $3,000 and fine pelts would command as much as $1,100.

The Walter McAllister family arrived in Bear Valley from Seattle on November 11, 1928 to take over the management of the All Star Fox Farm Ranch. During the next decade, the business prospered, even though these were Depression years. With a strong market, the All Star doubled in size in the 1930’s when it took over the Wortley Ranch. During these peak years, there were 27 different fox farms between Sky Forest near Arrowhead and the Smart Ranch east of Cactus Flat, eight being large, full-time operations. In this period, the All Star was producing more than 1,000 pelts a year.

In 1936, the superb quality of Bear Valley furs was proven worthy when a large consignment to the International Fur Exchange in London brought the highest prices of any shipment ever made.

In the early years, the sale of breeding stock was the prime objective in Fox Farming, because it was much more profitable than selling pelts. The quality of these animals was diligently controlled by the official Fox Farmers Association, which established strict rules. Each animal was inspected for color and conformation. If accepted for registration, the fox was tattooed in an ear. Those that failed were then pelted.

In the 1930's, Fox Farming was Bear Valley's second most important industry after cattle ranching.

The demise of the fox fur industry was the result of several factors: the increased cost of food, a 20% luxury tax, and Russia and other lend-lease countries dumped shiploads of fur on the world market.



Through the efforts of Judge Clifford R Lynn, the Big Bear Sports District was formed in 1934 to develop winter sports in Big Bear. The first ski lift (known as the Clifford Lynn lift) was constructed on "Lynn Hill" in 1949. Lynn Hill was purchased by the Platus Brothers in 1963 and renamed Snow Forest. Snow Forest closed in 1973, but was reopened by Bob Booth in the early 1980's, only to close again in the late 1980's. It has now reverted back to the National Forest.

Tommi Tyndall was the Lynn Lift's first Far West Ski Association certified instructor. It was through Tommi's dedication that Bear Valley became recognized as a winter sports resort. In 1952 Tommi and his wife, Jo, formed a small investment group and began the construction of Snow Summit. The next years were financially very difficult, as drought, flood, and fire hampered operations. In the early 60's it was obvious that nature could not provide snow for a major ski area" so Tommi arranged financing for the first major snow-making system in California, and saw the system completed. Real tragedy struck in 1964 when Tommi was killed in a tractor accident while working on the slopes. Jo carried on as general manager, assisted by her son, Dick Kun. Snow Summit has increased its snow-making to over 200 acres of runs with a capacity of 7,000 skiers.

Bear Mountain was started in, the 1950's as the "Moonridge Ski Area." In 1955 snowmaking was tried on a 300 ft. run, but was not successful. The ski area was purchased by two former Snow Summit ski instructors, Bill Strickland and Fred Goldsmith, in the late 1960's and renamed "Goldmine." A mile-long lift was installed in 1969. Having no snow was always a problem, and Goldmine went into receivership in 1972. It was recovered by Joe Shuff, and snowmakers and three lifts were installed. In 1988 it was purchased by a publicly traded ski company and renamed "Bear Mountain." It has since been sold to another publicly traded ski company. It has been increased to 195 acres of ski runs with a capacity of approximately 7,000 skiers.

Bear Mountain was started in, the 1950's as the "Moonridge Ski Area." In 1955 snowmaking was tried on a 300 ft. run, but was not successful. The ski area was purchased by two former Snow Summit ski instructors, Bill Strickland and Fred Goldsmith, in the late 1960's and renamed "Goldmine." A mile-long lift was installed in 1969. Having no snow was always a problem, and Goldmine went into receivership in 1972. It was recovered by Joe Shuff, and snowmakers and three lifts were installed. In 1988 it was purchased by a publicly traded ski company and renamed "Bear Mountain." It has since been sold to another publicly traded ski company. It has been increased to 195 acres of ski runs with a capacity of approximately 7,000 skiers.



The San Bernardino Mountains are the highest range south of the Sierra Nevadas, and are also unique in being one of the few transverse ranges in the nation. This huge and rugged country is filled with history, romantic legends, and magnificent scenery.

Proclaimed a "Forest Reserve" on February 25, 1893, these mountains were redesignated as the San Bernardino National Forest by presidential proclamation in 1925. Consisting of 1270 square miles, this vast area is much larger than the State of Rhode Island at 1058 square miles. Within the boundary of the National Forest are 812,633 acres, of which 198,042 acres are State and private lands.

The San Gorgonio Wilderness runs along the southern spine of this mountain range, and consists of 33,898 extremely rugged acres. The highest mountain in Southern California, Mt. San Gorgonio - nicknamed Old Grayback - at 11,502 feet, stands well above several others reaching over 10,000 feet --Dobbs Peak, Jepson Peak, Charlton Peak, and San Bernardino Peak.

Several excellent all-year state highways provide access to this beautiful mountain country, while the back woods regions are serviced by numerous Forest Service roads that are generally suitable for automobiles. However, before venturing off the pavement, obtain a Forest Service map at the Forest Service's "Discovery Center". The map shows the backcountry in detail. Also inquire about the existing road conditions where you intend to travel.

Of special interest to explore in the Big Bear area are the Holcomb Valley of gold rush fame and delightful Skyline Drive that overlooks the Santa Ana River Canyon. Both of these trips require driving on gravel forestry roads.

The San Bernardinos are friendly mountains, but enjoy them wisely. Prepare for the trip, drive carefully, follow the map, and always remember that climatic conditions can change swiftly in this high mountain country!